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Tower of Babel? Scientists Say Language Tree Originated in Turkey

The Tower of Babel

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel [3] -because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. --Genesis 11

Where is the Plain of Shinar? Some of those who believe that the Tower of Babel actually existed place its location in Turkey. Others in Babylon, Iraq. In either case, Turkey and Iraq share a border so that we are talking about the same region. Many believe from a biblical perspective that that is where-and when the various languages and various "tribes" of humans came into existence...

Click and drag photo to resize. Script from The Java Script Source

(Painting by by Pieter BRUEGEL, the Elder; The Little Tower of Babel, 1563)

Language Tree rooted in Turkey

Evolutionary ideas give farmers credit for Indo-European tongues.
27 November 2003
JOHN WHITFIELD

A family tree of Indo-European languages suggests they began to spread and split about 9,000 years ago. The finding hints that farmers in what is now Turkey drove the language boom - and not later Siberian horsemen, as some linguists reckon.

Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand use the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations. The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related.

Gray and Atkinson analysed 87 languages from Irish to Afghan. Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'.

Words are better understood than grammar as a guide to language history; the same sentence structure can arise independently in different tongues.

The resulting tree matches many existing ideas about language development. Spanish and Portuguese come out as sisters, for example - both are cousins to German, and Hindi is a more distant relation to all three.

All other Indo-European languages split off from Hittite, the oldest recorded member of the group, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the pair calculates1.

Around this time, farming techniques began to spread out of Anatolia - now Turkey - across Europe and Asia, archaeological evidence shows. The farmers themselves may have moved, or natives may have adopted words along with agricultural technology.

The conclusion will be controversial, as there is no consensus on where Indo-European languages came from. Some linguists believe that Kurgan horsemen carried them out of central Asia 6,000 years ago. "No matter how we [changed] the analysis or assumptions, we couldn't get a date of around 6,000 years," says Gray.

"This kind of study is exactly what linguistics needs," says April McMahon, who studies the history of languages at the University of Sheffield, UK. It shows how ideas about language evolution can be tested, she says: "Linguists have always been good at coming up with bold hypotheses, but they haven't been terribly good at testing them."

But the technique is still fraught with difficulties, McMahon warns. There is lots of word-swapping within language groups. English took 'skirt' from the Vikings, for example, but 'shirt' is original. Linguists must separate the shared from the swapped, as any error will affect later studies.

The Kurgan might not be out of the picture entirely, says McMahon - they may have triggered a later wave of languages. "This isn't going to knock the debate on the head," she says.

Biology and linguistics can learn a lot from each other, comments geneticist David Searls of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. "There may be some fundamental principles of evolution of complex systems, such as languages and organisms," he says.

References

1. Gray, R. D. & Atkinson, Q. D. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature, 426, 435 - 439, doi:10.1038/nature02029 (2003). |Article|

© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2003

See Also: Language "Evolved" In a Leap

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Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.