Exploratorium Magazine Online: The Evolution of Language
Volume 23, Number 1
Try This! Which Languages Are Related?
Image To Do And Notice

Each column in the table below represents the numbers 1 to 10 in a different language. Read the words and decide which languages you think belong to a common family. Then decide which two languages are the most closely related.

A B C D E R
one
two
three
four
five
six
seven
eight
nine
ten
unus
duo
tres
quattuor
quinque
sex
septem
octo
novem
decem
ichi
ni
san
shi
go
roku
nana
hachi
kyu
ju
heis
duo
treis
tettares
pente
heks
hepta
okto
ennea
deka
um
dois
tres
quatro
cinco
seis
sete
oito
nove
dez
ekas
dva
trayas
catvaras
panca
sat
sapta
asta
nava
dasa

 

What's Going On?

 
The languages, from left to right, are English, Latin, Japanese, Classical Greek, Portuguese, and Sanskrit. (Japanese, Greek, and Sanskrit have been transliterated written in the Roman alphabet.) You probably noticed some similarities among all of the languages except Japanese. In fact, all except Japanese belong to the Indo-European family. Latin (column B) and Portuguese (column E) are the most closely related; Portuguese is one of the Romance languages that's derived from Latin.

So What?
 


Using the comparative method, linguists examine words from two or more languages, concentrating on words that are likely to endure over time. Numbers, personal pronouns, basic verbs such as to be, and basic nouns such as milk are the beginning of any comparative study. Linguists look for similarities - but they also look for regular differences. In the table, for example, notice that the t in the English "two" and "ten" corresponds to d in the other Indo-European languages. It turns out that this change from d to t is part of a consonant sound shift that distinguishes the Germanic languages, including English, from their Indo-European relatives.

 

     
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