Genes and Language Match Well

Repost from the old site. This post will look into whether or not genes and language line up well. The question may seem academic, but it is important for linguists in the battle for whether or not there is anything to the large macro-families that the “lumpers” are creating. It’s yet another skirmish in the lumpers versus splitters battle in Historical Linguistics. Historical in the branch that deals with language families, language relationships and reconstruction of old languages that are no longer spoken. The debate has heated up in recent years due to the prominence of lumper theories publicized by the late Joseph Greenberg and his followers and disciples, notably Merrit Ruhlen at Stanford University. Ruhlen and Greenberg use a technique called mass comparison which has come under a lot of wild and irrational abuse, but seems to be a valid scientific method in the hands of an expert. Greenberg used to come up with the four major language families of Africa a long time ago and his classification there has remained pretty solid ever since. He since published a book called Language in the Americas, which broke down all Amerindian languages into three large families – Amerind, Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut. I have read that book many times and I concur with its analysis. Unfortunately, a detailed examination of the evidence goes beyond the scope of this post. Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut are not very controversial, though the position of Haida within Na-Dene is regarded as unproven. I don’t have any position on Haida. If it’s related, it has to be as some outlier, such that the family should be called Haida-Na-Dene. In the same way, some wish to put the ancient Indo-European Anatolian language Hittite into a separate branch of Indo-European as Indo-Hittite. I don’t have a position on that either. Bengston promotes a family called Dene-Caucasian that involves the North Caucasian languages of the Caucasus, Basque, Edward Vajda conclusively proved that the Ket language is related to the Na-Dene languages.

A Ket man in Siberia. His phenotype looks a bit Japanese, no? Or am I wrong? He doesn’t look like an Amerindian. The situation of the Ket is deplorable, as most live in serious poverty and do not see any hope for their improving themselves. The Ket language is also in really bad shape, as hardly anyone under 35 can speak it well, and 30
I swear the USSR did a better job with minority tongues than these Putin fascists.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as the Selkup and Ket now live a long ways from the Altai region, but the Ket and Selkup are thought to have lived in the Altai long ago and come north later on.
Click to enlarge. I believe that the latest evidence is showing that all of the various Altai peoples – Northern Turkics would be the various Altai groupings – the Altai, the Tofalar, the Khakass and the Shor – are related to the Amerindians. These are often referred to as Northern Turkics. They aren’t really Turks per se as in people from Turkey, but even the Turks from Turkey are thought to be partly related to those Northern Turkic tribes. Northern Turkics are right on the border between Asians and Caucasians on gene charts and some Amerinds are not so far genetically from that border either. If you look at the Cavalli-Sforza gene chart below, you can see that next to the Eskimo-Aleuts, the Chukchi and the Northern Turkics are the people most closely related to the Amerindians. It also looks like the Ket and Selkup came from what is now the Northern Turkic Altai region. Anthropologically, these various groups are either Uralics or are South Siberian, Central Asian or North Asian Asiatics. This general region is where Russia, China and Mongolia all come together = the Altai.

This is the first connection of a New World language family with an Old World language family.

Here is a Nenets woman from Siberia. She definitely seems to look Northern Chinese or Korean. Or am I wrong? They have a population of 44,000, and there are 31,000 speakers of the language. It’s really two languages – Here is a rare photo of Ed Vajda with two Ket women in Siberia described as “experts in the Ket language. I’m not good at judging ages, but these women look to be about 40-60? If so, that is good, as I thought all of the speakers were elderly, and hardly anyone spoke the language well anymore. Ket does have anywhere from 537-1,000 speakers. A related language, Yugh, is thought to have recently gone extinct. The rest of the Yeniseien languages went extinct about 150-250 years ago.

These are the most vilified of the lumpers, but there are others who are following more orthodox methods of reconstruction in order to prove the existence of language families, such as the late Sergey Starostin, his son George Starostin, John Bengston, the late Vladislav Markovich Illich-Svitych (a prodigy, dead at the young age of only 32), Aharon Dolgopolsky and Vitaly Victorovich Shevoroshkin. The Starostins, Illich-Svitych, Dolgopolsky and Shevoroshkin all worked on Nostratic, a vast family consisting, variously, of Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Nivkh, Chukotko-Kamchatkan, Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian and Eskimo-Aleut. I would accept IE, Uralic, Altaic, Nivki, Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut for sure in Nostratic. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence for Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian, but I haven’t looked that hard at Nostratic. The Altaic family is itself controversial, but I regard it as fact, having studied it a bit. This large Altaic above also includes Japanese, Korean and Ainu. I agree that those three languages can be included in Altaic, though at great distance. I would toss Yukaghir in with Uralic. I would also toss Afro-Asiatic in with IE, as I read a good book on that subject. Nostratic has a whole lot more going for it than some of these other long-range proposals, and since these guys are using classic reconstruction, it gets a lot more respect from splitters. Starostin’s webpage is a great resource for looking into long-range stuff, especially Nostratic and Altaic. Bengston, Shevoroshkin and the Starostins all worked on Dene-Caucasian. This hypothesis seems a lot more controversial.

Click to enlarge. Here is a tree of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza’s human genetic families on the left and various human language families on the right, including some big families. The only one that is seriously out of place is Tibetan. This is because the Tibetans are a genetically North Chinese people who have moved down into Southern China in recent years.
They cluster with South Chinese linguistically but NE Asians genetically. All the rest lines up pretty well, including super-families like Nostratic and Eurasiatic (a Nostratic-like family created by Greenberg). The hypothesized Austric family is interesting. I’m not sure if I buy this super-family or not, but I have not really looked into it. With recent genetic evidence linking Indonesians and Vietnamese to Daic peoples of South China and SE Asia, it seems worth looking into.


Campbell, Lyle & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.) 1979. The Languages of Native America: An Historical and Comparative Assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press. Campbell, Lyle. 1988. “Review of Language in the Americas, by Joseph Greenberg.” Language 64:591-615. Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. Greenberg, Joseph. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Greenberg, Joseph. 1989. “Classification of American Indian languages: a reply to Campbell.” Language 65:1, 107-114.

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4 thoughts on “Genes and Language Match Well”

  1. Hi Robert – certainly this is interesting stuff – I guess that I’m one of those thousands of North Asian’s (although I immediate ancestry is Southern Chinese) who are somehow drawn into this historical lingustic/genetic question of why Chinese, although we are the largest “ethnic group”, fit so badly into the linguistic/genetic/anthropometric scheme of things – we look North Asian, we often cluster with South East Asians, but apparently we speak a language that traces it’s roots to Dene-Caucasian and is about as far as possible to any other language in Asia – particularly the Altaic speakers, with whom we share close cultural and somewhat proximate genetic/anthropometric traits. The end result of all this is that this whole area isn’t particularly satisfying for the 1/5th of humanity who want to understand more about their past and relationships with others…in any case, it’d be wonderful if you could let me and other Northern/Southern Chinese understand more about their heritage via email or on your blog or via some references to interesting articles if you ever have a free moment!

  2. Wow Robert, I never knew you were aware of Dr. Edward Vajda.
    Regarding Dravidian being in Nostretic, well Dravidian works in the same order as Altaic & Uralic. It’s an agrevetive? (spelling) language family, meaning they attach suffixation to root words to produce verbs, a trait shared by both Uralic & Altaic. Also many other grammatical similarities have been found between Kannada (Dravidian) and Turkic languages. Some of their suffixes are identical in sound & meaning.
    Common words were also found between Finnish (Uralic) & Malayalam (Dravidian).
    Additionally more common suffixation was found between Tamil (Dravidian) & Hungarian (Uralic).
    Suffixes with exact sound and meaning. Based on what I know I’d place Dravidian with Uralic & Altaic. Not sure about Indo-European & Afro-Asiatic fitting in, but I preffer to dig into the facts before making my own conclusions.
    And lastly regarding genetics, I can help you there. I’ve got plenty of charts & tables to supply you with if needed.

    1. I’m not sure I agree with that, though I am no expert. I don’t think I want to go along with a theory that puts Dravidian in with Altaic and Uralic. Dravidian is definitely a mysterious language family. I’m not sure I would put it in with Nostratic either. It’s too far from the rest of Nostratic proper.
      But I’m no expert on this stuff.

  3. When analysing possible macrofamilies, one should keep in mind the geographical situation during the ice age,of which one important factor is a belt of lawland along most parts of all continents where people could live and use as migration route, and which later was flooded.

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