LINGUIST List 5.905

Thu 18 Aug 1994

Disc: Altaic

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Message 1: Altaic

Date: Wed, 17 Aug 94 09:10:31 EDAltaic
From: <amrzeus.cs.wayne.edu>
Subject: Altaic

Several people have written to me saying they would be interested
in a discussion of Altaic on LINGUIST, so here goes.

The Altaic hypothesis claims a genealogical relationship between
Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages (and most versions of
the hypothesis also include Korean and Japanese). Although the
hypothesis remains controversial, a number of recent works have
sought to give the impression that the controversy is long over
and that the hypothesis stands refuted. This is simply untrue,
and indeed clearly more people are doing more work than ever
on Altaic. In addition, some of the specific statements about
what is supposed to be wrong with Altaic in recent publications
are also utterly incorrect, notably, the assertion that the Altaic
hypothesis is based on typological similarities and is not supported
by lexical comparisons. Now, one can dispute the validity of the
lexical comparisons that have been proposed (by, e.g., Poppe or
Starostin), but it is bizarre to deny that such comparisons have
been proposed and are widely (albeit not universally) accepted.
It should be added that many of the comparisons that have been
made are accepted even by the critics of Altaic, but as borrowings,
not cognates. This raises all kinds of interesting theoretical
questions, since among such "borrowings" we find, for example,
the verb 'to be'.

Thus, I think we need to discuss two separate questions. One is
what is the true state of the scholarship (both pro and con) on
the Altaic question (as opposed to the nonsense that has been
going around). Two, what is the state of the case for Altaic geenrally
(and perhaps particularly for Japanese, since this is usually
reckoned to be the most controversial part of the hypothesis).

I think that it would be good to clear the air on the first topic
(where I think that consensus should be easy to achieve) before
tackling the second.

If there is any progress to be made on the controversial questions
of language classification (beyond the recent vitriol), I guess
Altaic might well be a good candidate.

Alexis Manaster Ramer
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