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

Tower of Babel 2 S

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 LiveScience.com 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.)