The Nostratic languages are a hypothetical language superfamily to which, some linguists think, a large number of language families of Europe, Asia, and Africa may belong – that is, they think all those language families have descended from a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Nostratic language.
In contrast to some other proposed linguistic superfamilies, most versions of the Nostratic hypothesis rely upon an application of the comparative method, involving systematic sound-and-meaning correspondences between the constituent families as well as systematic correspondences in their grammar. However, the hypothesis does not have wide acceptance among linguists. Some of the methodology used in its support has been heavily criticised, and most linguists remain undecided.
Edward Finnegan, for example, has offered a pithy summation of the current state of the Nostratic hypothesis, saying "there's too much there to be nothing, but not enough there to be something."
Origin of the Nostratic hypothesis
In 1903 the pioneering Danish linguist Holger Pedersen proposed "Nostratian", a proto-language for the proto-languages of the Semitic (later broadened into Afro-Asiatic), Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic and Eskimo-Aleut language families, and possibly some others. The name derives from the Latin word nostras, meaning 'our fellow-countryman' (plural: nostrates), because about three quarters of the world population (such as Pedersen himself) have been speaking one of these languages in the last few centuries.
While the hypothesis did not make much headway in the West, it became quite popular in what was then the Soviet Union. Working independently at first, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky elaborated the first version of the modern form of the hypothesis during the 1960s. Under the slightly modified name "Nostratic" they expanded it to include additional language families. Illich-Svitych also published the first comprehensive dictionary of the hypothetical language.
Proponents of the Nostratic theory have assigned various (and varying) language families to the Nostratic superfamily. However, general agreement exists on including at a minimum the Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic languages. Following Pedersen, Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky, many advocates of the theory have included the Afro-Asiatic languages as well, though criticisms by Joseph Greenberg and others from the late 1980s onward suggested a reassessment of this position.
A fairly representative grouping would include:
The Sumerian and Etruscan languages, usually regarded as language isolates, are thought by some to be Nostratic languages as well. (Others, however, consider them members of a postulated sister grouping called Dené-Caucasian.) Another notional isolate, the Elamite language, also figures in a number of Nostratic classifications: it is frequently appended to Dravidian, but may well be an independent branch.
In 1987 Joseph Greenberg proposed a similar or overlapping macrofamily which he called Eurasiatic and which he linked, remotely, to the Amerind languages of the Americas. It excluded some of the above-listed families, most notably Afro-Asiatic. At about this time Russian Nostraticists, notably Sergei Starostin, constructed a revised version of Nostratic which was slightly broader than Greenberg's grouping but which similarly left out Afro-Asiatic.
Recently, however, a consensus has been emerging among the proponents of the Nostratic theory. Greenberg in fact basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' (his Eurasiatic) and a southern 'tier' (principally Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian). The American Nostraticist Allan R. Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Afro-Asiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin (2002) arrives at a tripartite overall grouping (that is, he considers Afro-Asiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else), and Sergei Starostin's school has now re-included Afro-Asiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic while reserving the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping which comprises the rest of the superfamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Kartvelian and Dravidian.
Although Greenberg speculated that both the Amerind and the Nilo-Saharan families or superfamilies are related to Nostratic, their actual inclusion within the latter does not have strong support even amongst Nostraticists.
It is too early to evaluate the hypotheses of remoter affiliations in which Nostratic itself is incorporated into an even broader linguistic 'mega-phylum', sometimes called Borean, which would also include at least the Dené-Caucasian, and perhaps the Amerind and Austric superfamilies.
Background: From Indo-European to Nostratic
One can best understand the concept of the Nostratic languages 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 in 1786, he backed up his idea with a systematic examination of what one might term "phono-semantic sets" — words which, in different languages, had both similar sounds and meanings. Jones essentially argued that too many of these sets occurred for mere coincidence to explain their existence, 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.
A second major concept to keep in mind involves the argument, starting with Jacob Grimm, 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. Comparative linguists have done this, producing parts of the hypothetical language, named Proto-Indo-European.
A third concept suggests 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 receive essentially random names 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 features many words related to agriculture, animal husbandry, and plains-like landscapes. From this, scholars have plausibly argued that Proto-Indo-European existed as a living language some time from 6000 BC to 4000 BC, in the plains to the north of the Black Sea. (As a measure of the difficulty of this task, some argue that the reconstructed vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European, together with other known information about migrations, indicates a northern Anatolian landscape, although this area notably lacks flat ground.)
Altogether, the Indo-European hypothesis has proven 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. On the face of it, though, it is logical that the family tree could converge further, and that some or all language families could be related to one another.
The phonemes tabulated below are commonly reconstructed for the Proto-Nostratic language (Kaiser & Shevoroshkin 1988). Allan R. Bomhard, who relies more heavily on Indo-European and less on the other Nostratic branches than the "Moscow School", reconstructs a different vowel system, with three pairs of vowels connected by Ablaut: /a/-/ə/, /e/-/i/, /o/-/u/.
|Bilabial||Alveolar or dental||Alveolopalatal||Postalveolar||Velar||Uvular||Pharyngeal||Glottal|
¹ These phonemes do not occur in some or most reconstructions of Proto-Nostratic.
² [j] is of course the voiced palatal approximant; it is included here among the postalveolars for mere space reasons.
|Close||/i/ • /y/¹||/u/|
¹ This phoneme does not occur in all non-Bomhard reconstructions of Proto-Nostratic.
The following table is compiled from data given by Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988) and Starostin. Because linguists working on Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, and Proto-Dravidian do not usually use the IPA, the transcriptions used in those fields are also given. The IPA symbols are between slashes because this is a phonemic transcription. The exact values of the phoneme "p1" in Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Dravidian are unknown. "0" indicates disappearance without a trace. Hyphens indicate different developments at the beginning and in the interior of words; no consonants ever occurred at the ends of word roots. Starostin's list of affricate and fricative correspondences does not mention Afro-Asiatic or Dravidian, and Kaiser & Shevoroshkin don't mention these sounds much; thence the holes in the table.
Note that, due to lack of research, there are at present several different mutually incompatible reconstructions of Proto-Afro-Asiatic. The one used here has been said to be based too strongly on Proto-Semitic.
Similarly, the paper by Kaiser & Shevoroshkin is much older than the newest Altaic Etymological Dictionary (2003; see Altaic languages article) and therefore assumes a somewhat different phonological system of Proto-Altaic. I have tried to fix this below, but I'm not sure how the different reconstructions correspond to each other.
The reconstruction of voiced and voiceless instead of short and long plosives in Proto-Dravidian follows a mention in G. Starostin (1998) and the usage of the first External Link below. These sources also reconstruct a contrast between dental and alveolar plosives in Proto-Dravidian (in addition to the retroflexes) which I cannot match to anything in Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988). Help would be appreciated!
|/p/¹||p, b /p/, /b/||"p1"-, -/p/-, -/b/-||/p/, /b/||/p/-, -/p/-, -/b/-||p /p/||"p1"-, -p-, -v- -/p/-, /v/-|
|/t/||d /d/||/t/||/t/||/d/||t /t/||d-, -t-, -d- /d/-, -/t/-, -/d/-|
|/k/||g, ǵ, gʷ /g/, /gʲ/, /gʷ/²||/k/||/k/||/k/-, -/g/-||k /k/||g-, -k-, -g- /g/-, -/k/-, -/g/-|
|/q/||h2 /χ/³||/χ/||/q/||0-, -/k/-, -/g/-||-k- 0-, -/k/-||-g- 0-, -/g/-|
|/ʔ/||h1 /ʔ/³||/ʔ/||/h/ > 0||0||0||0|
|/p̕/||p /p/||/p/||/p̕/-, /p/-||/pʰ/-, -/p/-, -/b/-||p-, -pp-, -p- /p/-, -/pː/-, -/p/-||b-, -p-, -v- /b/-, -/p/-, -/v/-|
|/t̕/||t /t/||/t̕/, /t/||/t̕/||/tʰ/-, -/t/-||t-, -tt-, -t /t/-, -/tː/-, -/t/-||d-, -t-, -d /d/-, -/t/-, -/d/-|
|/k̕/||k, ḱ, kʷ /k/, /kʲ/, /kʷ/²||/k̕/||/k̕/||/kʰ/-, -/k/-||k-, -kk-, -k- /k/-, -/kː/-, -/k/-||g-, -k-, -g- /g/-, -/k/-, -/g/-|
|/q̕/||k, ḱ, kʷ /k/, /kʲ/, /kʷ/²||/k̕/||/q̕/-, -/k̕/-||/kʰ/-, -/k/-||k-, -kk- /k/-, -/kː/-||g-, -k-, -g- /g/-, -/k/-, -/g/-|
|/b/||bʰ /bʱ/||/b/||/b/||/b/||p-, -w- /p/-, -/w/-||b-, -v-, -p- /b/-, -/v/-, -/p/-|
|/d/||dʰ /dʱ/||/d/||/d/||/d/||t-, -δ- /t/-, -/ð/-||d-, -ṭ-, -ḍ- /d/-, -/ʈ/-, -/ɖ/-|
|/g/||gʰ, ǵʰ, gʰʷ /gʱ/, /gʲʱ/, /gʷʱ/²||/g/||/g/||/g/||k-, -x- /k/-, -/ʁ/-³||g- /g/-, -0-|
|/ɢ/||h3 /ʁ/³||/ʁ/||/ʁ/||0-, -/g/-||-x- 0-, -/ʁ/-³||0|
|/t͡s/||sk-, -s- /sk/-, -/s/-||/t͡s/, /t͡ɕ/||/t͡ʃʰ/||ć /t͡ɕ/|
|/t͡ɬ/||s-, -l- /s/-, -/l/-||/t͡ɬ/-, -/l/-||/l/||j- /j/-|
|/t͡ɕ/||sk-, -s- /sk/-, -/s/-||-/s/-||-/t͡ɕ/-||-/s/-||-ć- -/t͡ɕ/-||-c- -/c/-|
|/t͡ʃ/||st-, s- /st/-, /s/-||/t͡ʃ/||/t͡ʃʰ/||ć /t͡ɕ/|
|/t͡s̕/||sk-, -s- /sk/-, -/s/-||/t͡s/, /t͡ɕ/||/s/||ć /t͡ɕ/|
|/t͡ʃ̕/||st /st/||/t͡ʃ/||/t͡ʃʰ/-, -/s/-||č, š /t͡ʃ/, /ʃ/|
|/d͡z/||s /s/||/z/-||/d͡z/, /d͡ʑ/, /z/, /ʑ/||/d͡ʒ/||s, ś /s/, /ɕ/|
|/d͡ʒ/||st /st/||/d͡ʒ/||/d͡ʒ/||č /t͡ʃ/|
|/s/||s /s/||/s/||/s/, /ɕ/||/s/||s, ś /s/, /ɕ/||j /ɟ/|
|/ɬ/||/l/||/l/||/l/||/l/||-x-? -/ɬ/-³||/d/, /ɭ/|
|/ʃ/||s /s/||/ʃ/||/s/||š /ʃ/|
|/χ/||h2 /χ/³||/ħ/||/χ/||0-||0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?³||0-|
|/ħ/||h1 /h/³||/ħ/||/h/ > 0||0-||0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?³||0-|
|/h/||h2? /χ/³||/h/||/h/ > 0||0-||0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?³||0-|
|/ʁ/||h3 /ʁ/³||/ʕ/||/ʁ/||0-||0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?³||0-|
|/ʕ/||h1 /h/³||/ʕ/||/h/ > 0||0-||0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?³||0-|
|/m/||m /m/||/m/||/m/||/m/, /b/||m /m/||m /m/|
|/n/||/n/||/n/||-/n/-||-/n/-||/n/||n-, -n-, -ṉ- /n̪/-, -/n̪/-, -/n̺/-|
|/nʲ/||y-/i̯-, n- /j/-, /n/-||/n/||/nʲ/-, -/n/-?||ń /nʲ/||-ṇ-? -/ɳ/|
|/ŋ/||-n- -/n/-||-/n/-||-/m/-?||-/nʲ/-||ŋ /ŋ/||n-, -ṉ-, -t- /n̪/-, -/n̺/-, -/t/-|
|/r/||r /r/||/r/||/r/||/l/-?, -/r/-||r /r/||n-, -r-, -ṟ- /n̪/-, -/r/-, -/r̺/-|
|/rʲ/||r /r/||/r/||/r/||/rʲ/||r /r/||ṛ /ɻ/|
|/w/||w/u̯ /w/||/w/, /u/||/w/, /u/||/b/-?, 0-, -/b/-, -0-, /u/||w, u /w/, /u/||v-, 0-, -v- /v/-, 0-, -/v/-|
|/l/||l /l/||/l/||/l/||/l/||l /l/||n-, -l- /n̪/-, -/l/-|
|/lʲ/||l /l/||/l/||/r/, /l/||/lʲ/||l' /lʲ/||ḷ /ɭ/|
|/j/||y/i̯ /j/||/j/||/j/-||/j/||j /j/||y /j/|
|/a/||e, a /e/, /a/||/e/||/a/||a /a/||a /a/|
|/e/||e /e/, 0||/e/, 0||/e/||e /e/||e, i /e/, /i/|
|/i/||ai̯, e, ei̯, i /ai̯/, /e/, /ei̯/, /i/, 0||/e/, /i/, 0||/i/||i /i/||i /i/|
|/o/||e, o /e/, /o/||/we/ ~ /wa/||/o/||o /o/||o, a /o/, /a/|
|/u/||au̯, e, eu̯, u /au̯/, /e/, /eu̯/, /u/||/u/ ~ /wa/||/u/||u /u/||u, o /u/, /o/|
|/æ/||e /e/||/e/, /a/, /aː/||/æ/||ä /æ/||a /a/|
|/y/||e /e/||/u/||/y/, /ø/||ü /y/||u /u/|
To be completed and updated further.
- ¹ Some (such as Kaiser & Shevoroshkin, 1988) regard the inconsistency in the evolution of this phoneme as evidence that it did not exist. Compare the extreme, and mysterious, rarity of its expected derivative, /b/, in Proto-Indo-European.
- ² Which phoneme appears in Proto-Indo-European depends on the vowel that followed it in Proto-Nostratic: a following /a/ kept the consonant plain (and changed itself into /e/ in the process); a following /æ/, /e/, or /i/ produced palatalization (and became /e/ in the process), except in the cases where /i/ became a diphthong; and a following /o/, /u/, or /y/ produced labialization (and again became /e/ in the process), except where /u/ became a diphthong.
- 3 The values of the Proto-Indo-European h1, h2, h3 and of the Proto-Uralic x are controversial; the only evidence for the precise values shown here comes from the comparison with other Nostratic languages.
- 4 In Proto-Indo-European, all vowels became /e/ unless preceded by /ʔ/ or diphthongized or affected by Ablaut. The latter phenomenon prevents reconstruction of the vowels of most Proto-Afro-Asiatic roots; in addition, /i/ partially merged with /j/ and /u/ (at least sometimes derived from Proto-Nostratic /u/, /o/, and /y/) with /w/. Kartvelian, too, has Ablaut.
Because grammar is less easily borrowed than words, grammar is usually considered stronger evidence for language relationships than vocabulary. The following correspondences (slightly modified to account for the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic by Starostin et al. ) have been suggested by Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988); /N/ could be any nasal consonant, /V/ could be any vowel. The above cautionary notes on Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian apply.
|/na/ "originally a locative particle"¹||en /en/ "in"||-/n/||/nu/, /n/²||-na -/na/||-/na/|
|/Na/ or /Næ/ "animate plural"||-/aːn/||-/(e)n/||-NV -/NV/²|
|-/t̕V/ "inanimate plural"³||4||-/æt/||-/t/-||-/tʰ/-||-t -/t/|
|-/k̕a/ "diminutive"||-k- -/k/-||-/ak̕/-, -/ik̕/||-/ka/||-kka, -kkä -/kːa/, -/kːæ/||5|
|/s(V)/ "causative-desiderative"||-se- -/se/-||/ʃV/-, -/ʃ/-||-/su/, -/sa/||-ij -/iɟ/-|
|/t̕V/- "causative-reflexive"||/tV/-||-/t/-6||-t(t)- -/t(ː)/-||-t- -/t/-|
|/mæ/ "prohibitive"||mē /meː/||/m(j)/||/maː/, /moː/||/mæ/, /bæ/||ma- /ma/-|
|/k̕o/ "intensifying and copulative"||-kʷe -/kʷe/ "and"7||/k(w)/||/kwe/||-/ka/||-ka, -kä -/ka/, -/kæ/|
- ¹ Quote from Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988), p. 313.
- ² Marked with a question mark in Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988).
- ³ The Eskimo-Aleutan languages, too, have a plural marker -/t/. – Like them, Proto-Altaic did not distinguish animate and inanimate nouns.
- 4 The Proto-Indo-European animate plural marker -s has been suggested to belong here.
- 5 The Kurukh language has -/kan/.
- 6 Only in Proto-Turkic and its descendants.
- 7 As in Latin senatus populusque romanus "the Roman senate and people".
In addition, Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988, p. 314f.) write the following about Proto-Nostratic grammar (two asterisks are used for reconstructions based on reconstructions; citation format changed):
"The verb stood at the end of the sentence (SV and SOV type). The 1st p[er]s[on] was formed by adding the 1st ps. pronoun **mi to the verb; similarly, the 2nd ps. was formed by adding **ti. There were no endings for the 3rd ps. present [or at least none can be reconstructed], while the 3rd ps. preterit ending was **-di (Illich-Svitych 1971, pp. 218–19). Verbs could be active and passive, causative, desiderative, and reflective; and there were special markers for most of these categories. Nouns could be animate or inanimate, and plural markers differed for each category. There were subject and object markers, locative and lative enclitic particles, etc. Pronouns distinguished direct and oblique forms, animate and inanimate categories, notions of the type 'near':'far', inclusive:exclusive […], etc. Apparently there were no prefixes. Nostratic words were either equal to roots or built by adding endings or suffixes. There are some cases of word composition […]"
A sample Nostratic etymology
As an example of the kind of etymologies put forward by supporters of the Nostratic hypothesis, we can cite the following (from Bomhard and Kerns, The Nostratic Macrofamily, p. 219).
- Proto-Nostratic *bar-/*bər- 'seed, grain':
- A. Proto-Indo-European *b[h]ars- 'grain': Latin far 'spelt, grain'; Old Icelandic barr 'barley'; Old English bere 'barley'; Old Church Slavonic brašъno '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 *b[h]ar(s)-.
- B. Proto-Afro-Asiatic *bar-/*bər- 'grain, cereal': Proto-Semitic *barr-/*burr 'grain, cereal' > Hebrew bar 'grain'; Arabic burr 'wheat'; Akkadian burru 'a cereal'; Sabaean brr 'wheat'; Harsūsi berr 'corn, maize, wheat'; Mehri ber 'corn, maize, wheat'. Cushitic: Somali bur 'wheat'. (?) Proto-Southern Cushitic *bar-/*bal- 'grain (generic) > Iraqw balaŋ 'grain'; Burunge baru 'grain'; Alagwa balu 'grain' K'wadza balayiko 'grain'. Ehret 1980:338.
- C. Dravidian: Tamil paral 'pebble, seed, stone of fruit'; Malayalam paral 'grit, coarse grain, gravel, cowry shell'; Kota parl 'pebble, one grain (of any grain)'; Kannaḍ
a paral, paral 'pebble, stone' Koḍ agu para 'pebble'; Tuḷ u parelụ 'grain of sand, grit, gravel, grain of corn, etc.; castor seed'; Kolami Parca 'gravel'. Burrow-Emeneau 1984:353, no. 3959.
- D. Sumerian bar 'seed'.
— This exemplifies 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'. Were one to collect all the words from the various known Indo-European languages and dialects which have at least one of these 4 meanings, one could easily form a list that would cover any conceivable combination of two consonants and a vowel (of which there are only about 20*20*5=2000).
— 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:
- 'grain' of sand (= 'pebble, gravel, grit, etc.')
- 'grain' of salt (= small crystal of salt)
- 'grain' = 'seed' or 'fruit' of a cereal grass
- overall term for plants producing 'grain'
- 'grain' of wood (= stratification of wood fibers)
- 'small quantity', a 'minute portion', or the 'least amount possible' (as in, 'not a grain of truth in what she said'), etc.
— Yet others argue that the terms on this list are not all from equal eras. The usage of the word grain in 'a grain of truth' is far predated by the usage of the word 'grain'.
For comparison, here is a typical Indo-European etymology (from Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, p. 598):
- PIE *pʰ
eis-/*pʰ is- 'thresh; mill (grain)': Ved. Skt. pináṣṭi 'threshes; grinds', piṣṭá- 'threshed, ground', Avest. pišant- 'threshing', Gk. ptíssō 'thresh, grind', Lat. pīnsō 'thresh, grind', Lith. paisýti 'thresh barley a second time, cleaning it of husks' (Būga 1958-1961:I.300), Czech pěchovati 'stamp, pound, ram down'; nominal derivatives: Skt. peṣṭar- 'one who threshes', Lat. pistor 'miller, baker', pīsō 'mortar', pīlum, pistillum 'pestle', MHG vīsel 'mortar', OCS pĭšeno 'meal, flour', OPruss. som-pisinis 'bread made from coarse-ground flour'.
Further proposed cognates
The following are taken from Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998) (and transcribed into IPA). The same cautionary notes as for the sound correspondence table apply.
Personal pronouns are seldom borrowed between languages. Therefore the many correspondences between Nostratic pronouns are rather strong evidence for the existence of a Proto-Nostratic language. The difficulty of finding Afro-Asiatic cognates is, however, taken by some as evidence that Nostratic has two or three branches, Afro-Asiatic and Eurasiatic (and possibly Dravidian), and that most or all of the pronouns in the following table can only be traced to Proto-Eurasiatic.
Nivkh is a living (if moribund) language with an orthography, which is given here. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed.
For space reasons, Etruscan is not included, but the fact that it had /mi/ "I" and /mini/ "me" seems to fit the pattern reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic ideally, leading some to argue that the Aegaean or Tyrsenian languages were yet another Nostratic branch.
There does not appear to be a reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo-Aleut, even though the existence of the Eskimo-Aleutan family is generally accepted.
|/mi/², -/mi/³||/me/, /mi/||/bi/||mi /mi/||/met/||ни /ni/||¹||/wi/ "I", -/mkət/ "I [act on] thee"|
| /t̕i/ and/or
|ti /ti/||5||/tet/|| тъи, чи
|"thee" (oblique)|| /t̕inV/ and/or
|te- /te/-||/si/-, /se/-|| /tʰin/-
|tū- /tuː/-||-/mkət/ "I [act on] thee"|
|"we (inclusive)"||/mæ/||we-, -me- /we/-, -/me/- "we"||/m(n)/²||/men/-, /m/-|| /ba/ (nominative),
/myn/- (oblique) "we"
|mä-~me- /mæ/-~/me/- "we"|| ma~mā
|/mit/ "we"|| мер
|"we (exclusive)"||/na/||ne- /ne/- "we"8||/naħnu/9||/naj/, /n/-10||nām /naːm/ "we"|
|"you (plural)"||/t̕æ/||-te -/te/11||?/t(V)/|| /tʰV/
- ¹ From Indo-European data alone, this difference between "I" and "me" seems impossible to explain. Based on comparisons to other Nostratic languages, however, some linguists (e. g. Ruhlen, 1998) interpret "I" as a compound of a Proto-Nostratic demonstrative pronoun /ʔe/~/ʔi/, a Proto-Nostratic (or Proto-Eurasiatic) verb /gæ/~/ge/~/gi/ that probably meant "to be", and -/m/ – in short, "that's me" (that demonstrative pronoun, is verb, and a derivative of Proto-Nostratic /minV/) or "c'est moi" (ce demonstrative pronoun, est verb, and another derivative of Proto-Nostratic /minV/). As support, Ruhlen (1998) cites Chukchi -/eɣəm/ and /ɣem/ "I" and -/eɣət/ and /ɣet/ "thou", Itelmen ким /kim/ "I" and ма /ma/ "me", the Proto-Eskimo suffix -/mkət/ (see table), and several Uralic occurrences like Kamassian /igæm/ "I am" or Hungarian engemet /ɛmgɛmɛt/ "me", tégedet /teːgɛdɛt/ "thee" (where -et is the accusative ending). Norquest (1998) cites many of the same forms and adds "Western Kamchadal" /kəmːa/ "I" and /kəzːa/ "thou".
- ² Chadic only.
- ³ A Cushitic verb suffix.
- 4 Genitive.
- 5 Brahui has -/ti/ as the expected verb suffix; other Dravidian languages do not seem to have a cognate.
- 6 /c/ may have been [c] or [t͡ʃ].
- 7 Amur dialect only.
- 8 In Proto-Indo-European the derivatives of /mæ/ and /na/ are thought to have fused, the former becoming the nominative stem and the latter the oblique stem. See Proto-Indo-European pronouns and particles for the whole declension paradigm. – Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988) report that it has been speculated that Proto-Indo-European /ne/- had "an archaic meaning of exclusivity", which is, according to them, untestable from Indo-European data alone, but "strongly corroborated" by comparison with other Nostratic languages.
- 9 Exclusive meaning only in Chadic.
- 10 Verb prefix with exclusive meaning only in Svan.
- 11 Verb suffix.
Below are selected reconstructed etymologies from Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998). Reconstructed ( = unattested) forms are marked with an asterisk. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed; likewise, /E/ could have been any front vowel and /N/ any nasal consonant. Only the consonants are given of Proto-Afro-Asiatic roots (see above).
- Proto-Nostratic */k̕o/ or */q̕o/ 'who'
- Proto-Indo-European *kʷo- /kʷo/- 'who', kʷi- /kʷi/- (with suffix -i-) 'what'. Ancestors of the English wh- words.
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic */k̕(w)/ and /k(w)/ 'who'. The change from ejective to plain consonants in Proto-Afro-Asiatic is apparently regular in grammatical words (Kaiser & Shevoroshkin 1988; see also */tV/ instead of */t̕V/ above).
- Proto-Altaic ?*/kʰa/-. The presence of /a/ instead of /o/ is unexplained, but Kaiser & Shevoroshkin (1988) regard this alternation as common among Nostratic languages.
- Proto-Uralic *ko-~ku- /ko/-~/ku/- 'who'
- "Yukaghir" (Northern, Southern, or both?) кин /kin/ 'who'
- Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */mki/, */mkin/- 'who'
- Proto-Eskimo-Aleut */ken/ 'who'
- Proto-Nostratic */k̕ærd/, */k̕erd/, or */k̕ird/ 'heart~chest' (Kaiser & Shevoroshkin 1988; the Proto-Eskimo form given by Bengtson  may indicate that the vowel was /æ/ or not)
- Proto-Indo-European *ḱerd- /kʲerd/- 'heart'. The occurrence of *d instead of *dʰ is regular: voiceless and aspirated consonants never occur together in the same Proto-Indo-European root.
- Afro-Asiatic: Proto-Chadic */k̕Vrd/- 'chest'
- Proto-Kartvelian */mk̕erd-/ (/m/ being a prefix) 'chest~breast'
- Proto-Eskimo */qatə/ 'heart~breast'; the presence of /q/ instead of /k/ is not clear.
- Proto-Nostratic */q̕iwlV/ 'ear~hear'
- Proto-Indo-European *ḱleu̯- /kʲleu̯/- 'hear'. Ancestor of English listen, loud.
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic */k̕(w)l/ 'hear'
- Proto-Kartvelian */q̕ur/ 'ear'
- Proto-Altaic */kʰul/- 'ear'
- Proto-Uralic *kūle- /kuːle/- (long vowel from fusion of -/iw/-) 'hear'
- Proto-Dravidian *kēḷ /keːɭ/ 'hear' must figure out if it's /g/- instead
- Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */vilvV/, possibly from earlier /kʷilwV/ 'ear'
- Proto-Nostratic */kiwæ/~/kiwe/~/kiwi/ 'stone'
- Afro-Asiatic: Proto-Chadic */kw/- 'stone'
- Proto-Kartvelian */kwa/- 'stone'
- Proto-Uralic *kiwe- /kiwe/- 'stone'
- Proto-Dravidian */kwa/ 'stone'
- Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */xəvxə/ 'stone'; Kamchadal квал /kβal/, ков /koβ/ 'stone'
- Proto-Eskimo-Aleut */kew/- 'stone'
- Proto-Nostratic */wete/ 'water'
- Proto-Indo-European *wed- /wed/- 'water~wet'
- Altaic: Proto-Tungusic */ødV/ 'water'
- Proto-Uralic *wete /wete/ 'water'
- Proto-Dravidian *ōtV-~wetV- /oːtV/-~/wetV/- 'wet'
- Proto-Nostratic */burV/ 'storm'
- Proto-Indo-European *bʰer- /bʱer/- 'storm'
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic (?) */bwr/- 'storm'
- Proto-Altaic */burV/~/borV/ 'storm'
- Proto-Uralic *purki /purki/- 'snow storm~smoke' -/k/- unexplained
- Proto-Nostratic */qant̕V/ 'front side'
- Proto-Indo-European *h2ant- /χant/- 'front side'
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic */χnt/ 'front side'; the change from */nt̕/ to */nt/ is apparently regular
- Proto-Altaic */antV/- 'front side'
- Proto-Nostratic */d͡zeɢV/ 'eat'
- Proto-Indo-European *seh3(w)- /seʁ(w)/- 'satiated'
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic (?) */zʁ/- 'be fed'~'be abundant'
- Proto-Kartvelian */d͡zeʁ/- 'become sated'
- Proto-Altaic */d͡ʒeː/ 'eat'
- Proto-Uralic *sexE /seʁE/ 'eat'
- Proto-Nostratic */nʲamo/ 'grasp'
- Proto-Indo-European *i̯em- /jem/- 'grasp'
- Proto-Dravidian *ñamV- /ɲamV/- 'grasp'
- Proto-Nostratic */k̕ut̕V/ 'little'
- Proto-Afro-Asiatic */k̕(w)t̕/~/k(w)t̕/~/kt/ 'little'
- Proto-Kartvelian */k̕ut̕/~/k̕ot̕/ 'little'
- Proto-Dravidian *kuḍḍ- /kuɖː/- 'little' must figure out if plosives correct
Allan Bomhard and Colin Renfrew are in broad agreement with the earlier conclusions of Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky in seeking the Nostratic urheimat within the Mesolithic or Epipaleolithic Middle East, the stage which directly preceded the Neolithic and was transitional to it. Looking at the cultural assemblages of this period, two sequences in particular stand out as being possible archeological correlates of the earliest Nostratians or their immediate precursors.
The first of these is focussed on Palestine. The Kebaran culture of Palestine (18,000-10,500 BCE) not only introduced the microlithic assembly into the region; it also has African affinity, specifically with the Ouchtata retouch technique associated with the microlithic Halfan culture of Egypt (24-17,000 BCE). The Kebarans in their turn were directly ancestral to the succeeding Natufian culture of Palestine and the Levant (10,500-8,500 BCE) which has enormous significance for prehistorians as the clearest evidence of hunters and gatherers in actual transition to Neolithic food production. Both cultures extended their influence outside the region into Southern Anatolia: for example in Cilicia the Belbaşi culture (13-10,000 BCE) has Kebaran influence whilst the Beldibi (10-8,500 BCE) shows clear Natufian influence.
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. In Western Iran the M’lefatian (10,500-9,000 BCE) culture was ancestral to the assemblages of Ali Tappah (9,000-5,000 BCE) and Jeitun (6,000-4,000 BCE). Even further east the Hissar culture has been seen as the Mesolithic precursor to the Keltiminar (5,500-3,500 BCE) culture of the Kirghiz Steppe.
To have spread so widely suggests some cultural advantages were possessed by these people. It has been proposed that the broad spectrum revolution of Andrew Sherratt, associated with microliths, the use of the bow and arrow, and the domestication of the dog, all of which are associated with these cultures, may have been the cultural "motor" that led to their expansion. Certainly cultures with these adaptations (at Franchthi cave in the Aegean, Lipinski Vir in the Balkans, and the Murzak-Koba (9,100-8,000 BCE) and Grebenki (8,500-7,000 BCE) cultures of the Ukrainian steppe, all of which had these cultural adaptations.
The search for a cultural urheimat for the Nostratic languages will of course only continue if the existence of the language family becomes firmly established.
Criticisms of the Nostratic theory
- Certain critiques have pointed out that the data from individual, established language families that is cited in Nostratic comparisons often involves a high degree of errors; Campbell (1998) demonstrates this for Uralic data.
- The technique of comparing grammatical structures (as opposed to words) has suggested to some that the Nostratic candidates lack interrelatedness.
However, some grammatical endings and words have been reconstructed to proto-Nostratic.
The late Vladislav Illich-Svitych, a notable Russian Nostraticist, decided to create a poem using his version of Proto-Nostratic. (Compare Schleicher's fable for similar attempts with several different reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European.) The famous poem is as follows:
|Nostratic (Illich-Svitych's spelling)||Nostratic (IPA)||Russian||English|
elH ä wet̥ ei ʕaK̥ un kähla || /K̕elHæ wet̕ei ʕaK̕un kæhla/ || Язык – это брод через реку времени, || Language is a ford through the river of time,
aλai palhʌ-k̥ ʌ na wetä || /k̕at͡ɬai palhVk̕V na wetæ/ || он ведёт нас к жилищу умерших; || it leads us to the dwelling of the dead;
| śa da ʔa-k̥
ʌ ʔeja ʔälä || /ɕa da ʔak̕V ʔeja ʔælæ/ || но туда не сможет дойти тот, || but he cannot arrive there,
o pele t̥ uba wete || /jak̕o pele t̕uba wete/ || кто боится глубокой воды. || who fears deep water.
The value of K̥
or K̕ is uncertain -- it could be /k̕/ or /q̕/; H could similarly be at least /h/ or /ħ/; V or ʌ is an uncertain vowel.
¹ Actually /q̕/ in Georgian.
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