Language Isolates Part III (Eurasia)

This post is going to be a jump across the Atlantic (or Pacific?) from the American case studies, but I intend to go back to North America shortly. For now, it is time to have a look at Eurasia. This is the continent where most models were created. Historical linguistics as a discipline itself was born from the similarities noticed between Sanskrit and its European classical relatives. The farming-language dispersal hypothesis was based on the Indo-European spread with the Neolithic from Anatolia into Europe (alternative models, such as elite dominance, were equally developed to account for that same expansion, this time from the Pontic steppe during the Bronze Age). Finally, Johanna Nichols’ distinction between spread and friction zones is derived from the Eurasian language distribution. Perhaps a good exercise would be to try to think of Eurasia as a (giant) exception rather than the rule in terms of language distribution.

eurasia
Major language families and isolates of Eurasia

First of all, a very small number of language families (less than ten) accounts for almost all of the nearly 55 million km2 of the continent. Indo-European alone can be found at all the extremes (north, south, east and west) of Eurasia. The number of language isolates and small families is reduced when compared to the Americas. Some of the isolates shown on the map above are no longer spoken, but we are fortunate enough to have written records of them (in fact, for Sumerian, we have the earliest written records). Isolates in Eurasia appear in all parts of the continent, but prevail in mountainous areas (Basque, Burushaski, Kusunda) and the extremities of the continent (Nivkh, Ainu).

I tried to be inclusive in the map above, showing historical isolates together with living ones. Vedda, in Sri Lanka, is notably absent, since the language of those hunter-gatherers is based on Sinhalese with an unknown substratum (i.e. there is really no evidence about their original language). Korean is technically an isolate, but I didn’t find it fair to include it side-by-side with, let’s say, Burushaski, given the large area where the first is spoken (my criteria are a bit arbitrary, I admit).

Now, let’s briefly review the situation of Eurasia. From west to east: Basque is probably the remnant of a Neolithic language family once spoken in western Europe (I have briefly commented on that on my first post about language isolates). The other major isolate of mainland Europe is Etruscan, the cultural antecedents of the Romans from whose language Latin borrowed so many words (even frequent ones that made it to English, like person). Etruscan could have been part of a hypothetical family called Tyrsenian, together with languages once spoken in the Alpine region.

I have included Minoan, the language of the Bronze Age palaces of Crete before Greek was introduced. Although there have been attempts of connecting it to the Semitic languages, it is still undeciphered, and fits very well with the typical isolate setting (it was spoken in an island, after all!). It could have survived until the classical Antiquity, as there are in the island a few inscriptions in Greek alphabet rendering a mysterious language called Eteocretan. Not far away, the region of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, cradle of civilisation and home to astonishing developments since the Neolithic, was itself home to quite a few isolates. I shall comment a bit more about Sumerian below.

knossos
Knossos, Crete. The island was home to a language isolate, Minoan, until Greek was introduced and borrowed the native syllabic script (Linear A).

In the Himalayas and surroundings we have Burushaski, nowadays very geographically restricted to two river valleys of northern Pakistan (where the armies of Alexander the Great once marched), and Kusunda, a language still spoken in Nepal but until recently believed to be extinct. Ket, spoken in the Yenisei valley of Siberia, was once part of the Yeniseian family – and now famous due to the supposed demonstration by Edward Vajda of the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis, that connects it to languages spoken in North America. Finally, at the easternmost shores of the continent, Ainu is most likely another Neolithic survivor, descending from the languages of the Jomon culture later pushed to the north when Japanese was introduced from the mainland.

All these languages are very different from the more widespread families that surround them, so let us do the same exercise as in the South American case from a previous post and have a look at some basic vocabulary.

Seven words in Eurasian languages

euralang-01
Comparison of seven basic words in the major language families of Eurasia. The words are the same as in the Basque example from the first post and have a high retention rate in the Indo-European languages. Instead of IPA, I decided to use the standard spelling or transliteration for each language.

The similarities are more evident in the left half of the table (compare name in Indo-European and Uralic, or tongue in Uralic and Mongolic). Nevertheless, all families with the exception of Sino-Tibetan are part of the Nostratic proposal of Illich-Svytich and, later, Dogopolsky and Bomhard. Another famous shared word that could be quoted is water (from PIE *wodr-) and Finnish vesi (from PU *wete). Both this supposed cognate and the one for ‘name’, however, might well be ancient loanwords. The basis for the Nostratic hypothesis, of course, is not just shared vocabulary, but some significant similarities in the pronoun system and inflectional morphology.

nostr-01
My favourite Nostratic etymology (Bomhard’s reconstruction is given in parentheses after Dolgopolsky’s). The word for ‘body of water’ is found in a ‘belt’ across Eurasia.

For example, the first and second persons in the Indo-European and Uralic languages are quite similar: compare Spanish me / te (acc.) and Finnish minä / sinä (sg.) or even me / te (pl.). The resemblance can also be noted in the verb conjugation: compare modern Greek ξέρ-ουμε (we know), ξέρ-ετε (you [pl.] know) and Finnish puhu-mme (we speak), puhu-tte (you [pl.] speak). To that, we might add Turkish geli-yor-um (I come), geli-yor-sun (you come). Thus, the pair m : t (1st, 2nd person) appears in independent pronouns and as verb suffixes. Curiously, a parallel (n : m) was also proposed as being almost ubiquitous among the Amerind languages (since I did not write about that in the South American posts, I might have to wait for a future post on the New World). Finally, it is worth mentioning that the most widespread Eurasian families are heavily suffixing (e.g. Turkish inan-ma-d[ı]-ın.ız [believe-NEG-PST-2.pl] ‘you did not believe’), a contrast with the typically prefixing American pattern.

Although the validity of Nostratic (or Greenberg’s ‘Eurasian’, an even more inclusive macro-family encompassing, for example, Eskimo-Aleut) as a genetic grouping has been highly questioned, I like to see all the ‘clues’ above as indicating at least a shared history of contact between some language families (e.g. those of the Nostratic proposal) at the expense of others (e.g. Sino-Tibetan). I also like to think of the Amerind evidence as pointing to pretty much the same scenario (another, more ‘extreme’ example may be Australia – if Dixon’s theory of punctuated equilibrium is right, millennia of convergence of previously unrelated languages could create the illusion of genetic relatedness).

Unlike some of the South American cases, the isolates in Eurasia are distinguished not only by vocabulary, but also by generally exhibiting an unusual morphology, clearly standing out in relation to the languages that surround them. I have briefly mentioned a few examples of Basque, including a compared basic vocabulary, in the introductory post, but I would like to be more specific now. Let’s see how the structure of Basque compares to Spanish with a few sentences rendered in both languages:

basque2-01

Unlike Spanish, Basque marks the definite with a suffix (-a). Furthermore, unlike most European languages, Basque is an ergative language, marking the agent of a transitive verb (e.g. ‘to see’) with the suffix -k, and leaving the object or the subject of an intransitive verb (‘to come’) unmarked. Finally, the verb morphology is quite different from Spanish and most European languages, with affixes referencing both agent and patient (n- ‘me’). As can be seen in the sentences above, English and Spanish are, in contrast with Basque, almost identical in structure.

Jomon and the Ainu

Let us move to another example, Ainu, which is in a similar situation to Basque. Ainu was probably part of a wider family of languages that once extended throughout Japan. The archaeological correlate of that is Jomon, a Mesolithic culture that developed one of the oldest ceramics of the world (ca. 12,000 years ago) even before the advent of farming (several other ancient ceramics appear associated with fishing cultures in Asia). Later, around 2,300 years before present, the Yayoi culture brought Bronze artefacts with Chinese-inspired motifs to Japan, together with rice agriculture – and, presumably, the Japanese language – pushing the Jomon to the north. Now, the Ainu, descendants of the Jomon, live in Hokkaido and the Sakhalin island, and are genetically quite distinct form the Japanese, although a lot of admixture has been noticed.

jap_ainu2-01

There is not much resemblance except maybe for the numerals in Ainu and Korean (these are, like in Japanese, the ‘native’ numerals and not the Chinese loans that were adopted by both languages). Both Korean and Japanese follow the typical Eurasian pattern, making heavy use of suffixes. This is evident in the verbal system, e.g. in the degrees of politeness and honorifics (Japanese tabe-ta / tabe-mashi-ta ‘[I] ate’; Korean meok-da / meok-seumni-da ‘[I] eat’). As can be seen in the Japanese examples above, suffixes are added for a variety of meanings, and the persons are not really marked in the verb. In contrast, Ainu has prefixes both for agents and patients (k- 1st person, echi- 2nd person).

EME-GIR (Sumerian)

sumerian2-01
A couple of examples of Sumerian, illustrating the verb chain and ergativity. First example is from the story ‘the dream of Dumuzi’.

The final example I want to discuss is Sumerian, which, like Basque, also displays ergativity. The verb morphology is complex. A chain of affixes precedes and follows the verbal root, with conjugation prefixes and cross-referencing of subject and object. See the examples on the right: mu- and ga– are conjugation prefixes of debated meaning. Both agent (-e- 2sg) and patient (-b- 3rd person inanimate) can be marked on the verb. There are even prefixes such as -na- to indicate that some previous word is in the dative case. The same can be said of Ket and Burushaski. I will comment on these interesting parallelisms in the final (?) post about language isolates, after dealing with North America and writing a bit more about the ‘Amerind’ hypothesis. For now, I will conclude with some remarks on the geographical situation of isolates in Eurasia and their cultural and archaeological significance. Before that, just because Sumerian is an extremely interesting language, here is an extended word list. Can you find any similarities with other language families?

Twenty words in Sumerian

sumerian1-01-01

One of the peculiarities of Sumerian is that it was largely a monosyllabic language. We don’t know whether a tone system was in place, as in Mandarin or other monosyllabic languages, but homophonous words are now distinguished in the transliteration by numbers subscript to the word. To the list above, we should add that the same sign and word for ‘blood’ 2 also means ‘to die’. The sign for ‘nose’ is the same, though pronounced differently, for ‘mouth’ (ka) and ‘tooth’ (zu2). The cuneiform for ‘tongue’ eme consists in the same sign with a little extra stroke, in the same way as ‘moon’ itud is a modified sign for ‘sun’. I will comment on how these came to be in a future post about writing and its origins around the world.

standard

Language diversity in the cradle of civilisation

I have commented in the past about how South American isolates tend to cluster in areas of high archaeological diversity and very ancient developments. I also compared these areas to ‘mosaic zones’, where the origins of some widespread language families can be found. Interestingly, something similar happens in Eurasia.

First, needless to say, there are a number of historical isolates in the fertile crescent and its neighbourhood. Minoan, Hattic, Sumerian and Elamite were all spoken in relative proximity, and are all unrelated to each other and to any other family (tentative classifications notwithstanding). There is no doubt that this is one of the oldest centres of origin of farming in the world, as well as having been home to the earliest urbanism and writing in Eurasia, both with the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago.

catal-01
Everything in Çatal Höyük is fascinating, a unique window into our deep past when sedentary village life had just begun. This mural depicts the world’s oldest map: a volcano (the double-peaked mountain in the background) overshadows the settlement (squarish compartmented little houses).

Second, long before that, Anatolia (where Hattic, the isolated language that preceded the Indo-European Hittite, was spoken) witnessed the emergence of some of the largest Neolithic settlements in prehistory, such as the famous Çatal Höyük, around 9,000 years before present. Third, it is worthy of notice that, even before the Neolithic, this region saw the construction of what is possibly the world’s oldest temple – Göbekli Tepe, also in Turkey – complete with a circle of stones engraved with various animals.

Finally, the nature of this mosaic zone is confirmed by linguistic evidence alone: the origins of many language families can be postulated to lie somewhere in the fertile crescent and its surroundings. This is the case of Indo-European, if the Anatolian hypothesis is correct (by the way, I have not written about the Indo-European problem here, as I am planning a future series of posts on mosaic zones, spread zones, and language expansion), as well as Afro-Asiatic and possibly Dravidian and Altaic. This, at least, is the situation envisioned by Colin Renfrew in his introduction to Dolgopolsky, and fits particularly well with the Nostratic proposal that implies that all those families were in geographical proximity in the past.

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