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Fame for 23 Words is 15,000 Years Overdue

Remember when everything was “2.0?” Michelle Obama was Jackie Kennedy Onassis 2.0? Facebook was considered an example of Web 2.0? We all got what it meant and it hung in the air, or in “cyberspace,”—another faddish word—for half a decade until it was displaced from daily word usage by “3.0” and the “net.”

Words, like people, have their 15 minutes of fame. But there are words that deserve our rapt attention because they are immune to the changing winds of fashion. These words serve as the building blocks of language and provide a link between early human ancestors and the present day. Searching for those “ultra-conserved” words, as they’re known, has been the mission of many a linguist.

In The Origin of Language, published nearly 20 years ago, Stanford linguist Merritt Ruhlen proposed that there was a single language spoken by humankind more than 30,000 years ago before the thawing of the last Ice Age, 15,000 years ago, dispersed human populations to different parts of the world.

This proto-language had very little in common with the grammar and syntax of today’s languages. It wouldn’t sound like anything spoken today. Ruhlen attempted to reconstruct it by identifying related words across

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