Back to Babel: Did Europeans and Asians Once Speak a Common Language?

The idea of a universal human language goes back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. 

Now a group of researchers have developed a theory that people living in Europe and Asia 15,000 years ago may have spoken a common language. Of course, other researchers disagree. Which, I guess, will set off years of debate.

An article describing the common language theory was published May 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It claims that the researchers in question have traced “echoes of language back 15,000 years to a time that corresponds to about the end of the last ice age.”

The idea of a common source to language is an interesting one for linguists to explore. Right now, their estimates of when this common language emerged are too indefinite to be meaningful.

I find the discussion intriguing. However, I’ve been around animals enough to believe that language in a rudimentary form is almost ubiquitous among the more intelligent mammals. I realize that’s a somewhat radical statement. But I am using a definition of language that is a bit broader than words and more focused on the ability to communicate.

Also, I live in a bilingual neighborhood. I’ve seen first hand that a pet who has lived in a Spanish-speaking household will stare at you blankly when you speak English. Then, if you switch to Spanish, they respond, and they do it appropriately. That’s completely unscientific, but it has convinced me personally that these pets understand more of our languages than we admit.

This article from describes the research in a common language among early humans:

The ancestors of people from across Europe and Asia may have spoken a common language about 15,000 years ago, new research suggests.

Now, researchers have reconstructed words, such as “mother,” “to pull” and “man,” which would have been spoken by ancient hunter-gatherers, possibly in an area such as the Caucuses or the modern-day country of Georgia. The word list, detailed today (May 6) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help researchers retrace the history of ancient migrations and contacts between prehistoric cultures.

“We can trace echoes of language back 15,000 years to a time that corresponds to about the end of the last ice age,” said study co-author Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Tower of Babel

The idea of a universal human language goes back at least to the Bible, in which humanity spoke a common tongue, but were punished with mutual unintelligibility after trying to build the Tower of Babel all the way to heaven. [Image Gallery: Ancient Middle-Eastern Texts]

But not all linguists believe in a single common origin of language, and trying to reconstruct that language seemed impossible. Most researchers thought they could only trace a language’s roots back 3,000 to 4,000 years. (Even so, researchers recently said they had traced the roots of a common mother tongue to many Eurasian languages back 8,000 to 9,500 years to Anatolia, a southwestern Asian peninsula that is now part of Turkey.) (Read the rest here.)

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  • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

    Sorry, language is one thing I know something about, and I just cannot believe that this kind of nonsense was published in a reputable scientific publication. You DO NOT establish relationships between languages and language groups by compiling lists of common words, not unless you can use them to show common morphological and grammatical features. Or to put it in easier language, what makes languages related is not the number of words they share, but their grammar and word-shaping. The majority of words in English are derivated, one way or another, from Latin; but English is not a Romance (derived from Latin) language, as Spanish, Italian, French and Roumanian are. Why? because its grammar is derived from that of Germanic or Teutonic languages. Although greatly simplified – the resemblance becomes much clearer if we go back to Anglo-Saxon – it is tangibly closer to German than to French. Conversely, Roumanian at one point had only 20 per cent of its words derived from Latin (there has since been a conscious reform), but there could be no doubt that the language itself descended from Latin, in all sorts of ways from the formation of verbs to the shaping of compounds.

    One example everyone ought to understand. The way the future is formed in English is typical of the Germanic verbs, and of them alone. It is only in the Teutonic area that a future tense is formed by the use of the verbs “Will” or “shall”. English: I will do it. German: Ich will es tun. But, French: Je le ferai. Italian: io lo faro’.. IN all other Indo-European languages, and certainly in Romance ones, the future is formed as the present and past, by placing a particular ending on the verb root. (There is, in fact, an interesting sort-of-if-you-squint exception. Three languages from three different groups preserve, in fossil form, a relic of the Germanic use of the verb “will” for the future, but melted into the single verb form. These are Roumanian, Bulgarian and Demotic Greek, which all have a strong Germanic substratum dating back to the Gothic invasions of the Roman Empire.)

    If your eyes move further up from close language families such as Teutonic and Romance to those larger language groups that include them, such as Indo-European or Afro-Asiatic, the differences are even more profound. These two language groups each live by an inner logic which is unknown to the other. To give the most amazing example, all languages of the Afro-Asiatic group (which includes Semitic languages such as Hebraic and Arabic, Camitic languages such as ancient Egyptian, modern Berber, and West African Bornu) don’t need alphabets with vowels to write them down, because their grammar dictates the form that every word will take. to the point that if you know the language, you will know what vowels belongs in each syllable across pages and pages of writing. Don’t ask me how it works: I don’t know any of those languages, and could not explain it if I tried. But I know it happens, and I know that it is absolutely impossible – inconceivable – in any of the Indo-European languages I do know.

    Then there are the stray languages with absolutely no parallel. I can tell you, having had a brief taste of it, that the grammar and syntax of Sumerian will boil the brains of anyone who is not a linguistic genius. (I had a friend who was one, and that is the only reason why I know.) And these languages are much more common than anyone imagines – Basque, Sumerian, Burushaski, and so on. They are usually found in mountains, and I find it hilarious that these researchers should claim to have found a language community in the Caucasus, which is notorious for the number of such unaffiliated languages, and of all places in Georgia, whose language – Kartvelian – is exactly one such.

    Noam Chomsky has spent his life trying to identify “deep structures” that underlay the structures of language and could reduce the multiplicity of human language to a unity. He has failed comprehensively. But at least he was looking in the right place. No amount of common words can prove any such thing, because you don’t know where they have been.

    • Manny

      Though you make some good points in there Fabio I don’t completely agree with you. First off, grammar evolves. English used to be a more inflected language rather than one based on word order. Second, identifying cognate words is the primary method of linking proto languages together. That’s how they formulated Proto-Indo-European. You’re mostly pointing out issues with this methodology on highly evolved languages that have come to share words with nearby cultures. The complexity of modern languages is is on several orders compared to non-literate languages. In my opinion it’s probably more likely that a language might shift in grammar than in word roots. English did.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        I have already posted one long answer. This one requires another, but I don’t have the time or patience.

        • Manny

          No problem. It’s not important. You’re obviously very knowledgable in this. We just see it differently.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Origado and Aurigato is just a coincidence to you, despite the fact that the first Catholics in Japan came from Portugal?

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        No. It is a demonstration of what I say. If the two words are related, then Japanese borrowed from Portuguese. We know exactly how the Portuguese word for “thank you” arose: from Latin “ob+ligo”, “to be bound to something”. The root is the same as English “obligated”, but in English it emphasizes the sense of duty and compulsion, in Portuguese that of mutual obligation and gratitude. Japanese is one of those unrelated languages, such as Basque or Kartvelian, unlike any other in the world and with its individual internal logic. I don’t know the etimology of DOMO ARIGATO (not, I think, AURIGATO), but if it is a borrowing from Portuguese, it is entirely irrelevant to any idea of common origin; and if it is native, then it developed separately. There are any amount of such coincidences: Chinese WANG (Emperor), Greek (W)ANAX (King of Kings); Aztec TEO- (god) and Greek THEOS (god); English KING and Mongolian KHAN. They mean nothing, because in each case we can trace the origin of the words, and they are separate. When you eat bread (PAIN) in France or in Quebec, do you by any chance suppose they find it painful?

  • Manny

    Well you would think that if homosapiens branched off from a group in Africa that they would have had the inital language, and every other one would be derived from it. Now there are a bunch of assumptions in that, so one can’t be sure. But I think reason as current knowledge bounds it would say that there was an initial language.
    Now that I’ve said that, it occurs to me that it’s also possible that homosapiens branched off before language and that as groups split apart language formed independently in each group, and therefore there would not be a single root to all language.
    Between those two paragraphs is probably the model of what happened. I just couldn’t tell you which one.

  • pagansister

    I find the concept interesting—-but think it may be very hard to totally “prove” if you will.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I grew up on a farm and noticed the same thing- that proto-language is available to all higher mammals and even some birds- and that they learn the human languages of their caregivers.

    But having said that- I fully believe that human language evolves based on time and distance, and that we *MUST* have had one language originally when the worldwide human population was less than 100.

    That is so far back in time though that the Ice Age is a bit late.