Further Thoughts on Time Traveling

The little story about two-year-old computational linguistics research out of Reading University continues to bounce around the web’s news outlets, getting progressively dumber with each jump. Here are a few more iterations of the same:

A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age — The Times Online
Doctor Who’s handy new phrasebook — The Sunday Express
Three is first among equals in oldest words in English — The Scotsman
‘Dirty’ will be scrubbed from the English dictionary — The Guardian
No surprise: ‘I’ is our oldest word — The Globe and Mail

I don’t recommend following all those links, and to dissuade you, I will here summarize what you will “learn” from them aggregately:

1) I, two, three, thou, five, or <insert word here> has been scientifically proven to be the oldest English word.
2) Scientists predict that either dirty, guts, squeeze, or <insert word here> is going to be the next word to disappear from English.
3) Researchers have developed a new phrase book for time travelers who want to talk to William the Conqueror.
4) The phrase book from 3) would also work for cavemen.

I worry what will happen when the story finally crosses the Atlantic and American science journalists get their hands on it. Probably there will be outraged letters to the editor about how “dirty” is a perfectly acceptable word and we need to all band together to stop those nasty Brits from trying to tell us what words we’re allowed to use in 750 years.* But at least the go-to time-traveler for outlandish comparisons will be Doc Brown in the American versions, or possibly Sam Beckett,** but definitely not Dr. Who (and especially not that way-too-young guy they’ve got lined up to play him next season).

The more Dr. Pagel is interviewed about his team’s research, the clearer it becomes, to me anyway, that he’s at least as much to blame as the reporters conducting the interviews and writing the stories. He knows full well that the definition of “word” he’s using in his research is not at all what they have in mind when they ask about “the oldest English word”. For his team’s models, the Old English “ic” counts as the same word as the Modern English “I,” and both count as the same word as Proto-Indo-European “egoh” [*eǵoH]. But the hopeful modern English speaking reporters think his definition of “word” is closer to “the thing that goes in the dictionary”. And from this, they conclude that the “I” they use ordering a kebab is the same “I” that cavemen used “tens of thousands of years ago” when ordering sabretooth tiger kebabs.

Imagine if the time travel went the other way. Doc Brown swings back to 1055 and picks up the young William the Conqueror (then still William the Bastard) and brings you and him to Starbucks for a chat. Being familiar with the Reading team’s research, the good doctor hands William the “phrase book” of “words” that are the same in his time as in ours and goes to get a mocha. You’re left with Willy B, who can somehow tell by the deep, penetrating look in your eyes that you want to know his name. [Oh, and yes, for some reason, he decides to talk to you in English rather than French]. He spends a moment scanning the phrase book and realizes he’s in luck! “I” and “to be” are words that haven’t changed in 1000 years, so he clears his throat and says to you, “Ick ay om Guillame.” At your patient, confused smile, he adds, “Thah bat ard uh.”

Sure, from context you’ll be able to figure out what he means, possibly with some pointing and pantomime.*** But you’d be able to figure that out without the phrase book.

Now imagine after coffee that Doc Brown takes you and William back to visit a caveman, armed only with Dr. Pagel’s patented phrase book. The conversation would probably go something like this (translated from proto-proto-proto-Indo-European):


(to yourself) Looks like their words for I, two, and three are the same as mine. Alright… (aloud) Two, three… uh… I?

Two or three whats?

Two! Two three!

Oui, Oui, Two-three-two!

Yes, two of you, and together we make three… say, would you mind if I clubbed you and stole your stuff?

Two! I. We. Two I we!

I’ll take that as a “oui”.

Now, as for the claim that “dirty” will be the next casualty of linguistic evolution–an actual quote from Pagel in most of the articles!–what could that even mean to begin with? You don’t need a computer to know that words for dirty things (and dirty words) change very quickly in languages, because of simple euphemistic replacement. Through frequent use, “dirty” words come to be seen as, well dirty, and have to be swapped out for politer terms that haven’t been so sullied. “Don’t say ‘toilet,’ ” the slightly over-sensitive 1950’s American says. “Say ‘bathroom’.” Over their shoulder, their grandmother clucks, “What’s wrong with ‘toilet’? Just don’t say ‘privy’. Ghastly word, that.” And her grandfather rolls his eyes, “We always called them ‘privies’ in my day. It’s,” he whispers, ” ‘khazi’ that has the stink on it. Never say that.” And so on and so on back to the Romans, who if the Classicists are to be believed, had the most grammatically perfect name for lavatories ever devised, but sadly the Middle Ages botched it and here we are. But to say that, of all the words for dirty things, “dirty” itself is almost certainly scheduled to expire in 750 years, that’s just gibberish.****

Every reasonable claim in these articles is something that linguistics and historians of the language have known at least since computers were the size of bathrooms. And every other claim is so patently nonsensical that it boggles the mind. Way to go, MSM!

*I mean, if it hadn’t been for America, those Brits would all be speaking German now, anyway, ungrateful bastards.
**Because journalists will forget that Sam can only travel within his own lifetime.
***Granted, very complicated pantomime if you wanted to know what he meant by “bastard.”
****I’m currently teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to my freshman seminar, and they are baffled by “cooze,” Vietnam-era slang that plays an important part in of one of the stories and was once a word as dirty as they come, but now carries only a vague association with things you wrap around your canned drinks to keep them cold. Not that anyone drinks canned soda anymore in this glorious 20oz-future.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cecilieaux

    You forget that U.S. newspapers will likely be all bankrupt by the time the story gets here.

  • A’Llyn

    I saw this story in the Boston Metro on Friday! Alas, I cannot find a link–it was just a snippet.

    But it basically included the summary of the articles listed here: I, thou, two, three, five ancient: dirty, guts, squeeze on way out.

    So it appears the story is so far largely unchanged. I’ll keep my eyes open for further developments.

  • Anne Gilbert

    You know, your take on it is absolutely hilarious! I can just see William the Offspring of An Informal Relationship, somehow time-traveled to my home town of Seattle, and being guided, or something into one of myfavorite coffee haunts. . . .probably the staff would mistake him for some “goth” type or some nutcase off the streets(there are plenty of those around here). And I can just imagine him getting into a rage about that stuff, if he ever managed to communicate with them. He’d probably try to send some of his thugs to trash the place. . . .
    Anne G

  • woolymonkey

    So doner* orignally meant sabre tooth tiger, right?
    I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this proto-linguistics malarkey.

    *Suitably adjusted for 30,000 years of vowel shifts, obviously.

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