A Look at the Altaic Question, a Current Controversy in Linguistics

               Turkic    Tungusic*        Written Mongolian
1P sing.:
nominative      ban      bi               bi
oblique stem    man-     min-             min-
2P sing.:
nominative      san      chi    (<*ti)    si
oblique stem    san-     chiin- (<*tin)   sin-
(e.g. Evenki and Manchu)

The Altaic argument is one of the biggest controversies in current linguistics. It is said that Linguistics has decided that Altaic does not exist. Actually, the field has not decided that at all. The consensus in the field is that Altaic is still an open question. In other words, they are fighting about it.
The field is split up into Pro-Altaicists and Anti-Altaicists. It’s not true that the field has decided in favor of the Anti-Altaicists. The Antis say that there is no such thing as Altaic. The Pros said that Altaic exists, and here is the evidence. The consensus instead rejects both positions and says we don’t know if Altaic exists or not. There is a big difference between we don’t know if it exists (maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t) and it doesn’t exist. One statement is uncertainty and the other statement is negative.
According to Anti-Ataicists, every time a human can’t make up their mind about something yes or no, they actually are saying no. No they’re not! They’re not saying yes or no. They are rejecting both positions and saying instead that they are undecided. What the Anti-Altaicists are doing is akin to saying everyone who answers undecided on a political candidate poll is actually saying that want to vote against the person! The entire basis of political polling would change.
The Anti-Altaicists are typically quite vicious, while the other side is not. The safe position is Anti-Altaicism, so a lot of wimpy linguists too scared to stand up and fight have sought refuge in the negative position. Furthermore, Linguistics is like an 8th grade playground. Some positions are openly ridiculed. Pro-Altaicism is openly ridiculed, and taking that position is seen as prima facie evidence that a linguist is a crank, an idiot or a fool. I would imagine that if you told a hiring committee that you believed in Altaic, it would be harder to get hired than if you took the negative stand. And I could imagine that being pro-Altaic might keep you from getting tenure.
Not only are the Antis vicious (all of them are vicious, bar none), but many of them are complete idiots and fools, as seen above in the preposterous conflation of uncertain opinions with negative opinions above. The fools on Bad Linguistics Reddit are evidence of this. They all hate Altaic because they are wimps who are too afraid of a fight, so they take a safe position. They bashed me for saying Altaic was real, saying it was evidence of what a kook and crank I am, when in fact, Altaic exists is a completely acceptable position to take. Many famous linguists have supported Altaic in the past, and a number of top linguists currently support it.
Anti-Altaic papers are often vicious from an academic paper standpoint. In academic papers, you are supposed to be restrained and keep your strong opinions to yourself. Not so with anti-Altaicists. They are over the top insulting and ridiculing towards Altaicists.
Altaicists have accumulated quite a bit of evidence in support of their position. The pronouns above prove Altaic for me. All I have to do is look at those pronoun sets (and there are other pronouns that also line up precisely like above) and I know it’s real.
This is what Joseph Greenberg means when he says that proving whether language families exist and reconstructing proto-languages are two different things.
You figure out a language family by simple inspection. Greenberg uses the mass comparison method, and it has worked very well for him for African languages. His Amerindian languages proposals have not been well accepted, but it’s clear that there is a large family called Amerind. There is 1st person m and second person n all through the family, occurring ~450 times. Personal pronouns are rarely borrowed, and entire personal pronoun sets are almost never borrowed (Piraha did borrow all of its pronouns, but Piraha is bizarre in many ways).
Joanna Nichols, a current spokesperson for the conservative Linguistics Establishment as good as any other (and a fine linguist to boot) states that the current consensus is that there is no such thing as Amerind and that those 450 similar pronouns are all cases of borrowing. Wow! Personal pronoun sets (not just one pronoun but an entire paradigm) were borrowed 450 times in the Americas! That’s one of the most idiotic statements that one could make, but this is the current consensus of linguistic “science.” Dumb or what?
A much better position would be to say that Amerind is uncertain (maybe it exists, maybe it doesn’t), as the negative position is preposterous and idiotic right on its face. Nichols has also stated that all of the Altaic pronouns were borrowed.
That’s even more idiotic because unlike in the Americas, entire large pronoun paradigms exist in Altaic where they do not exist in Amerind. Paradigms, especially pronoun paradigms, are almost never borrowed, and paradigm evidence is considered excellent evidence of genetic relationship. English good, better, best is the same paradigm as German gut, besser, besten. That’s an odd way to set up comparatives, and the fact that that comparative set lines up perfectly is what is known as a paradigm. That one paradigm right there ought to be enough to prove the relatedness of English and German, even leaving out all other massive evidence for relatedness.
Greenberg says that after you decide that languages form a family, then you set about using the comparative method of reconstructing proto-languages, finding sound correspondences and whatnot. The current conservative or reactionary position of the field is that first you reconstruct the proto-languages and then and only then can you prove a language family. That’s absurd. They’re in effect doing everything ass backwards. Incidentally, long ago Edward Sapir agreed with Greenberg that language families were proven first by inspection and only later did reconstruction take place. Sapir also came up with the Amerind hypothesis decades before Greenberg. Sapir is quoted as saying:

Getting down to brass tacks, how are you going to prove Amerind 1st person m and second person n other than genetic relatedness?
– Edward Sapir, 1917?

Who was Edward Sapir? Only one of the greatest linguists in history.
I can look right there at that pronoun paradigm set and tell you flat out that those three language families are related. It’s not possible that all of those languages borrowed all of those pronouns. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen. It’s beyond the realm of statistical probability. A statement that is outside the realm of statistical probability is considered to be for all intents and purposes nonfactual. Ask anyone Statistics major.
Not only has Proto-Altaic been reconstructed at least in a tentative and initial form, but there are regular sound correspondences running through all of the comparative lexicon of the three proto-languages: Proto-Turkic, Proto-Tungusic and Proto-Mongolian.
Regular sound correspondences are another thing we look for. It would mean that every time you have VlV in Language A, you have VnV in Language B (V = vowel). We then say that Language A l -> Language B n. Regular sound correspondences are considered to be excellent evidence of genetic relatedness.
In fact, an entire etymological dictionary of Altaic has been produced, reconstructing a lot of Proto-Altaic lexicon along with the cognates in the daughter languages. This dictionary runs to over 1,000 pages, and it is a true work of art in the social sciences. The entire etymological dictionary has been rejected out of hand by the Anti-Altaicists. However, they have not directly attacked or tried to prove many of the etymologies wrong. They simply looked at it, said it’s junk, laughed at it and ridiculed it, and moved on.
This conservative or even reactionary mood has been the norm in Historic Linguistics for decades now. The field has become very stick in the mud about this.
However, in much of the rest of Linguistics, especially Sociolinguistics, Language Acquisition, and Applied Linguistics, the field has reached consensus on many a silly thing that makes little to no sense at all other than that it sounds very Politically Correct. Linguistics being a social science, PC and SJW Cultural Left culture has infected the field in an awful way.
You must understand that Cultural Left views did not just appear in a few select social sciences. Instead this ideology swept through the entire social sciences, sparing not a one. In terms of a March Through the Institutions for this ideology, it was akin to a rapid hostile takeover. Cultural Left and SJW views are now mandatory in Linguistics. If you refuse to go along, you will not get hired or get tenured. If your reputation is too bad, you may not be able to publish in academic journals or books.
Alas, my field has been poisoned with this Cultural Left toxin or venom like all the rest of them!

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One thought on “A Look at the Altaic Question, a Current Controversy in Linguistics”

  1. Robert,
    The German I was taught, Essen dialect, is “gut, besser, besten”. That’s even closer to the English.

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