Researchers develop handy phrasebook for people who travel in time to the Stone Age

Picture 1-8
Historically accurate illustration of cave people and dinosaurs, both domesticated and feral, from BibliOdyssey.

Mark Henderson of the London Times reports that researchers at the University of Reading have developed a phrasebook that "could allow basic communication between modern English speakers and Stone Age cavemen."

“If a time traveller wanted to go back in time to a specific date, we could probably draw up a little phrasebook of the modern words that are likely to have sounded similar back then,” [Mark Pagel] told The Times. “You wouldn’t be able to discuss anything very complicated, but it might be enough to get you out of a tight spot.”

Dr Pagel’s research also predicts which parts of modern vocabulary are likely to survive into English as it will be spoken 1,000 years in the future, and which will die out.

By the year 3000, words such as “throw”, “stick”, “dirty”, “guts” and “squeeze” could easily be gone. These already differ greatly between related languages, such as English and German, and are good candidates to evolve into new forms.

A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age


  1. I don’t buy it. You can figure out what the words were in Indo-European at the beginning of the expansion, but that’s because you can cross-reference the various Indo-European languages. That’s only about 7000 years ago, not nearly the Stone Age. (I guess the Neolithic might have gotten almost there, but when I think of the Stone Age I mostly think of the Paleolithic.)

    If you buy the theory that all languages come from a single common source, maybe you could cross-reference those similarly, but I bet you wouldn’t come up with much, and what you would come up with would be deeply dubious.

  2. What a silly drawing! Everyone knows Og didn’t invent the wheel until September of 9,487 B.C. – that scene clearly depicts a spring day in 9,487 B.C. – what a load of mastodon doo doo!

  3. The next time you are whisked back in time to the Stone Age, don’t worry about the language. You can pick up enough nouns and action verbs from Alley Oop in a few days to do just fine. But don’t go poking around caves. Bears live in caves, and there’s nothing you want to learn from them.

  4. I was going to post the Language Log link too, this article is pretty much BS. You think you would be able to sort-of understand Proto-Indo-European? Take a look at Shleicher’s fable which is an attempt to reconstruct a small bit of Proto-Indo-European.

    Remember, this is a language that have spawned hundreds of modern day languages (the tree is enormous), it’s extremely strange how anyone can think that there would be at all a similarity to any words in English. German is MUCH closer to English than PIE, but how many conversations can you carry out with a person who only speaks German? That’s right.

  5. Oskar: German is relatively easy. How about Hindi? How about Tosk or Gheg? (I know someone who speaks Tosk, actually.)

  6. Oh, wait, I see what you’re saying. Tosk is actually more distantly related to English than PIE is, because they parted company right at the root, as it were, whereas German has common ancestry with English right up to the very recent past.

  7. This is just silly. Before God confounded the language of Man at Nimrod’s Tower of Babel, they all spoke Renaisance English. Duh! How else would we know what God told Adam?

  8. “By the year 3000, words such “throw”, “stick”, “dirty”, “guts” and “squeeze” could easily be gone.

    For those of you who expect to be around then:

    “Throw it away!” becomes “Chuck it, Farley!”

    “Stick it” becomes “Shove it!”

    “Dirty” will be gone completely, because all dry land will be covered with graphite cement (food will be grown in sub-sea farms)

    “You don’t have the guts!” becomes “You ain’t got the bells!”, and

    “squeeze” becomes one of your ex wives.

  9. I suspect there are some very, very few words that go back that far – something like “ma” for mother seems to be incredibly widespread – but I also think you’d do a lot better with good old point-and-gesture.

  10. Apes point and gesture. We point and name.

    There’s no reason to suppose people were inarticulate back then. No doubt their brains were functional and firing on all synapses. Language and culture occured in tandem, both the consequences of our unique symbolling ability. Two basic human behaviors were no doubt fully developed: chattering and self-decoration.

    “Nice tats, Oog. Who did them?

    “Oola. She’s a real artist, man.”

  11. I am told that we humans have that rare phenomenom of Flat Tongue, as opposed to a round tongue, that affords us a vast array of sounds we can produce, making complex language possible, as opposed to just grunts, chuffing and screeching.
    Makes sense. Some apes have been taught sign language, but not speech as we know it.
    Apes and monkeys use some language… curious that they haven’t developed a flat tongue. Maybe it’s just because they’re better at escaping than we are, and are therefore less dependant on language for survival.

  12. I despair of linguistics ever being covered accurately. I don’t spot as many inaccuracies with reporting on other sciences, but that’s probably because I don’t have anything better than a college level of understanding for any science besides linguistics.

    There are enough regular sound changes that you’d have a lot more trouble with spoken speech in English just eight hundred years ago than with written. If you get back to Old English, you might recognize some cognates, but you might as well be transported to a world where everyone speaks Dutch — they have the same order of magnitude of similarity to modern English.

    And that’s barely 1500 years ago.

    Proto-Indo-European, according to the estimates I’ve seen, was spoken around 3000BCE at the most recent, 4500BCE at the earliest. (Some have placed it a lot earlier, but we don’t pay much attention to them.) Similarity with English? Try learning Sanskrit; that’ll give you the right ballpark. At any rate, PIE probably wasn’t around during the Stone Age.

    For reference, here’s a text from a mere 2,000 years after PIE might have been spoken, and therefore more similar to PIE than anything spoken today:

  13. “I am told that we humans have that rare phenomenom of Flat Tongue…”

    Not true. It’s not that rare. Open your dog’s mouth. Or your cat’s, if you dare. Our primate cousins are flat-tongued beasties. They could talk if they could but they can’t…

    Symbol based language is qualitatively different from sign language, and absolutely unique to humans. As is our time-spanning accumulative culture. Other animals start and stay at Square One, playing out and re-living the same sort of lives as their progenitors. After a few years of parental nurturing, we begin where ours left off.

    I know a lot more than Socrates. So do you.

  14. Every time I read or hear journalists covering something I know anything about, they get it mostly wrong and say crazy, stupid things. Everyone I know who knows anything about anything says the same thing.

    Conclusion: journalists don’t know shit, and are highly resistant to learning anything.

    There are exceptions, fortunately. As far as I know, Radio Lab gets things mostly right, but they’re professional science reporters. I sure wish the New York Times and BBC would hire some and let them interview people about their work.

  15. Buddy 66,

    Why can’t primates talk? They have sounds that represent snake, leopard, and other dangers.

    Maybe they can, but they know that if humans find out we’ll make them work.

  16. I like the wacky assumption inherent in the quoted article’s phrase, “Using a new supercomputer by IBM,” as though hardware came equipped with everything you need to analyze historical languages. Presumably you clear your throat and say, “Computer, please analyze linguistics data in files ENG and DEU,” then it beeps and boops and spits out a paper tape that says, “Languages diverged in 3500BC.”

    Was this article written in 1955 or something?

  17. Also, Troofseeker #21, primates can talk fine. It’s just that as soon as the pesky things get the power of symbolic representation of complex concepts, they explode out of their niche and cause a planetary ecological catastrophe in a mere few thousand years.

  18. …and that’s why I’m always nice to monkeys, because they’re next in line. And it could happen sooner than we think.

  19. @Troofseeker, et al.,

    Primates have a different physiognomy than us people in the throatal area. This means that we can speak, but can also drown or choke much more easily that our hairier cousins. Some posit the darwinian advantage conferred as forcing maternal attention and bonding on small children, allowing for passing on of cultural knowledge, etc., etc.

    @Buddy66 at #16: see “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language” by Robin Someonewhosenameescapesmejustnow

    This Pagel fellow is barking up the tree called glottochronology, widely discredited long ago. Pseudoscience. Language does change over time, but certainly not at a fixed rate.

    [and I did do my doctoral work in historical linguistics at a fancy school]

  20. Zuludaddy, you got it backwards. Have you ever seen an ape swim? Except for the aptly named proboscis monkey, their inner nostrils can’t contract like ours and keep out water; Tarzan swims, Cheeta goes glug-glug.

  21. I think chimps can’t swim because their muscle and bone mass is way higher than say ours. So feel free to laugh at them and splash them right up until you come out and they pull your arms off.

  22. I saw Robin ”Someonewhosenameescapesmejustnow” Dunbar’s entertaining book about ten years ago. I think it was commissioned by Liz Smith in an attempt to justify her life. Science it ain’t. Another polymath psychologist farting around where he doesn’t belong.

    For instance, his thesis that language developed to strengthen group ties after our group of hominids grew too large for grooming is silly. What’s the evidence that sapiens groupings became larger 500,000 years ago? Why? Even so, why would that discourage grooming? (He never heard of a cluster pick?) Besides, if language originated because of grooming, chimpanzees would be the chattering class, not us. It’s as if he argues that our ancestor one day said, ”Hey, gang, we’re getting too numerous for grooming—let’s invent language so we can bullshit instead of eat bugs.”

    Too many people who commit social sciences don’t really understand natural selection when it comes to our evolution. They substitute *human will* in much the same way religionists employ God to explain what seems unexplainable.

    The very last illusion that our disillusioned species wants to give up, apparently, is the illusion of free will.

  23. That’s a little sad, 66, that you see free will as an illusion. Of course total freedom is unobtanium, at least from this mortal vessel, but we can exercise free will if we’re willing to pay the price. I live where I want to live, I do the work I choose to do, I live with the people I love the most, I eat what I want and think I should eat, drink what I want, I smoke what I want to smoke, worship whom I chose, and post when I feels like it.
    Okay, I don’t make as much as I wish for, but I’m working on that too.
    I can’t fly, or swim underwater indefinately, so maybe I don’t have total free will, but I’ve got enough to keep my life a very happy place. I wish the same for you. All of you.

  24. I wasn’t talking about individual choices, Seeker. After all, we’re not robots. I speak from the context of Cultural Determinism.

    “Free will” means a different thing to me than to you, much like ”theory” means a different thing to a scientist than to my Aunt Mary.

    My dumb. I should have been more specific, or stayed with ”human will.”

  25. I’m glad they came up with this… my time machine is almost complete and I didn’t waste time by going to the future to buy this book and then back to the past… Now I can make just one trip!

  26. Say hello to Atook, and beware the macha!
    Oh, bring back a trilobite couple. They’re cool!

Comments are closed.