Nostratic: the state of the question

Izzy (Israel) Cohen (req-telaviv) Izzy at
Thu Apr 3 17:57:32 UTC 1997

forwarded by Israel Cohen
izzy at
From: mcv at
To: nostratic at
Subject: Nostratic: the state of the question
Date: Thursday, 3 April 1997 12:52AM
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Rick Mc Callister's question on "Indo-Uralic" and Kevin Tuite's
question on the possible implications for the Nostratic theory of the
suggested reconstruction of PIE as a Klimovian "jazyk aktivnogo
stroja", raise a couple of interesting questions.
What is the current state of Nostratic linguistics?  Where is there
still work to be done, which questions need to be settled, and what,
if anything, is required to "prove" the validity of the Nostratic
I will discuss a number of issues separately, although all is
intertwined in practice: no lexical cognates can be generally
accepted, as long as no consensus exists on the phonology of
Nostratic.  Nostratic will not be accepted as a unit, as long as there
is no clarity on the question of which languages belong in it and
which don't.
This is the area where most work has been done.  Allan Bomhard's 601
etymologies in "The Nostratic Macrofamily" and the 378 published
etymologies of Illich-Svitych, despite differences in the treatment if
sound correspondences, have 139 roots in common, if I have not
miscounted.  That constitutes a solid basis for further work, and
should give us a degree of confidence in the validity of the Nostratic
hypothesis.  What are the odds that the reconstructed proto-languages
of the AA, IE, Kartvelian, Dravidian, Uralic and Altaic families
should share 139 basic vocabulary roots, with regular sound
correspondences, *exclusively* due to borrowing or chance resemblance?
The biggest problem remains the interpretation of the PN stop system.
Illich-Svitych had reconstructed PN *t' *t *d =3D> PIE *t *d *dh.  Allan
Bomhard, following the "glottalic theory" of Gamqrelidze et al. for
PIE, reconstructs PN *t' *t *d =3D> PIE *d *t *dh (/t'/, /t/, /d/)
instead.  The most curious fact about all of this is that results
could be obtained using both correspondence sets.  As a matter of
fact, back in 1911, Hermann Moeller had obtained a sizeable amount of
IE ~ Semitic cognates using yet another set of sound correspondences.
Are the critics right that at this level of long range comparison, a
number of "cognates" (i.e. chance resemblances) can be found, no
matter what set of sound correspondences one uses?  I don't think so.
In the first place, Illich-Svitych and Bomhard have not done "mass
comparison".  Their work is based mainly on reconstructed proto-forms
for the families involved, and the choice of possible words is no
greater than what one has in IE linguistics (which is not to say that
one cannot dip into a family and pick a word that is present in one
language only, just as, say, Pokorny can dip into Greek and use an
obscure dialect word from Hesyochios (sp?)).  In my view, the body of
solid etymologies that are common to both "systems" cannot be
dismissed by pointing to these apparent irregularities in the stop
system.  If so, Indo-European should have been dismissed because of
the irregularities in Grimm's law (solved by Verner) or cases like
Lat. <habere> ~ E. "to have" (to be solved), and many others like it
(I wish I had a list of them).
We know at least that PIE had dissimilated roots that contained more
than one glottalic.  Similar assimilations and dissimilations will
have occurred in other branches of Nostratic, even at the
proto-language level itself (e.g. I am convinced that Bomhard's #92
*tap, and #134 *t'ab, both "warm, hot" are in fact the same word, but
until some Nostratic Verner comes along to prove the fact, it remains
an act of faith -- or common sense -- as in the case of <habere> ~
Too little is known about Nostratic grammar.  In Historical
Linguistics, lexicon is nice, but morphology is nicer. =20
John Kerns' chapter on Grammar in "The Nostratic Macrofamily", while
concentrating on "Northern Nostratic" (Eurasiatic), gives a fair view
of nominal and pronominal morphology (genitive *-n, locative *-nV,
accusative *-m, an ablative involving a dental, etc.), but the absence
of any kind of verbal morphology is disappointing.
I myself recently suggested here that a case can be made for
reconstructing the the Nostratic stative verb paradigm (*-kV, *-tkV,
*-V, *-wenV, *-tkwenV, (?)), based on Ancient Egyptian, Berber,
Semitic, Indo-European and Elamite, with possible traces of the same
paradigm in at least Uralic (Ugric), and the Kartvelian 2pl.p.p.
*tkwen as additional supporting evidence.  There is a problem with the
correspondence PAA *k ~ PIE *H, wich neither Illich-Svitych nor
Bomhard envisages, but then neither system is concerned with
Auslautgesetze.  As far as I know, no proposal had been previously
made to reconstruct this, or any other bit of Nostratic verbal
morphology (but I may be wrong).  In any case, I would have loved to
hear some comments...
One of the most important questions is: which languages belong in
Nostratic?  Illich-Svitych's publications made use of materials from
AA, Kartvelian, IE, Dravidian, Uralic and Altaic (incl. Korean).
Bomhard/Kerns' book uses AA, Kartvelian, IE, Elamo-Dravidian,
Uralic-Yukaghir, Altaic and Sumerian, with occasional references to
Etruscan.  In the Grammar section, Kerns uses Korean and Japanese
examples, while in the preliminary chapters Chukchi-Kamchtakan, Gilyak
and Eskimo-Aleut are explicitly mentioned as members of Nostratic
(which is also in accordance with Dologopol'skij's and Greenberg's
[I have just seen Allan's reply.  A question to Allan: compared with
the tree on p. 36 of the "Nostratic Macrofamily", would your current
views be accurately described by the following diagram?
    |                |
Afrasiatic   ________|________
            |                 |
       Elamo-Dravidian  ______|_______
                       |              |
                  Kartvelian      Eurasiatic
(i.e. Kartvelian and Elamo-Dravidian "switch places", and Sumerian
moves to a level above Nostratic?)]
Greenberg's definition of Eurasiatic not only includes Nivkh, but also
Ainu, which in view of recent discussion (here or on HISTLING?) would
appear to be controversial.
Controversial also remains the position of Sumerian, mainly due to our
imperfect knowledge of both the phonology and the semantics of the
Sumerian lexicon.  I will simply note that the Sumerian sound
correspondences on pp. 125-131 correspond almost exactly with the ones
I independently derived last year from a comparison of IE and
The position of Basque, which I recently tried to link with Nostratic
on this very forum, is of course controversial as well.
In "Postscript 1991" to the Classification of the World's Languages,
Ruhlen quotes Starostin's views that Afro-Asiatic should be considered
coordinate to, not included in Nostratic, and his assertion that
Elamo-Dravidian is the most divergent branch of Nostratic.  Coupled
with Greenberg's views on Eurasiatic [and Allan's comments here], this
seems to indicate some kind of preliminary consensus on the
subgrouping of Nostratic [something like the tree I drew above].
Since Uralic, Altaic and "Chukchi-Eskimo" are beyond my level of
expertise, I cannot judge whether IE is indeed closer to those
languages than it is to AA, Kartvelian or Dravidian (again, not my
specialisms).  I see enough parallels between IE and AA, however
(sound system, the stative verb endings which I outlined above), to
consider the possibility that IE might actually have close ties both
ways and act like a kind of "bridge" between South (AA, Kartv, Drav)
and North (EA, CK, Alt), like Uralic probably does from the other
side.  Which sort of answers Rick's question.
Another issue discussed by Starostin in the same article quoted by
Ruhlen (1989 "Nostratic and Sino-Caucasian", in Shevoroshkin
"Explorations in Language Macrofamilies") is the relationship of
Nostratic as a whole with other macrofamilies.  Unfortunately, I have
not read Starostin's article, but while studying John Bengtson's
materials on Basque and Caucasian, which the author was kind enough to
send me, I could not help but notice some striking parallels between
Proto-North-(East-)Caucasian and Nostratic (*Hwir-i "lake, pond"
[*Haw-, *Hw-er- "rain"]; *tl'a:npV "lip" [PAA *tlip-at- "lip", etc.];
*tl_w-irV "horn" [*tlir- "highest point/rank"]; *dzwhari: "star" [PSem
*?iTtar-, PIE *ster- etc.]; *X~wejrV "dog" [PIE *k(u)on- "dog", PU
*ku"jna" "wolf"]; *swerho "old" [*dzwer- "old" or *syiny- "old" ?];
*s'u"no "year" [*syiny- "old, year" if this is not a loan from
Semitic]; *=3Da":sA "to sit" [*?asy- "to sit"]; *s_e:HmV "vein, muscle"
[*sin- "sinew, tendon, vein"]; *b~ak'V "(palm of the) hand" [PIE
*bha:ghu- "elbow, lower arm"]; *?iman "to stay" [*man- "to stay"], to
quote the most obvious ones).
The above suggest some kind of relationship between Nostratic (however
defined) and (Macro-)Caucasian (however defined).  One area which I
for one would very much like to see investigated would be that of
possible relations of Nostratic with the African language groups
(Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian, Macro-Khoisan).  Which brings me to:
Another issue that is closely intertwined with the others.
Determining linguistically which languages are part of Nostratic could
shed some light on interpreting the archaeological data.  Conversely,
knowing the archaeological data can guide our thoughts on linguistic
relationships and time depths.
It is funny that Allan has just said: "Afrasian stands apart as an
extremely ancient, independent branch -- it was the first branch of
Nostratic to separate from the rest of the Nostratic speech
community", as this is the exact opposite of how I would put it.
I would regard the speakers of Afro-Asiatic as the "stay behinds",
while the rest of Nostratic wandered out into North Africa, the Near
East and Europe.  The linguist effect (at least as it affects AA
versus the rest) is of course the same.
Suffice it to quote something that I wrote some time ago on the
Basque-L, in the course of a speculative discussion on
historico-linguistic matters with Miguel Aguirre Martinez, who is also
Spanish and also lives in the Netherlands...
[I wrote on the BASQUE-L:]
In my view, the history of Homo displays a remarkably stable pattern=20
from its inception in Africa more than a million years ago to about=20
10,000 years BP.  Africa, and in particular the upper Nile valley=20
(Sudan) has acted as a population "pump", injecting new populations=20
into the rest of the world at regular intervals.  We cannot trace=20
every single episode, but some of the major ones are clear:
1,000,000 BP: expansion of Homo Erectus (Lower Paleolithic).
Java man and Peking man show that Erectus migrated from Africa to=20
Asia early on. =20
150,000 BP: expansion of Homo Sapiens (Middle Paleolithic).
This is where I would put "Proto-World".  This stage marks the origin=20
of the Neanderthal populations of North Africa, the Near East, Europe=20
and Central Asia.  I haven't got much information on the physical=20
characteristics of the populations of India, SE Asia and China in=20
this period ("Solo man"?), but at the risk of not being politically=20
correct, I'd suggest a link with the modern "Australoid" populations=20
(Vedda, Negrito, Papuan and Australian).  This simply means that=20
Neanderthal man was fully a member of our own species, as is=20
the current palaeoanthropological consensus. =20
50,000 BP: expansion of "H.S.Sapiens" (Upper Paleolithic).
This is in fact the expansion of the Aurignacian culture, which=20
developed in Africa and the Near East 50 or 60,000 years ago, and=20
subsequently spread to Europe (40,000 BP), Central Asia, and=20
presumably India as well.  In SE Asia and Europe, the Aurignacian=20
penetration was only partial, and we have several cultures that seem=20
to continue Middle Paleolithic traditions (pebble-tool cultures in SE=20
Asia and China, the Lower Perigordian (Ch=D7telperronian) in Western=20
Europe, the Uluzzian in Italy and the Szeletian in Eastern Europe.
Linguistically, Austric, Macro-Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan, Na-Dene and=20
the various Amerind groups may be traced back to this wave.
30,000 BP: Gravettian.
The Gravettian absorbed the Aurignacian, Chatelperronian, Uluzzian,=20
and Szeletian cultures in North Africa, the Near East and Europe.
Apart from the post-glacial expansions into Siberia [and the Neolithic
expansions], there is a perfect geographical match with the
"Nostratic" macro-family.
15,000 BP?: Afro-Asiatic.
Sometime between the Gravettian expansion and the Neolithic,=20
the Egyptian, Berber-Chadic and Semitic populations must have=20
expanded from the Sudan to Northern Africa and the Near East=20
(Palestine), leaving Cushitic and Omotic in the Sudanese homeland.
By the time of the Neolithic, the stage was set for yet another=20
African wave, as Nilo-Saharans had pushed the Omotians-Cushites out=20
of the Sudan (Nubia).  However, the Neolithic population explosion in=20
Egypt and the Near East effectively blocked the way for any new=20
migrations out of Africa, and with the modern advance of Arabic=20
southwards into the Sudan, the pattern seems to have been partially=20
reversed, for the first time in human history.
[end quote]
I must repeat that the above is highly speculative.
But what it suggests in linguistical terms is a kind of "onion like"
structure of the Nostratic macrofamily, with Omotic at the core [and
that's where possible links with African families would be most
interesting to examine], Cushitic and Beja the inner ring, then
"Northern Afrasiatic" (Ancient Egyptian, Semitic, Berber-Chadic).  The
next layer(s) would be Basque [N.Africa=3D>W.Europe], Etruscan and IE
[S.Europe], Eurasiatic [E.Europe=3D>Siberia], Kartvelian, Elamo-
Dravidian and Sumerian [N.East].  Then, no longer "Nostratic", but
distantly related, come the layers consisting of Caucasian/Yeniseian/
Sino-Tibetan [C.Asia], Burushaski and Nahali [S.Asia], "Austric"
[SE.Asia], with Na-Dene and the various Amerind groups as offshoots of
these groups into the New World.
Miguel Carrasquer Vidal                     ~ ~
Amsterdam                   _____________  ~ ~
mcv at                 |_____________|||
=3D Ce .sig n'est pas une .cig

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