TREES are a gift to students of the past. An entire discipline, known as dendrochronology, is devoted to using tree rings to date ancient wooden objects and buildings. Linguistic archaeologists, it seems, share these arboreal inclinations, though the trees they examine are of an altogether different species.
In 2003 a team led by Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, employed a computer to generate a genealogical tree of Indo-European languages. Their model put the birth of the family, which includes languages as seemingly diverse as Icelandic and Iranian, between 9,800 and 7,800 years ago.
This was consistent with the idea that it stemmed from Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey, whence it spread with the expansion of farming. A rival proposal, that their origin amid the semi-nomadic, pastoralist tribes in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea, supposes their progenitor to be several thousand years younger.
Is it possible to detect the roots of language?