Language Goes Viral: Indo-European Epicenter Revealed

by Translation Guy on August 29, 2012

Microbe hunters show the way to language origins.  By using the same methods employed by epidemiologists searching for viral origins, researchers have identified Turkey as the epicenter of the Indo-European linguistic outbreak 8000 years ago.

The study is the first to use the novel methods on the Indo-European languages, a family of more than 400 tongues including English, Persian and Hindi. The languages are spoken on every continent by a total of 3 billion people.

A team led by Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland analyzed words from more than 1000 ancient and contemporary languages, and then matched words with geographical and historical data to draw a moving picture of the spread of the language. Animation here.

Atkinson and his team were able to pin down the birth of the biggest language family tree to some 8000 years ago in southeastern Turkey, long associated with the origin of  agriculture.

“Atkinson began by collecting basic vocabulary terms—words for body parts, kinship, simple verbs and the like—for 83 modern languages as well as 20 ancient ones for which records are available. For each family, Dr Atkinson and his team identified sets of cognates. These are etymologically related words that pop up in different languages. One set, for example, contains words like “mother”, ‘Mutter’ and ‘mere’. Another includes ‘milk’ and ‘Milch’, but not ‘lait’.” (Here is the whole list.)

“Instead of comparing viruses, we compare languages and instead of DNA, we look for shared cognates.  We use the cognates to infer a family tree of the languages and, together with information about the location of each language, we trace back through time to infer the location at the root of the tree – the origin of Indo-European,” writes Atkinson. The computer worked out the range of each language and then modeled the spread back in time. Check out this amazing animation. 

The calculation pointed to Anatolia, particularly a lozenge-shaped area in what is now southern Turkey, as the most plausible origin — a region that had also been proposed as the origin of Indo-European by the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, in 1987, because it was the source from which agriculture spread to Europe,” says Nicholas Wade of the New York Times.

All roads lead to Çatalhöyük, a muddy mound on the Konya plain in Turkey, perhaps the birthplace of agriculture in the West. Populated by a few thousand of the world’s first farmers, it was Urban 1.0. They had no temples, no palaces, no streets even, but taught themselves to be farmers.  Since my anthropology studies, it had always been my dream to visit this place.  So I am driving on the  empty road to Konya, through empty fields, gas pedal pressed to the floor of my rental. I see the sign for the Çatalhöyük turn-off and I reach for the turn signal, and I see my wife and daughter asleep and wonder if I should wake them for Çatalhöyük. I always wanted to be an archeologist, and this is the place where mankind was changed forever.  Maybe one of the most important sites in the world, but my dirty archeological secret is that ruins depress me — all the death — especially the ruins of subsistence agriculturalists. Fear is their legacy, expressed in stone walls built out of compulsion and terror, living on top of their own trash pile. Hard lives.

I reach past the turn signal and turn up the A/C. Maybe next time, here on this empty plain in Konya, in exactly never, ever again.

An archeological life-dream cashed in for early arrival at the beach. I press the gas pedal back to the floor, and dedicate to all those late, great inventors of our language family with this “Dust in the Wind” tribute.


  1. So English is Turkish?

    • Ken says:

      In a manner of speaking, yes.

  2. Terrence says:

    That animation is actually pretty cool, and I’m not usually one for this sort of stuff.

  3. They can actually pinpoint the birthplace of agriculture that narrowwly?

    • Ken says:

      Well, they can certainly argue about it that narrowly. Çatalhöyük and that region is a very unique and interesting place for those intersted in the study of the emergence of agriculture and complex societies.

  4. This is actually a really quite interesting piece, something I don’t generally expect from blogs, nice work.

  5. Jack says:

    Makes sense to me, Turkey is somewhat of a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, what surprises me is there isn’t an African connect.

  6. Jean says:

    They didn’t extend the research to include Arabic or any tribal languages?

  7. So Mr.Renfrew was a bit ahead of his time it would seem, bet he feels pretty smug right about now.

  8. Really quite fascinating seeing the interconnected nature of languages one would normally view as seperate entities.

  9. I really have to go see this area sometime.

  10. Bart says:

    I wanted to be an archeologist growing up, but that had more to do with Indiana Jones than anyhting else.

    • Ken says:

      For me it was “Chariots of the Gods” and pyramid builders from outer space. I was laughed from the halls of academy, but someday I’ll show them, I’ll show them all!

  11. Anatolia? Really, that’s a bit strange, but then again, not really when one accounts for the agriculture point.

  12. Barbara says:

    fascinating research.

  13. Bill says:

    The fact that 83 modern languages have a common root is really quite mind blowing.

    • Ken says:

      Go back a few more generations and its one root for all 6000 languages.

  14. Andre Cano says:

    How long did this venture take these folks?

    • Ken says:

      It’s ongoing.

  15. Why not “lait?”

  16. Lan says:

    Informative Aгtiсle, it is niсe to finԁ worthwhile informatіon аmongѕt the dross,
    I am reallу grаteful to come асross a
    blоg that is not full of the usual tгash, thank уou.

    • Ken says:

      I insist on unusual trash. Thanks for noticing.

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