Origin of Indo-European Languages Traced to Turkey Using New Mapping Tool

Over the course of the previous two decades, researches have posited the theory that primitive forms of the Indo-European language were spoken across Europe some thousands of years earlier than had previously been assumed. The English language is a member of the large Indo-European language family, spoken in a wide swath of the world.  North America, South America, Africa, Australia, and much of Southeast Asia speaks a language that belongs in the family. While it is indisputable that the language family is spoken by a large chunk of people, its origins are more questionable. One predominant theory had placed the origins of the languages in the Pontic-Caspian steppes. Now a team of researchers has concluded that the origins of the English language, as well as the other languages in the Indo-European family, are in a region of Turkey.

Quentin D. Atkinson from the Australian National University and England’s University of Oxford, along with his team of multinational researchers from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States, used a rather interesting method to discover what they believe is the origin of the language family. They borrowed a technique used in mapping the geographic origin of viral outbreaks such as HIV and H1N1. Their map led them to establish the origin of the language family in Anatolia, a southern peninsula of what is now Turkey, between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago. The language is believed to have spread with the expansion of farming. Today, the University of Auckland published this research in the Journal Science.

“If you know how viruses are related to one another you can trace back through their ancestry and find out where they originated,” explains lead researcher Dr Quentin Atkinson from the Department of Psychology. “We’ve used those methods and applied them to languages.” For this study, the researchers compared cognates for two languages, which look similar and mean the same thing. For example, the English “chair” is a cognate for the French “chaise”.

Dr Atkinson worked with researchers from Europe and North America as well as with computer scientists Dr Remco Bouckaert and Associate Professor Alexei Drummond and fellow psychologist Professor Russell Gray, all from The University of Auckland.

The study examined basic vocabulary terms and geographic information from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages. The location and age of the languages’ common ancestor supported the Anatolian hypothesis. The extinct ones, like Hittite, were used because they were in existence 3,000-some odd years ago, providing linguists a way to reach back in time.

They then incorporated important historical events, like the fall of the Roman Empire, to discern a time period for the languages’ evolution.

The findings are consistent with the expansion of agriculture into Europe via the Balkans, reaching the edge of western European by 5,000 years ago. They are also consistent with genetic and skull-measurement data which indicates an Anatolian contribution to the European gene pool.

The work follows a 2003 Nature paper from the same research group, which first used methods from evolutionary biology to build the languages’ family tree. The age of the tree was consistent with Anatolian origins as opposed to the more conventional view that the languages emerged thousands of years later near the Caspain Sea.

“The two competing theories imply two different ages and locations for the origin of the language family. We initially used the age of the family to test the theories,” says Dr Atkinson of the original work.

While the findings made a strong case for the Anatolian hypothesis, some members of the research community remained unconvinced.

The current research, which includes both geographic and historical data, confirms the languages’ Anatolian origins. “It reinforces our earlier findings, and applies exciting new methods from epidemiology to study languages,” says Dr Atkinson. “We’ve developed an entirely new methodology for inferring human prehistory from language data. It allows us to place these language family trees on a map in space and time and play out histories over the landscape.”

The Indo-European languages, a family of several hundred languages and dialects, are spoken by almost three billion native speakers and include languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, Hindi and Bengali.

The conventional “steppe hypothesis” posits that the languages originated in the Pontic steppe region north of the Capsian Sea, and were spread into Europe and the Near East by Kurgan semi-nomadic pastoralists beginning 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

The “Anatolian hypothesis” argues that the languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.


Contributor D. Chandler