Essays on the history of writing II: The isolates of the Fertile Crescent

One can often find in the literature the idea that continents like South America or Africa differ fundamentally from Eurasia in terms of historical language expansions, and that one does not find in those continents a similar phenomenon to Indo-European, which covers nearly all of Europe and a considerable part of Asia. As I was thinking about that, and as I was writing the post about Mediterranean isolate languages, I realised something. If Indo-European has been expanding for the last 5,500 years or so, then it was only relatively recently in its history that it came to dominate all of Europe… or almost all, since Basque is still spoken today.

Etruscan was alive and well in (early) Roman times, as were the Rhaetic languages of the Alps and the unclassified languages of the Iberian Peninsula, including Aquitanian (probably related to Basque). Minoan probably continued to be spoken in Crete after the adoption of Greek, developing into the Eteocretan language. Not to mention the Lemnian and Eteocypriot languages (by the way, I completely forgot about the later in that post). And these are just the ones that left some written record. Who knows how many languages were spoken in Northern Europe at the same time? The point is: if we could map the distribution of language families in Europe 2,500 years ago, I am sure the map would be a lot more colourful.

Historical and modern isolated languages and small families in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Of course, as I wrote before, there might have been one or two large families that expanded with the Neolithic in Europe. That is the nature of spread zones. But what about the area where agriculture originated? In line with what we saw in the Americas, areas of ancient cultural developments in the Old World should also be mosaics with high linguistic diversity. In the map above, I am showing some of the unclassified languages, isolated languages or small families of the Fertile Crescent (plus the languages of the Caucasus). Since Crete and Cyprus are still in the range of the map, maybe I should have included Minoan and Eteocypriot, but let’s focus on the Mesopotamia/Anatolia/Caucasus corridor for now.

There is no doubt that the cereals, pulses and animals that were the foundation of the Neolithic in Western Eurasia and Northern Africa were domesticated in this region, most likely in the highland Levant/Anatolia border. Was the spread of farming and pastoralism in the Fertile Crescent accompanied by the diffusion of a single language family, perhaps coinciding with the PPNA/PPNB cultures (or interaction spheres) that dominated much of the region between 11,500 and 8,000 years ago? I do not think so. In later times, most of the area shown in the map above would be covered by only two families: Indo-European (with Hittie and Luwian in Anatolia, Armenian in the Caucasus, and the Indo-Iranian languages to the East, including Persian) and Afro-Asiatic (namely Akkadian in Mesopotamia and all the other Semitic languages spoken from the Levant to Arabia). As in the European case, languages like Hattic, Urartian and Sumerian, that survived for some time while Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic were “conquering” the Near East, could be remnants of previous expansions, possibly since Neolithic times (although there are good Chalcholithic/Bronze Age candidates, like the Maykop culture in the Caucasus and the Ubaid culture in Mesopotamia…). But the fact is that they are too diverse to fit into a hypothetical single family.

Sumerian… and Euphratean?

The Royal Game of Ur. Like writing, board games were another Sumerian invention.

I have written enough about Sumerian in a few previous posts, so I will not elaborate on it anymore except for two crucial questions: the autochtonous origins of this mysterious language and the supposed Euphratean substratum. I have come across an extremely interesting paper that advanced the idea of Sumeria as a creole language born in the multicultural environment of Southern Mesopotamia. Among other things, the argument is that archaic cuneiform signs were constructed through a logic similar to modern creoles. For example, consider the signs sagka and gu7, meaning “head”, “mouth” and “ration” respectively. The last two are formed by slight modifications of the first. Specifically the last one is a combination of “head” and “bread”, and it can be argued that basic Sumerian nouns are very few, most of the others being derived in such way. However, the actual readings of those signs are sagka and gu respectively, so the creole-like derivation of nouns is mostly a phenomenon of the writing system, not of the language itself.

More interesting is the idea that an even earlier language preceded Sumerian(s) in Southern Mesopotamia. Many toponyms do not have a Sumerian etymology, and the phonetic reading of many cuneiform signs is of obscure origins. Most of the signs gained their phonetic values from the rebus principle, but some do not work that way. For example, the sign for “bird” muszen is read ḫu when used phonetically (instead of mušen), and the sign for “fish” ku is read ḫa (instead of ku). Some words, consisting of CV1C(C)V2C structure, do not fit the typical Sumerian structure. This is particularly the case of words for professions, like adgub adgub “reed weaver”, sipad sipad “shepherd” or engar engar “ploughman”. Many refer to farming or herding activities. Thus it is possible that Sumerians borrowed some specialised vocabulary from a society that was already well established in Southern Mesopotamia, but the theory remains speculative, and we know nothing else about this hypothetical language except for the few words in the alleged Sumerian substratum.


Linear Elamite

Spoken to the east of Mesopotamia, Elamite was the language of Susa, capital of a mighty state contemporary with the Sumerians, and later incorporated into the Persian empire. The Elamites got the idea of writing from the Sumerians, but developed their own “archaic” cuneiform signs that we cannot read phonetically (although we know something of the structure and possible content of the texts). Presumably, they recorded the same language as would be later written with the Assyrian syllabary.

“And thus says Darius, the king: Within these lands, whosoever was a friend have I protected…”

We have a large corpus for Elamite, and the language is understood relatively well. That is thanks to a number of bilingual inscriptions, the longest of which is the famous Behistun Inscription, where Darius I, king of Persia, announces his lineage and deeds in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Despite some efforts to connect Elamite with other language families, especially with the Dravidian languages of India, it remains an isolate. There are also interesting parallels with Afro-Asiatic, e.g. elti “eye” and kassu “horn” (although the later seems more like a Wanderwort). George Starostin has a paper with a review of such hypotheses, as well as a comparative 100-word list between Elamite and major language families.

Gutian and Kassite

Much less is known about the languages of two other neighbours of Mesopotamia, the Gutians and the Kassites, both of which inhabited the vicinity of the Zagros Mountains and invaded Mesopotamia to install their own dynasties of rulers. The Gutians reigned for a few generations ca. 2100-2000 BC after the collapse of the Akkadian empire. The names of theirs rulers are virtually all that is known of their language. Despite some comparisons with Tocharian (a very divergent Indo-European language once spoken near the border with China), the names of the Gutian kings mentioned in the Sumerian king list do not reflect any known family in the region. As for the Kassites, they conquered Mesopotamia after 1500 BC, and their language is marginally better attested, since a few Kassite-Akkadian glossaries were compiled by ancient scribes. Needless to say, the known Kassite words do not resemble Sumerian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hurrian or any other language of the region.

Above, some of the Gutian names from the Sumerian king list in the Weld-Blundell prism. Below, part of the Kassite-Akkadian glossary of the Hormuzd Rassam tablet.


“Argishti, son of Menua, built this temple and this fortress, called Irbuni…”

In the 15th century BC, Hurrian was the language of the powerful kingdom of Mitanni to the north of Mesopotamia. Together with the language of their neighbours, the kingdom of Urartu, near modern Armenia, they form the Hurro-Urartian family. Inscriptions in Hurrian and Urartian are written in the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary. They are found, for example, in the Fortress of Erebuni, modern Yerevan, announcing its foundation by the king Argishti I. The inscription names the fortress irbuuni Ir-bu-u-ni, which is in the origin of modern Armenian Երեւան Yerevan, a name that resisted 2800 years!

The most convincing proposed genetic affiliation of Hurro-Urartian is that it would be related to the Caucasian languages. The geographic location of Hurro-Urartian, its phonology, and a few cognates speak in favour of that connection. For example, Hurrian words consist predominantly of a (C)V(C) structure (pa- “to build”, a- “name”, un- “to come”, ar- “to give” etc.) adhering to the typical pattern of the Northern Caucasus. The shortness of the words is compensated by a seemingly complex consonant inventory. Caucasian languages are famous for having very few vowels, but 50 or 60 different consonants (remember this theory linking phonology and climate?). In line with that, it appears that the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary was ill-suited for rendering the Hurrian language. From what we can reconstruct, scribes had to resort to signs like pi pi and ip ip to represent –w-, -v-, -f and combinations thereof. Moreover, the personal pronouns bear a remarkable resemblance with the Northern Caucasian sets. Compare, for instance, Hurrian 1sg. iša-/šo– and 2sg. fe– with Kabardian 1sg. sa, 2sg. wa and 2pl. fa.

Hattic and Kaskian

The supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis of Indo-European origins forget that the Hittites were newcomers to the region. Their predecessors in Anatolia spoke an unrelated language, conventionally called Hattic. Very little is known of the language, as bits of it were only recorded by the Hittites. Evidently, the hypothesis of a Caucasian connection has been proposed by the Russian school. Comparisons with the hypothetical Sino-Caucasian family (including North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan and Yenisseian) show some interesting cognates, but the validity of Sino-Caucasian is what is disputed in the first place. The Kaskian language later spoken in the northern coast of Anatolia was presumably related to Hattic, and could be the language of the descendants of the first settlers dislodged by the Hittites.

Deep connections? Not quite

As I was first planning this post, I believed there should be some deep relationship between all the “colours” in the map at the beginning of the post. That was the logical conclusion: these were islands of (a) previous expansion(s) later blurred by Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. Reality is not so simple: let’s have a look at the basic vocabulary of some of those languages:

* The reconstructions in bold are Starostin’s Proto-North-Caucasian. The ones not in bold are reconstructed for the Proto-Northeast-Caucasian level only.

A few isolated resemblances can be found here and there (e.g. “eye” in Elamite and Proto-North-Caucasian, “tongue” in Sumerian and Proto-North-Caucasian), but these might as well be due to chance. The words for “horn” in Elamite, Hattic and Caucasian might be related. To that we must add Proto-Indo-European *k’era(w)- and Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ḳar-. This means the resemblance in the table above is not unique of those languages, and we might in fact be dealing with a Wanderwort.

Perhaps we should not give so much weight to vocabulary. As I explained previously, there are some intriguing morphological similarities between various Eurasian isolates located thousands of kilometres apart. Curiously enough, the same does not apply to this group of relatively close languages in terms of geographical distance. Let’s review the crucial features that distinguish Eurasian isolates in opposition to the large families that surround them: 1. a predominance of prefixes; 2. ergative alignment when marking the pronouns in the verb; 3. possessive pronouns identical to one of the sets used with the verbs; and 4. complex “chains” preceding the verb root. In the table below, I show a quick comparison between the Mesopotamian-Anatolian isolates and Kabardian, a good representative of the Northwest Caucasian family.


Personal pronoun prefixes are marked in red, and suffixes in blue, as usual. Kabardian is the only language that actually conforms perfectly to the aforementioned pattern. Sumerian comes close, especially in relation to the verbal chain, but even it employs a good number of suffixes. Elamite is not even an ergative language, and Hurrian is as prolific in the use of suffixes as a Turkic or Uralic language. Finally, there is almost no resemblance in the actual pronoun particles, except perhaps between Hurrian and the Caucasian languages (more evident with the independent pronouns, as I said above).

What conclusions can we draw from all this? I would like to end with a very simple idea: before the Bronze Age, when large scale warfare – propelled by better weapons but also by the horse – became a major factor in population expansions, the Fertile Crescent was a linguistic mosaic with higher population densities than its surroundings and a long history of ancient cultural innovations, including agriculture. Languages expanded from it, not into it. It is pointless to look for the origins of Indo-European in the first farmers of Anatolia, who spoke Hattic before the Hittites arrived. Neither could the Neolithic peoples of the Levant have spoken Afro-Asiatic, the only Eurasian branch of which (Semitic) having reached the area in relatively recent times. We will never know the language of PPNA, and there might have been many. Perhaps the dwellers of Çatal Höyuk and worshippers at Göbekli Tepe spoke an ancestor of Hattic, or perhaps it was yet another language that contributed to the huge diversity of this ancient cultural mosaic.


Spread Zones: Europe and the Neolithic Survivors

I have been away for too long, due to other writing activities that kept me extremely busy. In spite of that long gap, this will not be a new cycle of posts, but the end (at least momentarily) of a series of previous topics. I will, however, touch on a variety of subjects and express my opinion about the most contentious question of European linguistics and archaeology – the timing of the spread of Indo-European languages. My opinion on this problem has been decided (for now) by the evidence provided by Basque and the isolated languages of the Mediterranean.

From the now classic Guns, Germs and Steel to the more recent Prisoners of Geography, the idea that the terrain inhabited by a group largely determines the events of their history has become widespread among the general public. Although reality is much more intricate than that, the same principle is the basis of mosaic x spread zone models: large navigable rivers and extensive flat plains will tend to experience wave over wave of language replacement. In contrast, mountainous areas, islands and other inaccessible terrains tend to be refugia where millennia of uninterrupted development result in a myriad of languages disconnected from large families. Obviously there are exceptions – as in the Andean case that I examined previously.

In any case, it is undeniable (as Russia well knows) that from the Asian steppe to Central Europe there is really no geographical barrier – as long as one keeps south of the Urals. The diffusion of Indo-European languages into Europe did not need to overcome all that distance, moving only from the surroundings of the Caspian Sea to the West (assuming a Yamna origin!). Curiously, the Neolithic diffusion followed a different path altogether, from the Levant, through Anatolia, to the Mediterranean, resembling part of the (much later) silk road. The big question is whether these two events (Neolithic and Indo-European) coincide, as proposed originally by Colin Renfrew. I assumed this theory to be pretty much dead, at least among linguists, but I was mistaken (see Gray and Atkinson’s paper and, more recently, Bouckaert and colleagues’). Fortunately, genetics have been playing a major role in redefining our views about ancient migrations, and I became convinced that genetic evidence does not support a Neolithic age for Indo-European. Nevertheless, given the difficult association between genes and languages, I am sure the matter will continue to be hotly debated for years to come.

Map of the 5th principal component of 94 genes in Europe (from History and Geography of Human Genes)

The Pre-Indo-European languages of Europe (and their speakers) offer formidable clues to the problem. I have written about the isolates of Eurasia in a previous post, but let us explore some more facts about the last speakers of a Pre-Indo-European language: the Basques. Even before the modern DNA studies, the Basques were known to be different from their neighbours. For example, using only blood types, it was noticed that Basques were predominantly O and had the highest incidence of Rh- in Europe. With the first DNA analyses of a large number of European populations, it became clear that Basques were indeed genetically distinct. I have previously shown some maps of principal component analyses, and here I reproduce the map of the 5th principal component for Europe, based on the 94 genes analysed by Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues. This principal component peaks at the Basque country, which is at the opposite extreme from most of Northern/Central Europe and the Balkans, although with some similarity to the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula.

Keeping in mind that the first principal component shows a gradient from Greece to the northwest (Neolithic?) and the second principal component radiates from the north of the Black Sea (Bronze Age/Yamna?), I believe there are only two ways Cavalli-Sforza’s data can be interpreted:

  1. The Basques are Paleolithic/Mesolithic “survivors” (ergo Neolithic migrants spread the Indo-European languages);
  2. They are Neolithic “survivors” (ergo Indo-European languages arrived during the Bronze Age).

By the way, I am assuming here that the massive genetic legacy of the Neolithic and Bronze Age expansions (see below) must have had a linguistic correlate. In theory, one can imagine a situation in which large numbers of migrants arriving at a region, becoming culturally dominant and having children with locals do not imply language replacement, but I would like to see real world examples of that. In fact, it seems that one only needs a small number of “conquering” migrants with minimal genetic impact to change the language of whole regions (that is the case in some Latin American countries and, further back in time, was the case of Hungary).

Fortunately, we have advanced much since Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues’ original work. For example, it is clear now that the Neolithic expansion in Europe did involve population movement, and that migrations from Anatolia were indeed the source. In my opinion, the most significant genetic piece of evidence is the discovery that modern Basques are the closest living population to Neolithic skeletons from the same region. Sardinians were also found to be very close and, in fact, Sardinians appear in every study cited here as the closest modern match to Neolithic DNA samples. Their status as a “relic” population in Europe due to isolation was noticed long ago, when Cavalli-Sforza left Sardinians out of the PCA due to their singularity within Europe. The genetic similarity between Sardinians/Basques and Neolithic samples deserves special attention.


One important aspect that has been taken into consideration recently is the distribution of haplogroups in Europe. Unlike the autosomal data referred to above, which tells us about the admixture in the ancestry of an individual, Y-chromosome and mtDNA haplogroups are specific mutations that are passed down over generations and preserve the histories of migrations of particular male and female lineages. The Y-chromosome haplogroups most closely associated with the Neolithic are E1b1b and G2a. Both of them are rare in modern Europe as a whole, but G2a was the dominant haplogroup among Neolithic farmers of Central Europe, France and Spain. Both E1b and G originate outside of Europe, in the Levant and the Caucasus respectively, and must have been brought to Europe by Neolithic migrants. I will not reproduce the beautiful maps from Eupedia, but in the map above I highlight the areas where E1b and G are nowadays more common. The Mediterranean (including Sardinia) and the Balkans are modern refugia of those two haplogroups, but what happened to Central Europe? In fact, paternal lineages from most of Central and Western Europe were later replaced by haplogroups R1a and R1b, carried by Bronze Age migrants (confirmed by the fact that Yamna samples were recently shown to be R1a). Surprisingly, most modern Basques actually belong to haplogroup R1b (maybe “bottleneck effects” could easily lead to the replacement of Y-chromosome lineages over a few generations in such an isolated population?).

In summary, the Neolithic expansion in Europe involved considerable population movements, the genetic signature of which can still be seen and is most noticeable in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. These areas were somewhat less impacted by the later Bronze Age migrations, which also changed considerably the genetic make-up of Central and Western Europe. The fact is that, since there is no other major language expansion after Indo-European, this event must have occurred during the Bronze Age. Some supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis do not deny that fact, arguing that several waves of Indo-European expansion could have occurred. Using the principle of Occam’s razor, I would immediately discard this explanation as being too complicated. The question then is: would the Neolithic expansion also have involved the diffusion of a single, widespread language family?

Pre-Indo-European languages in relation to the major cultural traditions of the Neolithic.

In the map above, I am showing some of the main Neolithic cultures of Europe in relation to the isolated languages that we know about. The Linearbandkeramik (LBK) has taken advantage of the plains that extend from Ukraine to France – a huge spread zone – and it is difficult not to imagine that it was accompanied by the diffusion of a single language [family] around 7000 years ago. At the same time, the Cardial/Impressed culture spread along the Mediterranean shores. Both ultimately stem from the Greek Neolithic (with clear origins in Anatolia), but seem to be local developments. Whether both involved the expansion of the same language [family], I will not dare to speculate, as there is no clue to what the LBK people spoke (perhaps it is in the substrate of the Germanic languages). But could there be a connection between the other Pre-Indo-European languages recorded in Southern Europe?

That Basque was part of a larger language family in the past is well accepted, but what was its extension? Some have suggested the widespread occurrence of Basque-like elements in the toponymia of Europe: e.g. the connection between Val D’Aran in Spain, Arundel in England and Ahrntal in the Alps would be the Basque word aran “valley”. There have also been some attempts to connect Basque to the extinct Pre-Indo-European language of Sardinia – which we can call “Paleo-Sardinian” but is also known as “Nuraghian”. Beyond genetic isolation, the linguistic isolation of Sardinia is clear even in (relatively) recent times: for example, whereas all Romance languages have turned Classical Latin C into /tʃ/, /ʃ/ or /s/, in Sardinian it is still pronounce as a hard /k/. As for the Paleo-Sardinian language, we have no record of it except for words that entered modern Sardinian or the toponyms in the island. It is based on those that Blasco Ferrer proposes parallels with Basque – e.g. the triad Lur-beltz, Lur-gorri and Lur-zuri meaning “black”, “red” and “white earth” respectively, which appears in the island as Duru-nele, Lúr-kuri and Lu-tzurró.

Among the well-known Pre-Indo-European isolates is the Etruscan language. There is a possibility that it is actually connected to Rhaetic, a language or group of languages preserved on a few inscriptions around the Alps. Given the small corpus, it is unlikely that it will ever be “deciphered”, but formally there are some resemblances with Etruscan – e.g. a common ending -ce or -ke that, in the later, marks the past tense. Another candidate to form a family together with Etruscan is Lemnian, attested in a few inscriptions in the Greek island of Lemnos. If Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian are indeed part of a single family, later fragmented by the spread of Indo-European, then we are potentially dealing with yet another group of Neolithic “relics”. Then, the location of those languages in relation to the Cardial/Impressed culture and to the modern distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroups E1b1b and G2a, as can be seen in the maps above, starts to make sense.

Finally, let us consider the Pre-Indo-European languages (directly or indirectly attested) from the region closest to the origins of the Neolithic. One of the most interesting things about the Greek language is that it absorbed a large amount of non-Indo-European vocabulary. These are wοrds that have no cognates in other Indo-European languages and are also easy to spot based on their distinctive phonology/morphology. Interestingly, they tend to be cultural items – words like σῦκον “fig”, ἔλαιον “olive”, θάλασσα “sea” and βασιλεύς “king” (in Linear B qa-si-re-u). It is not impossible that, like the Linear B syllabary, the substratum in Greek might be related to the language once spoken in Crete and partly preserved in the Linear A script. This language, which we may call Minoan, is probably never going to be fully deciphered given the small size of the corpus and the fact that most of it consists of accounting tablets full of personal names and toponyms. Names of products are written with logograms, so it is impossible to know how they were pronounced. A few transaction words (see below) and inflected forms (like the famous ja-sa-sa-ra-me that I mentioned previously) offer a window into Minoan, but the known vocabulary is so small that the language is destined to remain unclassified.

In summary, it is likely that all these languages are remnants of a once widespread Neolithic family (or families), diffused together with the Cardial/Impressed culture along the Mediterranean. We simply do not have enough material to show how they are related, although a convincing case can be made for Etruscan, Lemnian and Rhaetic. Basque could be related to this phenomenon or be part of a different family spread further west, perhaps in association with the Megalithic traditions of the Atlantic Neolithic. It is almost certain that the LBK expansion brought a single language or language family to their vast territory, but whether it was also related to the Mediterranean variants is impossible to tell.

Example of a Linear A tablet, now at the museum of Heraklion. Logograms are transcribed with latin words (vir for man, fic for fig). Most of the words spelled with the syllabary are personal and place names. In this tablet, you can see some of the exceptions: ki-ki-na seems to be an adjective describing the figs, or maybe it is the word for fig itself repeated after the logogram. Transaction words usually appear as headers or at the end of the tablet. In this example, a-du and ki-ro could mean something like “balance”. Ku-ro is followed by a number that is the sum of all previous items and must mean “total”.

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?

Language Isolates Part IV (North America)

North America: the gateway to the New World (assuming colonisation through the Behring strait) and, as such, a land of enormous linguistic diversity. If we take seriously (which we should not) Greenberg’s classification, North America was home to two of the three macro-families of the Americas: Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené. Both of these have proposed links with the Old World, under some versions of the Nostratic (or ‘Eurasian’) hypothesis and according to the Dené-Yeniseian (or even broader ‘Dené-Caucasian’) theory. Language distribution in North America has some features that distinguish it from South America. First, like Eurasia, some language families are very widespread, covering enormous continuous territories (even the largest families fo South America, like Tupi and Arawak, tend to have discontinuous, ‘dendritic’ distributions, e.g. along major rivers). The  Na-Dené and Algic families occupy particularly large areas, and this is partly due to a simple matter of geography: a large landmass of North America lies in cold, high latitudes, where populations tend to be smaller and more widespread – and, with them, their languages. In contrast, only a narrow strip of land in the Southern Cone lies in high latitudes, most of the continent being in the tropics – where mosaics of small language families seem to be the rule.

Major language families and language isolates from North America

I need to mention that this will be a quick post, just pointing out some major trends in North America, as I will soon move, in a next post, to a discussion about Greenberg’s Amerind proposal. First, it is obvious from the map above that a smaller number of families accounts for most of the continent than in the case of South America, even though North America occupies a larger area. Thus, the linguistic situation is a bit more similar to Eurasiama non troppo. Although, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, a simple matter of population density could explain the distribution of some families, the extremely diffused ones in Eurasia like Indo-European have hardly anything to do with that, and historical factors should come into play. Another important thing are the disparities in language diversity: the southwestern coast of North America has a disproportionate number of isolates and small language families (numbers 3 to 6 on the map). We noticed something similar in South America, with an equally astonishing diversity in the western flanks of the Amazon basin.

Before examining those patterns, let’s do the basic exercise of comparing the major language families of the continent:

Seven words in North American languages

Compared basic vocabulary in the major language families of North America. The selected seven words are the same as for the South American example, and are pretty stable in the languages of that continent. Notation is, again, a relaxed form of the IPA with y instead of j as is usual in the Americas. There might be some affixes that I failed to analyse: e.g. Pawnee nouns all end with an -uʔ, whereas many Cherokee body parts start with a ga-.

It seems to me that the broad similarities noticed among the South American families cannot be found here, even with wishful thinking (except perhaps for ‘water’). The supposed uniqueness of Eskimo and Na-Dene in the Amerind context is also not justified, at least in terms of vocabulary (they are as different as any two other families are from each other). However, the evidence of widespread areal features, as noticed in South America, also holds true for North America. For example, consonant inventories tend to be very complex in the western coast (see the Sliammon word list above and the Shuswap examples below) compared to eastern families like Iroquoian or Caddoan. Curiously, the South American ‘Andean-Patagonian’ group that I tentatively identified in a previous post, also concentrated on the western part of the continent, has larger consonant inventories than the typical ‘Amazonian’ (eastern) languages. Even more surprising is the distribution of suffixes vs. prefixes in North America:


We can see that, in verb morphology, languages of the southwestern coast (Shuswap, Siuslaw [an isolate!]) tend to cross-reference the arguments with suffixes, whereas the others tend to rely on prefixes. It must be said, of course, that exceptions exist. Actually, many ‘eastern’ languages make use of both prefixes and suffixes – such is the case with Cree, or with Lakhota. Languages like Shuswap actually use prefixes for marking the possessive pronouns. Thus, the picture is a bit mixed, but I believe that two groups can still be clearly discerned. Eskimo-Aleut, evidently, is an outlier: it is separated from the southwestern coast by Na-Dené, which is heavily prefixing. Perhaps the proximity of Eskimo-Aleut to Eurasia accounts for that. Another lesson that can be derived from this example is that isolates, as in South America, tend to acquire areal features from their neighbours (see Siuslaw above).

The fact that the same east-west division in phonological and morphological features exists in North and South America is, in itself, extremely puzzling. That might be explained by geography alone: I have been mentioning a few studies that link language and climate, for example suggesting a connection between the warm, humid climate of the tropics and the emergence of tones, or proposing a relationship between dry, cold regions and large consonantal inventories. Whether we believe them or not, it must be pointed out that the western part of both North and South America has a similar mountainous, dry landscape in comparison to their eastern forested lowlands.

Clovis points were widespread in North America around 13,000 years ago.

However, as you might have guessed by now, I prefer a historical explanation – either common genetic inheritance or diffusion in linguistic areas – and will propose an archaeological correlate for the west-east division. I have previously mentioned that there is genetic evidence for a colonisation of the Americas using a western, Pacific route. If the western coast of North America has a greater antiquity of occupation, that might explain the huge linguistic diversity of this region (including the cluster of isolates in the map at the beginning of this post). Furthermore, this western region seems to have been left out of the Clovis horizon ca. 13,000 years before present. This truly continental horizon (for which we have no parallel in South America) was once thought to represent the first settlers of the New World, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that people were here long before. Whether we see Clovis as the expansion of new people or just the diffusion of new technology, the fact is that it represents interactions at a continental scale – but, as one can see in the maps of the Paleoindian Database, it’s a phenomenon most frequent in the eastern half of North America. Could that be a correlate for the eastern linguistic area vs. the Pacific one?

The cultural and linguistic ‘hot spots’ of North America

When we examined the distribution of isolates in South America, an interesting pattern emerged that is repeated in North America. First, clusters of isolates appear in areas that appear to be of very ancient colonisation. This is precisely the case with the western coast if we assume a colonisation along the Pacific. This region is not only full of isolates, it also includes several very small language families. In fact, some widespread families like Algic actually have a western origin.

Pueblo Bonito, one of the major archaeological sites that flourished in Chaco Canyon after AD 900.

Second, it is clear that most isolates in the map at the beginning of this post resemble the Eurasian distribution, having been ‘pushed’ to the edges of the continent by later language spreads. However, the location of some isolates also coincides with cultural ‘hot spots’, as was the case in South America. One of them is the Southwest, where we find the isolate Zuni, together with representatives of many families (Uto-Aztec, Keresan, Kiowa-Tanoan, Na-Dené). Archaeologists are increasingly recognising the importance of such multi-ethnic formations and migrations for the prehistoric Pueblo groups that settled in the region around a thousand years ago. These groups are known for their constructions of massive settlements with small squarish rooms and large circular sunken courts (kivas) for ritual (see the Google Earth image of Pueblo Bonito above). Perhaps the existence of Zuni is just a remnant of such great linguistic diversity in the past, precisely at this cultural ‘hot spot’ in North America. Let’s have a look at Zuni in comparison with one of its neighbours, Hopi (Uto-Aztec):


The Southwest is a language area with several diffused features (e.g. phonology). We can see from the examples above that both Zuni and Hopi are nominative-accusative languages: compare the 1st person pronoun hoʔ / niʔ (nominative) and hom / niy (accusative). The nominative form is used for the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs. There is little marking of arguments in the verb through affixes, with Zuni exhibiting an interesting feature: it only specifies whether the subject and object are singular or plural (e.g. ʔi- and -nap for plural object and subject, respectively). Thus, once again we see that in the Americas it is common for isolates to absorb features form the linguistic areas in which they are situated.

Moundville, Alabama, one of the major Mississippian centres in the South.

Another area of interest is the Deep South, where a surprisingly large number of isolates can be found, from Natchez in the Mississippi area to Timucua in Florida. This is also a ‘busy’ region in archaeological terms. The most recent prehistoric developments in the area relate to the Mississippian horizon, with its square mound and plaza centres – of which Cahokia is the largest example. The Mississippian culture extended around a thousand years ago through an enormous territory, over 1,500 km North-South. Although it could have been associated with the diffusion of a single language, the sheer linguistic diversity of the region today means that it probably was not. In fact, the Mississippian is only the latest development in a long trajectory of cultures devoted to building earthen monuments in Southeastern United States: this uninterrupted trajectory goes back to over 3,000 years before present with Poverty Point and other monuments of Louisiana during the late Archaic period. In summary, linguistic diversity in North America, which can be mapped by the concentration of isolates and small families, coincides with 1) areas of potential early colonisation, and 2) ‘hot spots’ of cultural diversity, thus confirming the pattern that we noticed in South America.

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.

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, 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

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.

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 [] ‘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:


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.


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)

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


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.


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.

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.

Language Isolates Part II (South America)

South America was once the least known continent, as hinted by the title of Jerry Moore’s book – which, as the author says, is a tribute to a previous work by ethnologist Patricia Lyon. If there is something I like about your study area being the “least known” in the field is that you can say pretty much anything and it will take some years until you can be proved wrong. And, if it appears that nothing makes sense, you can always say that research is only beginning and hope that one day the picture will become clearer.

Unfortunately, for South America, the archaeological and linguistic puzzle is still a difficult one. Take, for example, the relatively homogeneous Clovis horizon in North America and compare it with the absolute confusion in South America during the Late Pleistocene / Early Holocene. New dates for new (and old) sites keep springing up, pushing the dates back (definitely before Clovis) and showing that these early cultures were very different from each other (from Chile, through Argentina, to the Brazilian northeast).

The linguistic diversity in the continent goes hand in hand with that. By a quick count, there are more than 90 language families (including isolates) in South America. Europe (over half the area of South America) has only four. In the map below, I highlighted only those that were continentally widespread, covered large areas or had an undeniable historical relevance – and they are still more than ten. It is difficult to make sense of such diversity if we try to approach it with an “Eurasian” mindset – so much so that South America didn’t even figure in case studies of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis (the nice map on the cover notwithstanding!). A single South American example (Arawak) occupies no more than a paragraph in Jared Diamond’s Science paper. Brazilian archaeologist Eduardo Neves has been one of the few to scrutinise the South American mosaic of languages and cultures and try to explain why there were no continent-wide expansions as we see in Eurasia.

Major language families and language isolates of South America

The choice of the major families and the isolates to be included in the map above were not easy. Those that cover the most extensive territories and have the largest number of members are Arawak, Tupi and Macro-Je. They are also nice case studies because they are clearly associated with widespread archaeological traditions (at least in the case of the first two, and as “clear” as these things can be in Archaeology…) and preferred environments (forested river floodplains in the case of the first two, high altitude savannas for the later). All three expanded between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago given the glottochronological estimates (if we could rewind the figure 3,000 years back in time we would see a very different distribution of colours). Another large family is Karib, though it is pretty much restricted to the Guyana plateau area. Both Arawak and Karib expanded out of South America to the Antilles (these were the first people encountered by Columbus). Other language families, not especially widespread, were included because they are of particular anthropological or historical interest. For example, Pano-Tacana and Tucano groups play an important role in the regional systems of Western Amazonia. Chibcha was the family that connected South and Central America, besides being spoken by the Muisca chiefdoms of Colombia. The Guaykuru were fierce horsemen (after their introduction by the Spanish) and were one of the few non-state societies of the continent to maintain slaves. Needless to say, leaving Quechua and Aymara out would be a sacrilege to millennia of Andean civilisation (I will comment a bit more about those two later on).

Some of the large blank areas that you can see in the map are gaps due to lack of information. This can be seen in the Amazonas floodplain and in Eastern Brazil. The first case is a pity, because we would really like to know the languages spoken by the groups sharing the polychrome pottery style (see below)!

There are many language isolates in South America, and very small language families are also numerous. In the end, the definition of an isolate is debatable: for example, Japanese is not an isolate due to the existence of related languages in the Ryukyu islands, whereas Korean is usually considered an isolate despite being spoken over a pretty large area. Furthermore, as I mentioned before, language isolates are usually the last survivors of ancient language families. In any case, the problem with South America is the lack of documentation for many languages still spoken and the scarcity of historical attestation for many of the extinct ones. For that reason, it is difficult sometimes to decide whether we are talking about isolates or just “unclassified” languages – i.e. for which we don’t have enough materials to link them with one family or another. I decided not to include many languages that would fit that category, so the distribution in this map might look a bit different than what is found in the literature. A reader familiarised with the continent will no doubt miss the languages of the Brazilian northeast, such as Pankararu. As far as I know, the original languages of those groups have been lost, most of them now speak Portuguese, and apparently they spoke a Tupi-Guarani language (which might have been adopted as lingua franca) in the recent past.

The distribution of isolates (and small families) in South America does not present a very clear pattern at first, at least in comparison with Eurasia where they are all “pushed” towards mountainous terrain, islands, peninsulas and the outskirts of the continent. However, on a closer look, it seems that the headwaters in Northwestern and Southwestern Amazonia concentrate most of them (the position of Yagan at the tip of Patagonia, on the other hand, is more typical of an isolate that has been “pushed” or “cut” from later expansions). Of course Greg Urban already noticed this pattern of clustering in headwaters (in fact, we can think of them as friction zones), but I will argue below that some of these areas are also cradles of early cultural developments and high ethnic diversity in the past. First, let’s have a look at some of the isolates and their surrounding language families.

In northern Amazonia, a number of isolates and small families occur in the basin of the Orinoco – the largest river in those parts. It seems to me that, in the Amazon rainforest, some isolates are spoken by hunter-gatherer groups rather than farmers. That is the case with the Joti (3) of the Venezuelan savannas and the Maku (4), neighbours of the well-known Yanomami. The Waorani (5), who live in the forests of Ecuador, are another example. Since it was once thought that hunter-gatherers would be poorly adapted to the jungle, those groups have offered interesting insights on nomadic lifeways in the rainforest (e.g. Gustavo Politis’ book about the Nukak, a Maku people).

Another important isolate in the Amazon is the language of the Tikuna (7), a people known for their colourful art and beautiful polyphonic chants (you can hear them in this recording available through Smithsonian Folways). Tikuna is a tonal language, one of the few in the Amazon, which makes it all the more interesting – by the way, it has been suggested that tone is more likely to develop in tropical environments due to the effects of humidity on vocal cords. Whether that’s true or not, we have another tonal language as an isolate further south: the Guato (15), “Argonauts” of the Pantanal – the single largest wetland in the world. There have been attempts of linking Guato with the Macro-Je family, but it seems that the few cognates they share could also be used to argue for a relationship with other families (there’s a table further below on this post where you can see the similarity in basic vocabulary between many families).

North of the Pantanal, another large expanse of seasonally flooded savannas, known as the Llanos de Moxos, concentrates a myriad of isolated languages – Cayuvava, Itonama, Movima (9) – between the Andes and Amazonia. The region was also a hotspot of cultural diversity in the historical period and home to some very interesting archaeological finds. This region actually is part of a chain of isolates: as we go west, we find Leco (13) at the oriental flank of the Andes, and then we are just one step from the plateau around lake Titicaca where Uru, Chipaya and Puquina (13-14) were spoken.

Where South America ends: Tierra del Fuego was home to the southernmost isolated language of the continent, Yagan

Finally, we cannot forget Tierra del Fuego, where (quite predictably) we find an isolate, Yagan (16). I will now show how isolates can be typologically different from the languages that surround them (a theme that I touched upon in the introductory post) using the example of Puquina, and how they can be found in zones of high cultural diversity taking the Llanos de Moxos as an example.

Seven words in South American languages

Comparison of seven basic words in the major families of South America. The words are part of Swadesh’s list, but I have chosen them among the ones with the highest retention rates. The set I chose for the Basque example is different, as I selected seven words that were all perfect cognates between English, Spanish and Irish. Unlike that example, where I used the standard orthography of each language, I’m using here a very ‘relaxed’ IPA. I used y instead of j as is common in the notation of American languages. I tried to get rid of incorporated prefixes and suffixes that are so common in those languages (and which many times led Greenberg astray). For example, nearly all Piro body parts had a -tʃi suffix, and many Kadiweu words incorporated a final -gi or -di.

I can understand why Joseph Greenberg felt that all American languages (except Na-Dene and Eskimo) belonged in the same stock – they are very similar in the basic vocabulary (see the table above). I assembled the table so as to show a progression from the Amazon, through the Andes, to Patagonia. One does have the feeling that some potential cognates are shared within each area – check, for example, the word for “tongue” in all the right half of the table vs. those to the left. I suppose a lot of the similarities are due to areal features, as the remoteness of the relationship between the families would have obliterated obvious connections, but I still think the similarities are very interesting. They also exist in morphology and syntax. The Amazonian languages tend to be prefixing and show split ergativity; they can have the same series of prefixes for subject (or agent) and the possessive pronouns. Given that objects tend to be prefixed to the verbs, one interesting feature (called portmanteau) is that there is a special marker when the agent is the first person and the patient is the second.


In the example above, Tupinamba is quite typical in having a different 1st person prefix for the agent of a transitive verb (a-) and another for the subject of an intransitive verb (ʃe-). The last also marks the possessive pronoun and the patient of a transitive verb. I did not include any examples above, but this is also the marker of the subject of an adjective clause – i.e. ‘I am cold’ would be something like ‘[it] colds me’ (adjectives behave as verbs in Tupi and many other American languages; some Eurasian languages exhibit the same pattern, as I will comment in a future post). Finally, there is a special prefix (oro-) when the 1st person is the agent and the 2nd is the patient.

I have the impression that there are roughly two typological “blocks”, one Andean-Patagonian and the other Amazonian. Tupi, Macro-Je, Chibcha and Arawak (but not Pano and Tucano) are heavily prefixing in verbal morphology and for marking possessive pronouns, whereas Quechua, Aymara and Mapudungun tend to be on the opposite side, almost completely using suffixes. Other small families in the Andean sphere also tend to be suffixing, such as Mochica and Jivaro, although that probably doesn’t mean anything other than possible areal features.

This should make it easy to recognise outliers, but many isolates seem to borrow features from their neighbours. Let’s have a look at two isolates from Central Brazil, in the southern periphery of the Amazon and the Pantanal – Trumai and Guato – and see how their basic vocabulary compares with the largest families in their surroundings:


The reason why Guato has been linked to the Macro-Je family in the past is obvious. Trumai also shares a few possible cognates, but the interesting thing is that resemblances can also be found with nearly every other large South American family (see the table above). In terms of grammar, these two languages seem to be less agglutinative and more isolating than their Tupi and Macro-Je neighbours:


As you can see, Mebengokre (Macro-Je) uses different prefixes according to the function, which is typical of other lowland South American languages (check the Tupi and Karib examples above). In this case, i- marks the 1st person possessive, subject of a nominal predicate, and object of a transitive verb, but ba– is used for the 1st person subject of transitive and intransitive verbs (except in negative sentences). Trumai, on the other hand, uses ha for all those functions. Among the similarities, both languages display ergativity: in Mebengokre, this appears in the negative sentences, where -ye marks the agent. Trumai uses the suffix -k to mark the case, and also has a 3rd person suffix, -e, to mark the agent of an intransitive verb (absolutive).

Puquina and the secret language of the Incas

The next isolate we will look at, Puquina, is actually not too different from the Andean languages around it, Quechua and Aymara. It has a predominance of suffixes in the verbal morphology, and some of these, as well as part of the vocabulary (e.g. the negative ama) appear to be borrowed from the surrounding languages:

Puquina in comparison with Ashaninka (Arawak) and Quechua. The Quechua variety used in the examples is from Santiago del Estero. Puquina is extinct but has been documented in colonial Catechisms, hence the religious nature of many examples, taken from this analysis.

I might have cheated a little bit by using examples from Quechua, which is more familiar to me, instead of Aymara (the language that actally surrounds Puquina), but both are typologically very similar. Now, the devil lies in the details, and the prefixed possessive pronouns of Puquina are what really separate it from the Andean languages. As you can see, there are resemblances with the pronominal prefixes of the Arawak languages, which led to the hypothesis that they could be related, an interesting insight given that an origin of the Arawak family in western Amazonia is becoming more likely. In the remaining of its morphology, as can be seen in the other examples above, Puquina is actually very close to the Andean sphere, which might be due to centuries if not millennia of coexistence.

That naturally leads to the question of what Puquina really represents in terms of linguistic history of the Andes. Together with Uru and Chipaya, they are all spoken in Bolivian altiplano, surrounding Lake Titicaca, where the Tiwanaku civilisation emerged. But were any of these the languages spoken by those ancient people? The Andean case is one that really brings together linguistics and archaeology. For example, Aymara figures in most people’s imagination as the language of Tiwanaku, in the same way as Quechua is associated with all things Inca and thought to have been spread by them. In reality, Aymara only relatively recently came to the altiplano, and Quechua was already widespread when the Incas chose it as their language (the Inca élites were said to speak their own secret language… given their highland origin, this could be Aymara or even some language related to Uru, Chipaya and Puquina).

Was Aymara the language spread by the Chavín horizon?

That Quechua and Aymara were once thought to be related in a single family is understandable, taking into account the broad similarities, but we can be sure now that these are due to intensive language contact over the centuries. They were both widely used as linguae francae, but if who spread them, and when? There is still debate on that, but I am inclined to believe that Aymara was widespread before Quechua did (there are “islands” of Aymara in the Central Andes, typical enclaves surviving after later expansions), and that Quechua must have been disseminated by a cultural horizon before the Incas. Following Paul Heggarty, that leaves us (somewhat counter-intuitively) with Quechua as the language of the Wari-Tiwanaku period (around 1,500 years ago) whereas Aymara would have been spread as part of the Chavín sphere of influence ca. 3,000 years before present (in fact, Jaqaru, a branch of the Aymaran languages, is spoken in central Peru, pushing the potential homeland of the family further to the north). The logic of associating the expansion of Quechua and Aymara with the Wari-Tiwanaku and Chavín periods is that widespread language diffusion must have cultural counterparts – in this case, the best match are the geographically extensive horizons of Andean prehistory. If this is correct, Puquina and its isolate neighbours could be the remnants of even older times, perhaps going as far back as the Formative period – around 3,500 years before present – as part of the Chiripa culture. Genetically, modern remnants of the Uru appear to be quite isolate and divergent from other Andean populations, although with gene flow from posterior expansions. In any case, the isolated languages of the altiplano are witnesses to the long cultural history of the region.

Language diversity and cultural “hot spots”

So, perhaps South America does not conform to the typical Eurasian situation, where a few isolates are restricted to inaccessible regions and constitute linguistic “aberrations” in their respective zones, but we can identify some patterns. It seems that a lot of isolates in South America are found in areas of ancient cultural developments and enormous cultural diversity. We have just seen that in the case of Puquina, but let’s now go down the Andes towards the Amazon basin.

A cultural mosaic: example of a ring ditch (left) and platform ridges (right) in the Llanos de Moxos.

Here we find the Llanos de Moxos, a seasonally-flooded savanna that is roughly the size of England. The region concentrates quite a few language isolates, namely Cayuvava, Itonama and Movima (number 9 in the map). Archaeologically, we can divide the area into as many as seven distinct culture areas. For example, in some parts of the Moxos we find a “ring ditch” culture that built fortified villages in forest islands; in others, we find monumental mounds surrounded by other types of earthworks; in others, still, we have series of parallel raised fields used for cultivation. These diversified traditions of the Llanos were well established only some 2,000 years ago, but it seems that the cultural history in the region is a very old one. If you are interested in reading more about the Llanos, you should check Umberto Lombardo’s blog. We must also remember that the Brazilian Pantanal, where the isolate Guato is spoken, has a long history of human occupation. The same is true of southwestern Amazonia, especially the Guapore region in the state of Rondonia, where many isolates are found (e.g. Kanoe, Aikana). This area is home to some of the oldest evidences of agriculture and is thought to be the centre from which the Tupi languages spread, as well as possibly the Macro-Je (given some recent evidence of high diversity within the stock). In fact, the whole southern and southwestern periphery of the Amazon has a ‘belt’ of isolated languages and small families, indicating a high cultural diversity that, coincidentally or not, is paralleled by some of the most surprising findings in the region’s archaeology, such as the massive earthworks known as Geoglyphs in Brazil, and the fortified villages of the Upper Xingu.

The polyhcrome tradition spread over more than 2,000 km across the Amazonas floodplain, but was it associated with a single language?

I believe the LlanosPantanal, Guapore and other areas where several small families and many language isolates appear (see the map in the beginning of the post) are “cultural hot spots” where potentially such long archaeological sequences and a lot of ethnic diversity will be found. They are predominantly located in headwaters (this idea, of course, goes back to Greg Urban), show early cultural developments as seen through archaeology, and fit within the concept of ‘mosaic zones’. They contrast, for instance, with the huge expanses of Central Brazilian savannas, typical ‘spread zones’ (like the Eurasian steppe!) where an ocean of Macro-Je languages dominate. Another spread zone is the Amazon floodplain, a major waterway where, in prehistory, many material culture traits tended to be shared  – for example, the famous Amazon Polychrome Tradition. This tradition arose not long before the year A.D. 1,000 and was adopted for more than 2,000 km along the Amazonas floodplain, but we don’t know if that widespread ceramic style was associated with a single language. In other major river systems of lowland South America, such as the Paraná (and, in fact, all of the Atlantic coast of Brazil), similar ceramics (disseminated a lot earlier) were associated with Tupi speakers, but in the Amazon basin groups of different language families still make similar pottery, such as the Shipibo (Pano) or the Jivaro. On the other hand, some people have been associating the spread of polychrome ceramics with the Tupi languages even within the Amazonas floodplain. That’s a tempting idea, especially because of the historical evidence of the Omaguas and Kokamas, groups that were described in 16th century accounts as artisans of elaborately painted pottery. They spoke a Tupi language, but it seems that it is some sort of creole, using Tupi vocabulary with a different (possibly Arawak) syntax. That, of course, does not contradict the hypothesis that the language contact happened in prehistoric times.

Language Isolates Part I

Why should a language have any relatives? Like many historical linguistis, I was trained in the tacit assumption that languages belong in families. Large families were seen as ‘normal’; tiny families were problems requiring further work; and isolates were a positive embarassment: Basque and Burushaski were regarded with some amazement, if not with consternation. How could such things exist?

R. Trask, ‘Why should a language have any relatives?’

Language isolates are arguably the most interesting phenomenon in historical linguistics, and their geographic dispersion is equally fascinating – and very revealing. We can think of isolates as providing a deep link to the past of a certain region.

Let us take what is probably the best known example of a language isolate, or at least the one that immediately comes to the mind of speakers of Western European languages: Basque (Euskara). Basque has several characteristics that are typical of language isolates: it is spoken by a (relatively) small community, its geographic extension is very constrained, and it is surrounded by an “ocean” of other languages that can all be linked to larger and more widespread families (in this case, all of them are Indo-European).

How did this situation come to be? One hypothesis is that language isolates were once part of a larger language family, until all the other members died out or were absorbed by neighbouring languages. Luckily, in the case of Basque, we have written records from the Roman era (mainly personal names) that confirm that a language related to Basque was spoken in a (not much) wider area. There is also toponymical evidence of that. This hypothetical language family of which Basque would be the last remnant is called Aquitanian (the name the Romans gave to the people of the area). The Aquitanian languages were gradually replaced by the language of the Roman conquerors, until the last member of the family – Basque – ended up surrounded by Spanish, on one side, and French, on the other.

Basque is a “survivor” of a hypothetical language family, Aquitanian. Its sister languages were wiped out, probably first by the Celtic languages. These, in their turn, were later largely replaced by Romance (in France and Iberia) and Germanic (in the British Isles). The modern “patchy” distribution of Celtic languages resembles the geographical situation of isolates: the last remaining islands in an ocean that consists of layer over layer of past expansions.

However, this is where we get to an interesting point of the story. Before the Roman armies brought their language to France and the Iberian peninsula, Aquitanian languages were already surrounded by other languages of the Indo-European family: the Celtic languages. These were spoken by the Gauls, to the east, and by the Celtiberians, to the west. In fact, Celtic languages were once spoken over a large part of Western Europe, including all of the British Isles. They must have expanded over other languages and language families that may or may not have been related to Aquitanian, but the fact is that, by Roman times, Aquitanian was already a “survivor” of previous language spreads. Geography, of course, helped – as we will see, many language isolates are spoken in mountainous areas, islands, or other locations of difficult access, the “residual zones” of Nichols.

Seven words in Basque


Basque is completely different from surrounding languages of the Indo-European family. Even a glimpse at those languages, without any prior etymological knowledge, shows their remarkable similarity after six thousand (or more) years of divergence. Comparing seven basic words from a Germanic, a Romance and a Celtic language makes the contrast with Basque obvious (see above). Irish iasc lost the initial *p from PIE. Fulllleno and lán are actually cognates (from PIE *plh1nos). The position of Basque as an outlier is also clear in its morphology and syntax. For example, consider a sentence such as “you are taking me”. This would be constructed similarly in other Indo-European languages: just compare Spanish tu me llevas and German du nimmst mich. Basque, on the other hand, can be more synthetic, marking the object in the verb. The same sentence would be naramazu, where na– is the first person patient. Basque is also an ergative language, unlike its neighbours. These grammatical peculiarities, beyond the simple divergence in vocabulary, are an important feature of many language isolates.

How far back in time can the origin of Basque go? Although it is tempting to bring it as far back as the Palaeolithic, genetically the Basques appear to be closer to Neolithic farmers, with some admixture with the previous settlers. Of course, that implies that Renfrew’s hypothesis is definitively incorrect and the Indo-European language spread cannot be linked to the Neolithic… or can it? This introductory post is certainly not the place to discuss such controversies (I might do it in the future when writing specifically about Eurasia). What is important to retain is that, as the lesson of Basque shows, we can take the distribution of language isolates (as well as very small language families) as a point of departure, remove layers over layers of more recent language spreads, and uncover deep linguistic prehistory (by the way, a lot of the ideas about Basque and language isolates that are expressed here can be read in much more detail in this paper by Lyle Campbell). The next posts on isolates will be dedicated to map their distributions in different continents and try to make sense of them.

Perhaps a good (though unusual) place to start is South America.