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Homer’s great literary masterpieces dated by study of Greek language evolution – University of Reading

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Homer’s great literary masterpieces dated by study of Greek language evolution

Release Date 25 February 2013

Homer's great masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been dated to around 762 BCE by new research based on the statistical modelling of language evolution.

Scientists from the University of Reading used evolutionary-linguistic statistical methods to compare the language in Homer's Iliad with Modern Greek and Hittite (an extinct language in Anatolian branch of Indo European languages, 1200-1600 BCE) and have confirmed what many historians and classicists have long believed; that these literary classics date from the 8th century BCE. 

Professor Mark Pagel's research team analysed the differences in a common set of vocabulary items between Homeric Greek, Modern Greek and ancient Hittite and assessed the probable times in years separating these languages, given the percentage of words they shared combined with the knowledge of the rates at which different words change.  The research dated the Homerian epics with a 95% certainty within a date range of 376 BCE and 1157 BCE, with a mean estimate of 762 BCE.

Professor Pagel said: "Our analysis of The Iliad has not been informed by historical, archaeological or cultural information but by a statistical analysis of shared vocabulary between three languages and the rates of lexical replacement in Indo European languages. Yet, our estimated dates fall in the middle of classicists' and historians' preferred date for Homer. The outcome of this research on The Iliad demonstrates the way in which language can be used, like genes, to unravel questions in history, archaeology and anthropology."

Professor Pagel's previous research on the evolution of human languages has built up a picture of how our 7,000 living human languages have evolved. Professor Pagel and his research team have documented the shared patterns in the way we use language and researched why some words succeed and others have become obsolete over time by using statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages. The variation in replacement rates makes the most common vocabulary items in these languages promising candidates for estimating the divergence between pairs of languages.

Professor Pagel's research has been published this week in the journal BioEssays: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/%28ISSN%291521-1878/earlyview

ENDS

Further information from Alex Brannen, University of Reading Communications Office, on 0118 378 8005 / 07834 006243, a.brannen@reading.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

Mark Pagel

Mark Pagel is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading. He leads the Evolution Group at the University of Reading and is an evolutionary theorist with interests in mathematical and statistical modelling of evolutionary processes.

His co-authored 1991 monograph on comparative statistical methods in evolutionary biology is standard reading for the field. He is the author of several other statistical methods for identifying and analyzing evolutionary trends, and his work routinely appears in the leading scientific journals.

Professor Pagel was awarded £1.8 million from the European Research Council to continue his work on the evolution of human languages. His recent book, Wired for Culture, based on this research explains how languages have evolved since modern humans emerged in Africa 200,000 years ago and why today's 7000 languages are probably a fraction of those spoken throughout that history. An article War of Words appeared in New Scientist (8 December 2012) and draws on material from his ERC research project and recent book.

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