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Cavemen Used Some of the Same Words We Do

Our modern language still has some remnants of the grunting cavemen who came before us

smithsonian.com

In the movies, cavemen do a whole lot of grunting and pointing. We modern humans, on the other hand, have evolved language. We have words like Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and twerk. Shakespeare gave us besmirch and gloomy. But our modern language still has some remnants of the grunting cavemen who came before us—words that linguists say might have been conserved for 15,000 years, the Washington Post reports.

The sentence that, according to the Post, contains most of these words goes like this: “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”

The list of these “ultraconserved” words, which survived from early languages, includes  “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” “man” “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.” You can hear the words passed down by our ancestors, and conserved by us, here in this graphic.

The study that found these words used a statistical model to create a family tree of words. Mark Pagel, lead author on the study, told the Washington Post, “We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere. But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”

Some of the words seem obvious to us. “Mother,” “man” and “not” all make sense. But what about ashes and worm and bark? Here’s Pagel, to the Washington Post:

“I have spoken to some anthropologists about that, and they say that bark played a very significant role in the lives of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers,” Pagel said. Bark was woven into baskets, stripped and braided into rope, burned as fuel, stuffed in empty spaces for insulation and consumed as medicine.

It’s hard to explain why some words catch on and some don’t. This happens today, too. Just look at Bing’s recent campaign to make “Bing it” as commonly used as “Google it.” Spoiler alert: they failed. Perhaps they should have gone with “bark it” or “flow it.” At least those words have been with us for far longer than Google.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Reviving the Ohlone Language
Kindergarten Classes Could Save Fading Language

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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