The Language Genome Project

By Kathy A. Svitil|Monday, November 10, 2003

Celtic tongues were spoken widely across Europe before the Romans imposed Latin on their conquered masses 2,000 years ago, but nobody knows how the various Celtic languages spread so far and wide. Peter Forster, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, has used the tools of molecular biology to find an answer and has revised the timescale of Indo-European languages along the way.

Forster recognized that phylogenetic analysis, a mathematical method used to reconstruct genetic relationships between species, could apply to languages as well. So he and linguist Alfred Toth of the University of Zürich designed a method to compare differences between common words in 14 languages the way that biologists analyze variations in DNA sequences.

The resulting linguistic family tree showed that Celtic speakers—possibly early farmers—migrated from continental Europe to Wales, Ireland, and Scotland in one wave perhaps 6,000 years ago. Once isolated on the British Isles, the ancient language morphed into Welsh and Gaelic. This finding undercuts previous research, which indicated the Celts made two independent migrations across the English Channel. The study also shows that Indo-European, the parent of all European languages, arose around 8000 B.C., 4,000 years earlier than commonly believed. Cross-checks with other, known language relationships prove that the phylogenetic approach works-somewhat to Forster’s amazement: “When you think about it, there is no reason for languages to be passed down in the same manner as a DNA molecule, and yet they are,” he says.

Courtesy of Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilization

This calendar links Roman numerals with Gaulish words.

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