Eurasia-America connections

In the previous post, when I commented about the Amerind hypothesis, I called attention to the fact that most languages in the Americas have similar structures. For example, except for some families clustered on the Pacific side of the continent, they are characterised by: 1) a tendency to use prefixes instead of suffixes; 2) a split ergative alignment for marking the persons in the verbs; and 3) two sets of verbal pronoun prefixes, one of which also functions as possessives. Although language structure seems to be more conservative than vocabulary, providing a good estimate of genetic relationships, these features admittedly could have been diffused over several millennia, or arrived at independently. Or could they? I believe the widespread shared morphology of the American languages is no coincidence, because in Eurasia this pattern is the exception rather than the rule. It can be found in ‘islands’ across the continent, coinciding with many language isolates and small families.

The Islands of Eurasia

Languages in red share similar structures. Unlike most of the widely dispersed Eurasian families (Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic etc.), the isolates and small families pinpointed in the map share many characteristics found in the American languages. Could this be an ancient pattern in the Old World that was wiped out by later language spreads?

Among the languages that preserve similar structures to the Amerind languages are Basque (but only in vestigial form), the several Caucasian families, Ket, Burushaski, Kusunda, Ainu, and the Chukchi-Kamchatka languages. In the past, Sumerian exhibited similar features. Let us look at some examples in these languages:


As in the Amerind cases, of course, most of these languages also make use of suffixes to varying degrees. It is very suggestive that Chukchi, which is geographically closer to the Americas, shows the same pattern that we saw in the previous post in some Amerind languages: in the transitive verbs, prefixes mark the agent and suffixes mark the patient; suffixes are also used to mark the subject of intransitive verbs, or adjectives in this case (e.g. “you were quick” – remember how adjectives can function as verbs in the Amerind languages?). Curiously, Basque and Burushaski have the inverse situation: prefixes for objects, suffixes for subjects. In all cases, except Chukchi and Basque, the prefix set is also used for marking possessive pronouns.

The ‘flexion’ of the word asasarame in Linear A.

I have not included Sumerian examples above because this language will be treated separately below – as is appropriate for the oldest language recorded in writing by mankind. Before that, I would like to point out that not all isolates or small families (living or extinct) in Eurasia follow the ‘Amerind’ pattern. There is no evidence, for example, that Etruscan was predominantly prefixing. I did, however, include Minoan (the language spelled in Linear A) – due to the alternation of a/ja in the a-sa-sa-ra-me paradigm. Such paradigms are similar to those noticed in Linear B by Kober and that were so fundamental for the decipherment by Ventris. A-sa-sa-ra-me occurs frequently in libation formulae written in Linear A and, if this is indeed a word that can be ‘infected’, would receive the prefix j- and the suffix -ana. This is weak evidence, of course, especially given that the word is interpreted as the name of a goddess (not a verb, for example). Moreover, it should not be discarded that Minoan was an Afro-Asiatic language (where affixes like j- and -ana would perfectly pass), as the reading of kuro-01 ku-ro as ‘all’ would support, e.g. Akkadian kalu-01 kalû, Arabic kull-01 kull (but another word of caution here: it does not seem that the word can be reconstructed for Proto-Afro-Asiatic). Although Afro-Asiatic is a geographically vast language family, most of its branches are restricted to North Africa, and quite understandably it does not exhibit the typical Eurasian structures. All in all, I leave Minoan here as a curiosity.

The Nature of Sumerian

Let us briefly examine the grammar of Sumerian with respect to the two main points reviewed above: personal pronoun affixes and verb conjugation. First, unlike all of the previous examples, Sumerian possessive pronouns are suffixed, rather than prefixed to their nouns. The first and second persons sg. are respectively -ĝu and -zu, whereas the first person pl. is marked as -me. These have interesting parallels in Eurasia (m : z could be related to the m : t set, and ĝu, if pronounced /ŋu/, would even have a Sino-Tibetan possessives-01parallel), but probably are superficial resemblances. The third person is marked -ani if animate and -bi if inanimate.

In the examples, I am using both cuneiform examples and earlier, more linear monumental -style signs, as they were compiled from different sources (this will be covered in the future if in a series of posts about the development of writing).

It is in the field of verb conjugation that Sumerian becomes really interesting – and where it shows some resemblance to languages like Ket or the Na-Dené family. The feature that distinguishes these languages is usually called the ‘verbal chain’, which is nothing more than a sequence of affixes both preceding and following the verb root. In the case of Sumerian, the affixes of the verbal chain convey information not restricted to the agent and patient of the action, but also cross-referencing other components of the sentence in different cases.

Let us take, for example, what is probably the first verbal construction encountered by the student of Sumerian: mu-na-DU3 ‘he has built’ (Hayes’ manual has a good share of “munadus” in the first chapters!). This appears in a number of dedicatory stelae stating how a temple was built by a king for some deity (E2-a-ni mu-na-DU3 ‘his house he has built’, see E2-a-ni in the previous figure). Such simple word actually conveys a lot of information. verbs-01First, the prefix mu- is of uncertain meaning, but is one of the mandatory conjugation prefixes, used before case cross-referencing. I.e., there are a number of affixes that reference previous words in different cases: in this case, -na- means that one of the arguments of the sentence is in the dative case (the full sentence would be ‘to him he has built’). Finally, the -n- is marking the 3rd person animate subject (though it is frequently omitted in the cuneiform). In this example and the others included in the figure above, I followed my usual scheme of highlighting the prefixes in red and suffixes in blue.

If the same verb was in the first person, it would be mu-DU3-en ‘I have built’ – that is because the 1st person is marked as suffix in the verbal chain. This is illustrated by another example above, ma-ra-DU3-e(n) ‘I shall build’. The elements are the same, except that -mu- changes the vowel due to harmony with the following syllable, -ra-. This, again, cross-references the dative (after all, I shall build your house for you). A last example with the same verb illustrates the nominalisation with -a: i-n-DU3-a ‘he who has built’. The conjugation prefix in this situation is ĩ-, not mu-, since there is no case cross-referencingThis prefix is also found in the next example, for which I chose an intransitive verb: im-ma-ĝen ‘he went’ (underlying ĩ-ba- affected by nasalisation). The prefix -ba- is in complementary distribution with mu-, referring to inanimate subjects.

The last example in the figure above shows a number of affixes in a relatively complex sentence, nu-mu-e-SUM-mu-un-ze-en /nu-mu-e-sum-enzen/ ‘you have not given it to me’. The first prefix, nu-, is the negation, followed by the now familiar -mu-. Before and after the root SUM ‘to give’, we find -e- and -enzen marking the 2nd person plural, whereas the 1st person is not really referenced.

Conclusion: on long-range comparison

The Sumerian verb chain is not typical of the ‘spread zone’ Eurasian language families – Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic etc. It does, however, have parallels among the ‘residual’ families or isolates: in the figure at the beginning of this post you can see some similarities forms in Ket and Adyghe. Does that mean that those languages are related? Not at all (well, in a way, I believe that all languages are genetically related; the question is whether the relationship is recent enough to be demonstrable). Basque and Sumerian have already been the victims of too many unlikely comparisons. On the other hand, some of the isolates in the map above have indeed been suggested by serious linguists to be related to languages far, far away.

Kusunda, for example, has been hypothesised by Merritt Ruhlen and others to be related to languages of Papua New Guinea, which is not entirely absurd given the genetic ties of southeast Asia with Melanesia. The linguistic evidence is based on pronominal sets and a few vocabulary items. Although the first are indeed suggestive (especially as pronouns tend to be retained longer than vocabulary), the lexical evidence seems to have been assembled in the typical ‘look alike’ fashion that we find, for instance, in the Amerind etymologies. If Kusunda is related to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ languages, this should be an extremely ancient relationship, over 50,000 years old… one wonders how such relationship would still be noticeable today when the languages of Papua New Guinea themselves defy a classification into less than 30 families or so!

The Yeniseian family, of which Ket is the last remnant, has on its turn been proposed to be related to the Na-Dené family of North America. Although the idea is not new (check this 1998 PNAS paper by Ruhlen on the subject), it is in the form proposed by Edward Vajda that it has recently received some acceptance (it was reviewed by Jared Diamond in Nature). The linguistic evidence is mainly based on the resemblance of the ‘verbal chain’ and other shared paradigms in Yeniseian and Na-Dené, but also in a small but significant part of the vocabulary, which shows regular sound correspondences even in items of the basic lexicon. Non-linguistic evidence from genetics is weak and, I must say, archaeologically the hypothesis lacks a clear correlate: the ones that have been presented, such as the interaction with the arctic small tool tradition, fail to convince me (though I am no specialist in the Archaeology of North America, not to say Siberia).

Whether or not we accept those extra-continental relationships, what must be clear is that the common patterns found in the ‘islands’ of Eurasia does not prove genetic relationship between them, but possibly shows a typology that was widespread – maybe through continuous interaction or ‘punctuated equilibrium’ – before the expansions of the major families of the continent. The language(s) of the first (and later?) migrants to the New World shared those features, and that is why they are so common in the Americas, whereas in Eurasia they were wiped out by later language spreads.

An illusion? The dangers of convergence

As usual, in this final note, let me play the Devil’s advocate: it is quite possible that the shared morphology of the languages analysed here simply developed independently over time. This is not just a hypothesis, but a plain fact in the history of some languages: Egyptian, for example, was an agglutinating language with suffixes for the verbs (in most tenses) during its ‘classic’ period, Middle Egyptian. Thus, the verb ‘to hear’ in the perfect was conjugated sdmnf-01 sdm.n=f (probably pronounced /sadímnaf/) ‘he heard’, where -n- marks the perfect and -f is the 3rd person masculine. However, in the later stages of the language, this form was replaced by the use of an auxiliary verb (as it happened in a number of western European languages – I have heard, ich habe gehört, yo escuchado…) from the verb ‘to do’. Thus, we have late Egyptian jrfsdm-01 jr=f sd‘he heard’ (literally ‘he did a hearing’). Finally, in Coptic, the latest stage of Egyptian, the auxiliary became bound to the root of the verb, creating a sort of ‘verbal chain’ – afswtm-01 ‘he heard’ (a-f-sôtm PST-3sg-hear). If this whole cycle happened over some 4,000 years in the history of the Egyptian language, why would the morphology of Sumerian, Ket, Adyghe etc. have remained intact over dozens of thousands of years?

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