Like Words, Like Genes

Languages, like living organisms, change and evolve over time. Some languages have survived in isolation, while other languages have taken over large populations. Just like our genes, we humans are the vessels in which language spreads. In this post, I’ll show you some pretty cool examples of language evolution; it’s surprising how similar it is to biological evolution.

Lyon, France. Where food evolves too.


The scientific name for beer yeast, specifically ale yeast, is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This yeast, as you’ve learned, has been used in both beer and bread-making for thousands of years. It is, if you will, the OG of domesticated fungus. It made sense to name this yeast after the Latin word for beer: cerevisiae. A quick chat with some tourists at a local bar and we see how that root remains in modern languages. In Spanish, the word for beer is “cerveza“. In Portuguese, it is “cerveja“.

Bibere, Biber

For other languages, like French, Italian, English, German, Dutch, etc. the word “beer” comes from the Latin word “bibere” or “biber”, meaning to drink (verb) or a drink (noun). You can see the similarities here:

  • une bière – French
  • una birra – Italian
  • a beer – English
  • ein Bier – German
  • een bier – Dutch


Moving east (since the above are all located in Western Europe), we enter into the region of the Slavic languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, etc. These languages didn’t come from Latin, they came from Proto-Slavic. However, Proto-Slavic still has similarities to Romance and Germanic languages. Not a lot, but if you dig deep enough, you’ll find them.


To find common root words between Slavic languages, Romance languages, and Germanic languages, we have to go further back in time. As you go down the language tree, you’ll see that some words originated from one Proto-Indo-European root. The word “three” is a great example.

Evolution of “Three”

  • Proto-Indo-European: tréyes <– this is the root
    • Proto-Slavic: tri
      • Slovak: tri
      • Czech: tři
      • Polish: trzy
    • Proto-Germanic: prīz
      • German: drei
      • Dutch: drie
      • Luxembourgish: dräi
      • English: three
    • Latin: tribus
      • French: trois
      • Spanish: tres
      • Italian: tre

Genes vs Words

With DNA, we have a physical molecule that can be extracted from living organisms, sequenced, and observed. Unfortunately, language isn’t quite the same. Without written text, language is lost. So yes, it’s likely there is a common language for all languages. This oldest root probably came out of Africa since that’s where homo sapiens came from. But since people weren’t exactly write things down back then, the furthest back in time we can go is to the oldest piece of written language.