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Encyclopedia > Nostratic language

Nostratic is a highly controversial language "super-family" that putatively links many Eurasian language families. The term is difficult to pin down, however, as proponents have not agreed on the set of families to include. Some of the proposed groupings are: In linguistics, a superfamily (or macrofamily) is a phyletic unit encompassing several language families. ... African-Eurasian aspect of Earth Eurasia is the landmass composed of the continents of Europe and Asia. ... Most languages are known to belong to language families (families hereforth). ...

In some respects, however, the situation is not too dissimilar to what occurred within Indo-European studies in the early stages of research. At first, the Celtic languages were not definitely identified as part of the Indo-European language family, while Armenian was not added until the 1880s (until then, it had been thought to be an aberrant dialect of Iranian), and Lycian and Lydian were not definitively recognized as Indo-European languages until the middle of the twentieth century. Even today, there are uncertainties about the subgrouping of the Finno-Ugric languages, not to mention Afro-Asiatic. Proto-Indo-European Indo-European studies The Indo-European languages include some 443 (SIL estimate) languages and dialects spoken by about three billion people, including most of the major language families of Europe and western Asia, which belong to a single superfamily. ... Geographical distribution of Finnic, Ugric, Samoyed and Yukaghir languages The Uralic languages form a language family of about 30 languages spoken by approximately 20 million people. ... Geographical distribution of Yukaghir, Finnic, Ugric and Samoyedic languages The Yukaghir languages are a family of related languages spoken in Russia by the Yukaghir, a Siberian people, living in the basin of the Kolyma River. ... Altaic is a language family which includes 60 languages spoken by about 250 million people, mostly in and around Central Asia and Far East. ... Tungusic languages (or Manchu-Tungus languages) are spoken in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria. ... The Turkic languages are a group of closely related languages that are spoken by a variety of people distributed across a vast area from Eastern Europe to Siberia and Western China. ... The Japonic languages are a language family believed to descend from a common language known as Proto-Japonic. ... The Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages are a language family of Siberia. ... Nivkh or Gilyak (ethnonym: Nivxi) (language, нивхгу - Nivxgu) is a language spoken in Outer Manchuria, in the basin of the Amgun, a tributary of the Amur, along the lower reaches of the Amur and on the northern half of Sakhalin. ... Eskimo-Aleut (also called Inuit-Aleut, but both names are considered offensive by some) is a language family native to Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, Alaska, and parts of Siberia. ... The Dravidian family of languages includes approximately 26 languages that are mainly spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka, as well as certain areas in Pakistan, Nepal, and eastern and central India. ... The Elamo-Dravidian languages are a hypothesised language family which includes the living Dravidian languages of India and Pakistan, in addition to the extinct Elamite language of ancient Elam, in what is now southwestern Iran. ... The South Caucasian languages, also called Georgian or Kartvelian, are spoken primarily in Georgia, with smaller groups of speakers in Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine and other countries. ... A database query syntax error has occurred. ... Map showing the distribution of Afro-Asiatic languages The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout North Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia. ... Proto-Indo-European Indo-European studies Celtic languages are a branch of the Indo-European languages. ... Events and Trends Technology Development and commercial production of electric lighting Development and commercial production of gasoline-powered automobile by Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Maybach First commercial production and sales of phonographs and phonograph recordings. ... Geographical distribution of Finno-Ugric (Finno-Permic in blue, Ugric in green). ...

Joseph Greenberg proposed a similar or overlapping macrofamily he called Eurasiatic, and linked it to the Amerind languages of the Americas. The American Nostraticist Allan R. Bomhard considers Eurasiatic to be a branch of Nostratic, other branches being Afro-Asiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and South Caucasian (Kartvelian). Joseph Greenberg may refer to one of The linguist Joseph H. Greenberg The director of Yiddish-language films, better known as Joseph Green This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might otherwise share the same title. ... The Eurasiatic languages are a hypotetical language group from which allegedly descend several language families of Europe and Asia, including Indo-European languages, Uralic and Altaic. ... In addition to its use by social scientists to refer (broadly) to the various indigenous languages of The Americas, the term Amerind languages may controversially refer to one of the three families in Joseph H. Greenbergs classification of all Native American languages—the other two being Na-Dene and... Allan R. Bomhard was born in 1943. ...


History: Indo-European to Nostratic

The concept of the Nostratic languages is best understood in the context of the discovery, methods of investigation, and application of the Indo-European family of languages. When Sir William Jones first suggested the Indo-European hypothesis, he backed up his idea with a systematic examination of what might be termed "phono-semantic sets" -- words which, in different languages, had both similar sounds and meanings. Jones essentially argued that there were too many of these sets for their existence to be mere coincidence, laying particular emphasis on the resemblance between morphological patterns: declensions and conjugations. He proposed that the languages in question must have stemmed from one language at some time in the past, and that they diverged from one another due to geographical separation and the passage of time. The idea of a "root language" thus took hold, a concept to which the evolution of the Romance languages from Latin offered itself as a clear parallel. Sir William Jones (September 28, 1746 - April 27, 1794) was a British philologist and student of ancient India, particularly known for his discovery of the Indo-European languages family. ... Morphology is a subdiscipline of linguistics that studies word structure. ... In linguistics, declension is a feature of inflected languages: generally, the alteration of a noun to indicate its grammatical role. ... In linguistics, grammatical conjugation is the creation of derived forms of a verb from the word root by inflection (regular alteration according to rules of grammar). ... The Romance languages, also called Romanic languages or New Latin Languages, are a subset of the Italic languages, specifically the descendants of the Latin dialects spoken by the common people in what is known as Latin Europe (Italian/Portuguese/Spanish Europa latina, French Europe latine) and Romania as Vulgar Latin... Latin was the language originally spoken in the region around Rome called Latium. ...

The second major concept to keep in mind is that, starting with Jacob Grimm (of fairy tale fame), it was argued that languages would not evolve in a haphazard manner, but rather that they evolved according to certain rules. Using these rules, one could theoretically run the evolutionary process backwards and reconstruct the root language. This has been done, and parts of the hypothetical language, named Proto-Indo-European, have been produced. Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm (January 4, 1785 – September 20, 1863), German philologist and mythologist, was born at Hanau, in Hesse-Kassel. ... Proto-Indo-European Indo-European studies The Proto-Indo-Europeans are the hypothetical speakers of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language, a prehistoric people of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. ...

The third concept is that, by analysing the words in the Proto-Indo-European language, one can to some extent examine the time and place of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Words for concepts and objects that were not familiar to these people would be named essentially randomly after the time when the languages began to split; only things they knew would produce phono-semantic sets in their successor languages. Proto-Indo-European is rich in words related to agriculture, animal husbandry, and plains-like landscape. From this, it has been plausibly argued that Proto-Indo-European was a living language some time from 6000 BC to 4000 BC, in the plains to the north of the Black Sea. (A measure of the difficulty of this task is indicated by the fact that some argue the reconstructed vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European, together with other known information about migrations, indicates a northern Anatolian landscape, although this is notably lacking in flat ground). (7th millennium BC – 6th millennium BC – 5th millennium BC – other millennia) Events c. ... (5th millennium BC – 4th millennium BC – 3rd millennium BC - other millennia) Events City of Ur in Mesopotamia (40th century BC). ... Satellite view of the Black Sea, taken by NASA MODIS Cities of the Black Sea The Black Sea (known as the Euxine Sea in antiquity) is an inland sea between southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. ... Anatolia ( Greek: ανατολή anatolē or anatolí, rising of the sun or East; compare Orient and Levant, by popular etymology Turkish Anadolu to ana mother and dolu filled), also called by the Latin name of Asia Minor, is a region of Southwest Asia which corresponds today to the Asian portion of...

Altogether, the Indo-European hypothesis has been wildly successful, and naturally linguists have tried to apply the same general theory to a wide variety of other languages. Many languages, though not all, have been shown to be related to other languages, forming large families similar to Indo-European. These families have been only as "high-level" as the connections which have plausibly been made. Superficially, though, it is logical that the family tree could converge further, and that some or all language families could be related to one another.

In 1903, the Danish linguist Holger Pedersen proposed Nostratian, a proto-language for the proto-languages of the Indo-European, Uralic, Afro-Asiatic, and Eskimo-Aleut language families. The name derives from the Latin word noster, meaning "our". While the hypothesis did not make much headway in the West, it became quite popular in the former Soviet Union, and under the slightly modified name Nostratic was expanded to include other language families. The modern Nostratic theory was elaborated by Vladislav Illich-Svitych (1934-66) who also published a comprehensive dictionary of the hypothetical language. 1903 has the latest occurring solstices and equinoxes for 400 years, because the Gregorian calendar hasnt had a leap year for seven years or a century leap year since 1600. ... Holger Pedersen (April 7, 1867 - October 25, 1953) was a Danish linguist who made significant contributions to language science and wrote about 30 authoritative works concerning several languages. ... Latin is the language that was originally spoken in the region around Rome called Latium. ... Vladislav Markovich Illich-Svitych (1934-66) was a founding father of comparative Nostratic linguistics. ...


Almost all modern linguists are, at best, highly skeptical of the facts put forward to show that the language families under the Nostratic umbrella are, in fact, related. The main criticism of Nostratic is that the methodology used leads people to see patterns that are the result of coincidence. In reconstructing Nostratic, supporters do not use the techniques that linguists have established to prevent false positives, such as insisting on examining only regular sound shifts.

Most of the proposed "phono-semantic sets" are much more speculative than those used to group languages into the accepted families -- one technique used to support a similar "super-family" was famously used in the 1960s to "demonstrate" that English was a member of a proposed Central American language family. Another blow against Nostratic is that the more recent technique of comparing grammatical structures, as opposed to words, has suggested to some that the Nostratic candidates are not related. However, recent work by Joseph Greenberg (and Allan R. Bomhard, forthcoming) has done a lot to dispel doubts in this area. Claims (by Aharon Dolgopolsky, among others) that the words reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic point to a pre-agricultural society in the Middle East (as one might expect for a language pre-dating Proto-Indo-European) have been dismissed by mainstream linguists as wishful thinking exacerbated by that very expectation shaping the results. Events and trends The 1960s was a turbulent decade of change around the world. ... Joseph Greenberg may refer to one of The linguist Joseph H. Greenberg The director of Yiddish-language films, better known as Joseph Green This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might otherwise share the same title. ... Allan R. Bomhard was born in 1943. ... A map showing countries commonly considered to be part of the Middle East The Middle East is a region comprising the lands around the southern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea, a territory that extends from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. ...

Some linguists also object to the assumption that languages must ultimately all stem from one reconstructable root. It is known that unrelated languages in close geographical proximity can trade vocabulary, syntax, and other features, and it is suggested that the present-day "family" structure of languages may be an aberration. Advancing technology might allow one language to rapidly expand in geographic scope, as the people speaking it conquered their neighbours. This would then allow that one language to evolve into a family (in fact, it has been argued that Indo-European languages have spread as far as they have due to war-making advantages the domestication of the horse gave to one small group of Proto-Indo-European speakers). Domesticated animals, plants, and other organisms are those whose collective behavior, life cycle, or physiology has been altered as a result of their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations. ... Binomial name Equus caballus The Horse (Equus caballus) is a large ungulate mammal, one of the seven modern species of the genus Equus. ...

It is suggested, that in the absence of rapid technological change, as was the case prior to about the 8th millennium BC, the tendency of languages to evolve would be drowned out by the tendency for languages to trade features between each other. If this were so, the axiom that languages change in a manner that can be reversed is not true before a certain point in the past, and it will not be possible to reconstruct older proto-languages, Nostratic or otherwise, using the techniques used to reconstruct the proto-languages of the accepted major language families (all of which are believed to post-date the invention of agriculture). On the other hand, the comparative method has been successfully applied to Australian Aboriginal languages. Even though Australia has been inhabited for about 50 thousand years, and no significant technological changes occurred, aborigines living on seven eighths of Australia use languages belonging to relatively recent (estimated to have about 5 thousand years) Pama-Nyungan language family. (9th millennium BC – 8th millennium BC – 7th millennium BC – other millennia) Events The south area of Çatalhöyük. ... The Australian Aboriginal languages are a Australia, and the rest are descended linguistically from them. ... The Pama-Nyungan languages are the most widespread subfamily of the Australian language family. ...

Regardless, the concept of Nostratic languages still has some influence on the fringes of linguistics. A further level of the "language family tree", which weds Nostratic with all other language families into what is called Proto-World, has been proposed. Most of the objections raised to the Nostratic hypothesis apply equally to this idea, and the Proto-World concept has little currency among linguists. The term Proto-World language refers to the hypothetical latest common ancestor of all the worlds languages, an ancient language from which all modern languages and language families – and usually including all known dead languages – derive. ...

Example of Nostratic Technique

An example of the techniques used by supporters of Nostratic is as follows:

Finally, let's look at The Nostratic Macrofamily, a Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship, by Allan R. Bomhard and John C. Kerns. New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 1994. Page 219:

Proto-Nostratic *bar-/*ber- 'seed, grain':

  • Proto-Indo-European *bhars- 'grain': Latin far 'spelt, grain'; Old Icelandic barr 'barley'; Old English bere 'barley'; Old Church Slavic brasheno 'food'. Pokorny 1959:111 *bhares- 'barley'; Walde 1927-1932. II:134 *bhares-; Mann 1984-1987:66 *bhars- 'wheat, barley'; Watkins 1985:5-6 *bhares- (*bhars-) 'barley'; Gamkrelidze-Ivanov 1984.II: 872-873 *bhar(s)-.
  • Proto-Afroasiatic *bar-/*ber- 'grain, cereal':
    • Proto-Semitic *barr-/*burr 'grain, cereal' > Hebrew bar 'grain'; Arabic burr 'wheat'; Akkadian burru 'a cereal'; Sabaean brr 'wheat'; Harsusi berr 'corn, maize, wheat'; Mehri ber 'corn, maize, wheat'.
    • Cushitic: Somali bur 'wheat'. (?) Proto-Southern Cushitic *bar-/*bal- 'grain (generic) > Iraqw balang 'grain'; Burunge baru 'grain'; Alagwa balu 'grain' K'wadza balayiko 'grain'. Ehret 1980:338.
  • Dravidian: Tamil paral 'pebble, seed, stone of fruit'; Malyalam paral 'grit, coarse grain, gravel, cowry shell'; Kota parl 'pebble, one grain (of any grain)'; Kannada paral, paral 'pebble, stone' Kodagu para 'pebble'; Tulu parelu 'grain of sand, grit, gravel, grain of corn, etc.; castor seed'; Kolami Parca 'gravel'.
  • Sumerian bar 'seed'.

This is an example of what some linguists find suspect about the Nostratic hypothesis: a single proto-form is being suggested as the ancestor of words meaning 'barley', 'wheat', 'pebbles', and 'seeds'. On the other hand, proponents point to parallels in standard Indo-European etymological dictionaries in which seemingly disparate meanings can convincingly be derived from reconstructed proto-forms.

Even within English, the word 'grain' has a wide range of meanings:

  1. 'grain' of sand (= 'pebble, gravel, grit, etc.')
  2. 'grain' of salt (= small crystal of salt)
  3. 'grain' = 'seed' or 'fruit' of a cereal grass
  4. overall term for plants producing 'grain'
  5. 'grain' of wood (= stratification of wood fibers)
  6. 'small quantity', a 'minute portion', or the 'least amount possible' (as in, 'not a grain of truth in what she said'), etc.

See also

The Eurasiatic languages are a hypotetical language group from which allegedly descend several language families of Europe and Asia, including Indo-European languages, Uralic and Altaic. ... Indo-Uralic is a hypothetical language family consisting of Indo-European and Uralic (and maybe further related languages). ... Uralo-Siberian is a hypothetical language family proposed by Michael Fortescue in his book Language Relations across Bering Strait in 1998. ... The Ural-Altaic language family is a grouping of languages which was once widely accepted by linguists, but has since been largely rejected. ...

External links

  • Mother Tongue, issue 31 (http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/MT-31.htm) - contains a table of various linguists' versions of Nostratic. (Warning: image files.)

  Results from FactBites:
Nostratic languages - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2154 words)
Nostratic, a hypothetical ancestral language, purportedly served as the root language from which a large number of the language families of Europe, Asia, and Africa may have descended.
Bomhard considers that the Nostratic urheimat was the mesolithic or pre-neolithic epipaleolithic Middle East.
The second possibility as a culture associated with the Nostratic family is the Zarzian (12,400-8,500 BCE) culture of the Zagros mountains, stretching northwards into Kobistan in the Caucasus and eastwards into Iran.
  More results at FactBites »



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