Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Medieval linguistics -- or something!

An article from the BBC has been making the rounds of several websites and blogs in the last few days. This article claims to have identified the oldest words in English.  Now I'm no expert on these things, but I do know that from the point in time the good linguistic scientists started from, there has been a lot of change in English.  Furthermore, some of this actually started entering the language before that point -- e.g. over 1000 years ago.  Which, I might add, gets us into the period of time I'm writing about.  Which is why I'm blogging about it!


In any case, these people have been criticized in various venues, including this one.  Their objections are quite reasonable, and suggest that the people who did this study, didn't think things through before they started talking to the BBC.  While it's true that there are certain "core words" in English, and many other languages as well, that a time traveler might pick up on, e.g. "mother", "father", "sister", "brother", words for numbers, and some others.  it's also true that many of these core words or their recognizable equivalents exist(and probably always have) in other "Indo-European" languages(English is an Indo-European language, as are French, Italian, Russian, Persian, and a number of others).  These words can probably be traced back a lot farther than Old English.  Second, a lot of sounds have changed in the last 1000 years; so have things like sentence structure(modern English doesn't really have case endings any more; Old English did), and the sounds were probably more like modern German than present-day English.  In other words, our time travelers would have had a hard time making out much of anything anybody said, let alone carrying on a conversation(unless they read Beowulf in Old English, or the equivalent).  There are people who study such things,  but these people aren't inclined to make "predictions" like this.  No, the people who did this study consider themselves hard scientists, but they seem quite ignorant and clueless as to why and how English has changed in the last 1000 years, and when they add French into the mix(they do), it's doubtful to me that any modern French speaker would be any better off trying to converse in Old French with somebody 1000 years ago.  The vocabulary and sentence structure in French hasn't changed as much, but the way a lot of words are pronounced , and vowel-shifting, sure has! 


Bottom line:  It's no wonder a lot of people don't understand science, and come out against it, when they should be for it.  These guys are a good example of why.  And they should go back to their labs, study a bit more, and not try to make statements about things they obviously don't know anything about.

Anne G


Donna Farley said...

Good post, Ann.

The fact that the BBC reported an 'evolutionary biologist' was in charge of the project had me scratching my head. Didn't sound like the right specialty to me, or not specialized enough.....

Anne Gilbert said...


Thank you for that. I noticed this, too, and my thought at the time, after reading the article was, that the guy didn't sound as theough he knew what he was talking about. The story seems to be getting more and more absurd by the minute!

Aji said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know

what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anne Gilbert said...


Thanks for the compliment. This blog is a kind of mixture of my "writing journey",and subjects relating to what's in the Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals,that I'm writing, e.g. anything "medieval", writing related, or more or less related to human evolution. This sounds like a lot of ground to cover, so come back as often as you like and browse through whatever interests you!

I'm always happy to get visitors,
Anne G