September 26, 2013

You can say that again…


…we’ve been using 23 words for something over 15,000 years. If you love language, the reason might well be that it’s more like our DNA, evolving with us and keeping hold of its own most useful – and usable – ingredients.

In fact, judging from Mark Pagel’s work (an evolutionary biologist at Reading University, England), language is more alive than we ever could have imagined.

“The “ultraconserved” words provide insight into the first concepts that had to be communicated verbally by human ancestors:
– Pronouns: You (both familiar and formal); I; We; This; That
– Questions: What; Who
– Verbs: To give; To Hear; To Pull; To Spit; To Flow
– Adjectives: Not; Old
– Nouns: Man/Male; Mother; Hand; Fire; Black; Bark; Ashes; Worm

It’s not a coincidence that the number is the same as the chromosome pairs that carry genetic material in the human cell. Pagel explains that finding a pure strain of language is much like finding a distinctive line of DNA, linking us to our ancestors through biology.


That these essentials – of the means by which we get messages across, share ideas and relate – are shared across such a distance is akin to hearing flint tools talking.

I think that’s just brilliant.

Fame for 23 Words is 15,000 Years Overdue

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] on from (albeit after quite a hiatus!) the origin of some of our words, tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk might well have Prehistoric roots as […]


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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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