New Roots for a Big Language Family: Indo-European Tongues Are Traced Back to Ancient Turkey

Article excerpt

Indo-European languages are spoken throughout Europe and South Asia, yet the roots of this widespread family of tongues have long been controversial. A new study adds support to the proposal that the language family expanded out of Anatolia--what's now Turkey--between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, as early farmers sought new land to cultivate.

Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand and his colleagues used a mathematical method to calculate the most likely starting point and pattern of geographic spread for a large set of Indo-European languages. Their investigation, published in the Aug. 24 Science, rejects a decades-old idea that Kurgan warriors riding horses and driving chariots out of West Asia's steppes 5,000 to 6,000 years ago triggered the rise of Indo-European tongues.

"Our analysis finds decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin of Indo-European languages," Atkinson says.

He and his colleagues generated likely family trees for Indo-European languages, much as geneticists use DNA from different individuals to reconstruct hnmankind's genetic evolution. The group analyzed 207 commonly used cognates--words with similar meanings and shared sounds, such as five in English and fern in Swedish--in 103 ancient and modern Indo-European languages. The researchers produced possible language trees based on estimated rates at which languages gained and lost cognates.

The researchers combined their language trees with present geographic ranges of individual languages to identify the most likely location and age of the Indo-European family's origins. …