Friday, February 27, 2009

Long Live Guts

According to a story in the Telegraph, Dr. Mark Pagel of the University of Reading has discovered the oldest words in the world: I, you(thou), we, who, two, three, and five. These words are so similar to their origins that they could have been understood by a human living 20,000 years ago. Pagel also discovered that words and DNA evolve on the same timetable. So, if Darwin were an English major, he might still have developed the theory of evolution. Fabulous.

As a poet, I am curious about the sounds that keep repeating in this list of ancient words, the long vowels I and E and the double OO. These must have been the primal vowels our ancestors first spoke to each other, the backbone of our language systems. These words also indicate why and how language first began. Without someone to talk to, a human would have no need for words. But once they began living in groups, it would have been neccesary to distinguish between I and We. This might also explain why Two is older than One...there must be at least two people to communicate, right?

Politically, this has some interesting implications as well. Sacred texts that others use to argue against evolution are written with words, which themselves model evolution. I am reminded of a documentary about the Bible, which suggested that the word interpreted as "virgin" might mean simply "young woman," throwing into peril the entire virgin birth. Language, like the humans who invented it, is in constant flux.

Of course, this is all fascinating, but I must take time to lament the words Pagel identified as most in danger of disappearing: dirty, squeeze, bad, because, guts, push, smell, stab, stick, turn, and wipe. Now don't worry...except for "because," which is quickly turning into "cause," these words will still be around for another thousand years or so...plenty of time to give them a place of honor in our writing. I for one am going to do my best to keep Dirty, Guts, and Squeeze from succumbing to oblivion.

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