NEW DELHI: Ma (Hindi), mater (Latin), mutter (German), mere (French), madre (Spanish), madar (Persian), matka (Polish) - these are words from different languages but they all mean 'mother'. There are many words like that common to languages from Iceland to Sri Lanka, including many (but not all) Indian languages. All these languages - about 494 in all - are clubbed together to make the Indo-European family of languages. Scientists believe that they must have had a common origin.
But where? A study published in today's Science magazine puts forward evidence that they originated in a language spoken in Anatolia, part of modern Turkey, 8000 to 9500 years ago. The language spread and changed over the millennia and exists today in these different forms.
Quentin D.Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, one of the leading scientists of the study said in a Science podcast interview with Isabelle Boni that such a massive spread can be explained only by a "fairly major powerful mechanism". That mechanism, according to Atkinson, could be agriculture.
"With the advent of agriculture, populations would have been growing, and as they grew, the next generation would have had to expand out a bit from the current range," he said in the interview. "And, if that process went on generation after generation, it doesn't take very long to cover a very large area."
It's also possible that when agriculture spreads into an area that's already inhabited by hunter-gatherers they might find the agricultural lifestyle fairly appealing and adopt agricultural technology and the language of its carrier, he said
The theory that Indo-European language spread riding piggy back on agricultural expansion was put forth by Professor Colin Renfrew in 1987. It says that the languages spread between 8,500 and 9000 years ago, with the spread of agriculture from what is now Turkey, but Anatolia. The latest research appears to confirm this, though many experts are not convinced.
The alternative and much more popular theory put forward by Maria Gimbutas is that pastoralists in the Russian and Ukranian steppes north of the Black Sea - the so called Kurgan culture - drove long distances in their chariots and settled in distant places. It is they who were responsible for the spread of the Indo-European languages some 5000 to 6000 years ago.
So how did Atkinson and his colleagues come to the conclusion that the spread of languages started from Anatolia not Russia, and that too 4000 years earlier?
They selected 6000 cognates - similar sounding words with same meaning from different languages - from 103 languages of the Indo-European group and fed it into a computer armed with data about all the regions. The idea was to build a language family tree. Then they followed how cognates built up or were lost in different languages. For building a time scale, they marked the known times for certain language events - like they knew that Romance languages like Romanian started diverging from Latin after the Romans withdrew from that region in the 3rdcentury CE. From all this data and the computer program shuffling it around, they came to the conclusion that Anatolia was the most likely candidate.
Since Atkinson's study is largely a computer modeling exercise it may take some more years for hard evidence to be collected in its support.