LINGUIST List 5.908

Fri 19 Aug 1994

Disc: Altaic

Editor for this issue: <>


  • "Reinhard, 5.905 Altaic
  • Harold Schiffman, Re: 5.905 Altaic
  • Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PRT, Altaic
  • , Altaic and Penutian

    Message 1: 5.905 Altaic

    Date: Thu, 18 Aug 1994 10:38:41 5.905 Altaic
    From: "Reinhard <>
    Subject: 5.905 Altaic

    Thanks to Alexis Manaster Ramer for initiating some discussion about the Altaic hypothesis (AH) and about the controversy surrounding it, as well as for the summary of the remaining problems. (Original message above.) I wholeheartedly agree with the view that the AH offers an excellent opportunity to discuss universally applicable methodology in genealogical classification.

    I would like to add a number of notes.

    (1) For the benefit of the uninitiated the following introduction:

    (1.1) The AH holds that there is an Altaic language family which consists minimally of the following branches: Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic. These languages are of the SOV type, are agglutinative and share morphophonological harmony.

    (1.1.1) I suggest that we use the generic term "Turkic" in place of "Turkish" to distinguish it from the specific language, and in place of "Chuvash-Turkic" or "Bolghar- Turkic", though there may be merit to the argument that Bolghar (Old Chuvash) represents a sub-branch.

    (1.1.2) I suggest that as a generic label "Mongolic" be used in place of "Mongolian" found in traditional-style Altaist and Mongolist literature. This allows us to reserve "Mongolian" for the specific language.

    (1.1.3) I suggest that "Tungusic" be used in place of traditional "Manchu-Tungus(ic)". There seems to be no justification for adhering to the composite term.

    (1.2) Some have argued that there is a Ural-Altaic super-family. While the Uralic languages (Finnic, Ugric, Samoyedic) share important typological (particularly morphophonological) features with Altaic, the Ural-Altaic hypothesis is currently considered pass'e.

    (1.3) Some Altaists have proposed Korean-Altaic affinity. Others, including solidly mainstream ones like Nicholas (Nikolaj Nikolaevi^c) Poppe, have supported or at least not rejected this proposal. Poppe's assumption that such a Korean-Altaic relationship goes back to a pre-Altaic stage ought to be noted.

    (1.4) Some, notably Roy Andrew Miller, have argued for Japanese- Altaic affinity. If this affinity exists, it ought to be sought at an even earlier stage than the possible Korean-Altaic affinity (1.3).

    (1.5) Notable among the less accepted hypotheses is that of Dravidian- Altaic affinity.

    (2) The main arguments used by the critics of the AH (in recent years particularly Gerhard Doerfer and a number of European Turcologists and Mongolists) to discredit the hypothesis are mostly based upon criteria used in Indo-European research, criteria they seem to assume to be universally applicable. Evidence for this is found in two of the main weaknesses of the AH as alleged by the anti-Altaists:

    (2.1) Absence or scarcity of cognates among numeral.

    This poses questions regarding the universal validity of numerals as mandatory indicators of genealogical affinity. The fact that numerals seem to supply evidence for the Indo-European hypothesis ought not lead us to assume that this applies universally. In this regard it would be interesting to hear from those who specialize in numeral systems development as well as from those who deal with genealogical groups in which numeral systems are relatively less developed (e.g., among Australian languages).

    (2.2) Scarcity of cognates among terms for parts of the body.

    This appears to be a weak argument. Quite a large number of cognates have been identified among Altaic terms for parts of the body. Many of these have undergone considerable semantic shifts among the main branches, which is why they were not immediately apparent to earlier investigators.

    (2.3) Turkic-Mongolic and Mongolic-Tungusic "pseudo-cognates" but no direct Turkic-Tungusic ones.

    This has been taken as one of the main indicators that we are dealing with lexical borrowing rather than with genealogical affinity. This is mostly based on geographical distribution and thus on the assumption that there used to be no direct Turkic-Tungusic contacts.

    An impressive number of direct Turkic-Tungusic cognates have been identified especially in recent years. Regrettably, most of these have only been presented to small audiences or to institute-internal readers so far. Extensive distribution of this information is urgently needed. In the light of such research data, maintaining the lexical borrowing argument (e.g., by arguing that in all such cases the corresponding words were lost in all Mongolic languages) would be going way over the anti-Altaist edge.

    (3) The Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic pronominal systems bear astonishing resemblance, which enables us to reconstruct a proto-Altaic system. This has been dismissed as irrelevant, since this proto-Altaic system bears great resemblance not only to the proto-Uralic one but also to the Indo-European one. (Obviously, the anti-Altaists are among those least likely to accept the possibility of even earlier genealogical affinity, "Nostratic" or otherwise.)

    (4) Morphological correspondence among the Altaic languages is not only structural. A number of researchers have been engaged in identifying cognates among Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic (as well as Korean and Japanese) suffixes and enclitics. It would be interesting to hear from them.

    (5) Altaic research is in urgent need of the following:

    (5.1) Identification of further lexical cognates, with emphasis upon direct Turkic-Tungusic cognates.

    (5.2) Systematic reconstruction of proto-Turkic, proto-Mongolic and proto-Tungusic suffixes and enclitics, and ultimately reconstruction of an Altaic morphology.

    (5.3) Creation of opportunities to conduct Inner/Central Asian research as well as comparative Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic research with provisions for formal Altaic studies options. Renewed access to Inner Asia, dealings with newly founded Central Asian countries and the availability of relevant linguistic data (including access to large numbers of native speakers) are generating increased interest in Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic studies, but and governmental and institutional response to the growing demand is very slow in coming.

    Reinhard F. Hahn Seattle, U.S.A.

    Message 2: Re: 5.905 Altaic

    Date: Thu, 18 Aug 1994 10:39:59 Re: 5.905 Altaic
    From: Harold Schiffman <>
    Subject: Re: 5.905 Altaic

    Although I am not an Altaicist, I am in a department where some of the primary proponents of the Altaic hypothesis, including the Altaic-includes-Korean-and-Japanese version, were once members. I have been interested also because some mega-versions of Altaic would include Dravidian, which is typologically quite similar, though few phonological correspondences between Proto-Dr. and Altaic are evident. This has not stopped some people in Japan, esp. Susumo Ohno, emphatically NOT an Altaicist, from claiming that Japanese and Dravidian, esp. Tamil, are related. Ohno simply bypasses Altaic and compares Dravidian with Japanese.

    My own reading of the controversy impels me to the conclusion that it is primarily political, i.e. people accept the notion the Altaic includes Japanese NOT on linguistic grounds (phonolog. corresp. etc.) but on the grounds of what this would entail socio-culturally: that the Japanese are/would be related to Koreans and other despised primitive peoples (hunters and gatherers, mares'-milk drinkers) of northeast Asia. This idea seems anathema to many Japanese, so they search elsewhere for relationships of a more "noble" sort, i.e. with "noble" civilizations such as the Dravidians, or Polynesians, or whatever. I have corresponded with Murayama, a war-time student of Poppe, and the only linguist in Japan who seemed to be strongly in the Altaic camp; his arguments made sense to me, at least. And Poppe himself told me once that he thought of the Dravidian relationship to Altaic as an "Urverwandtschaft" that might be established after proto-Altaic was more firmly accepted.

    I also believe that Poppe was not firmly convinced that Japanese belonged within Altaic, despite the fact that he wrote a foreword to Roy A. Miller's book "Japanese and the other Altaic languages".

    I'd be interested in hearing more technical arguments about real data such as phonological correspondences etc.

    H. Schiffman

    Message 3: Altaic

    Date: 18 Aug 94 18:56 GMT
    From: Ecological Linguistics,Anderson,PRT <>
    Subject: Altaic

    We should be grateful to Alexis for giving us his analysis of where studies of the Altaic hypothesis now are. I got frustrated years ago by the non-communication and the many discussions in the absence of sufficient evidence or neglecting what had been presented (both ways).

    Just on one margin, readers might like to know that at least a few years ago, the closest relation of Korean to Tungus had been specifically claimed with the Manchu branch of Tungus, and presumably not from borrowings.

    I reworked the material in a paper by the dean of Korean linguists on this connection, and found the sound correspondences even closer than he claimed. Where there were dual correspondences for vowels, they sorted themselves out fairly neatly depending on the grammatical part of speech of the cognate set, in ways which recognizably can reflect typologically plausible segmental reflexes of recessive vs. non-initial stress positions, in more nominal vs. more verbal forms respectively.

    Since more detailed analysis made the set of correspondences look better rather than less good, I assumed the hypothesis was on the right track. I look forward to getting back into Altaic in the next year or two, catching up on the more recent literature, publishing some unpublished papers, etc.

    Lloyd Anderson

    Message 4: Altaic and Penutian

    Date: Thu, 18 Aug 1994 19:52:00 Altaic and Penutian
    From: <>
    Subject: Altaic and Penutian

    I was very interested in Alexis Manaster Ramer's summary of the state of opinion regarding Altaic, since much the same summary could be made, _mutatis mutandis_, of the state of Sapir's Penutian hypothesis. Fortunately in Penutian we have -- as of this summer -- gotten past the sterile yea/nay debate. 20 linguists who work on Penutian languages from Tsimshian to Yokuts met for a 2-week workshop on Comparative Penutian Linguistics at the University of Oregon (a meeting organized by Scott DeLancey and myself). We came to the meeting with a variety of attitudes towards the validity of the Penutian hypothesis, but by the time the workshop was over we were in unanimous agreement on several important matters:

    First and foremost we agreed that the Penutian relationship is real one historically, not just the mechanical epiphenomenon of someone's classificatory "method". There was a strong feeling, however, that we need to fashion new tools to deal with connections this old and involving such a diversity of structures. There clearly ARE historical inter- connections among these languages--it's not just a matter of similar typologies, or chance--but the Stammbaum model is inadequate for the task. However, we also agreed that lexical comparisons, to be probative and historically interesting, needed to be made in the context of a hypothesis of a proto Penutian morphosyntax, and it became clear that future research is going to have to be strongly reconstructive in nature, however those reconstructions are arrived at or supported. We spent a lot of time, for instance, talking about how we might reconstruct the proto Penutian case system, or how the templatic morphology of Yokuts, Miwok-Costanoan, and (perhaps) Takelma might be projected back to a proto-language.

    The "vitriol" of recent discussions of deep relationship has largely focused on the acceptance or rejection of shortcuts to real historical understanding. Whether or not Greenberg's "multilateral comparison" or any other specific method usefully functions to generate testable historical hypotheses, the fact is that such hypotheses are already thick on the ground, while the real work of deep historical linguistics largely remains to be done. Altaic, like Penutian, is clearly a useful arena for historical investigation. Let's get on with it!

    Victor Golla Humboldt State University Arcata, CA 95521 gollav