Uncovering news about the history of words

Word count: 243 words

Reading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today I give you a link to a story on the history of words, found in the Washington Post.

Did you know that the typical “lifespan” of a word is only 8,000 to 9,000 years? I’m a writer, not a linguist, so this was news to me. But it also makes sense. I know the English of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is only just barely recognizable to me. And his Canterbury Tales were written no more than 633 years ago!

Furthermore, in my brief lifespan, the words “spyware,” “soul patch” and “manga” have all been invented.

But, in contrast to these fickle newcomers, a study now suggests there are also “ultraconserved words” — that is, words that have managed to survive for 150 centuries! Some of these words are: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.”

Most interestingly, the very existence of these words suggest there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages. Today, these are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.

If you have any interest in linguistics, be sure to check out the story in the Washington Post. Or consult the abstract  of the original study. Thanks to my friend, Marcelle, for alerting me to this fascinating story on the history of words.

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