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 is 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 disciples, notably Merritt 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 it 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. However, looking at evidence mustered by Alexander Manaster-Ramer, I believe that Haida is definitely Na-Dene, though possibly a sister to the entire group as it is so distant.
In the same way, the ancient Indo-European Anatolian language is now regarded as a separate branch of Indo-European – Indo-Hittite or Indo-Anatolian. My Indo-Europeanist sources told me that Indo-Hittite or Indo-Anatolian is now regarded as consensus in the field.
Bengston promotes a family called Dene-Caucasian that involves the North Caucasian languages of the Caucasus, Basque, Na-Dene, Sino-Tibetan, Burushaski in northern Pakistan and the Ket Family in Siberia. I can’t speak for the whole family, but the evidence is definitely interesting. I think that Bengston has proven a case for Ket, Basque, and the Caucasian languages being related, as I read a book on that subject.
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 these 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, South Siberian, Central Asian or North Asian Asiatics. The Altai region is where Russia, China and Mongolia all come together.
This is the first connection of a New World language family with an Old World language family.
It’s interesting that the Ket have also been linked genetically with the New World.
Greenberg and Ruhlen are the most vilified of the lumpers, but there are others who are following more orthodox methods of reconstruction to prove the existence of ancient 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 now think that Afroasiatic and Dravidian are sisters to Nostratic instead of part of the family per se because they are so far removed from the rest of the family.
I would accept IE, Uralic, Altaic, Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut in Nostratic. The Altaic family is itself controversial, but I regard it as fact, having studied it. Altaic also includes Japanese and Korean. I would toss Yukaghir in with Uralic.
Nostratic has a lot more going for it than some of the other long-range proposals, and since these scholars are using classic reconstruction, it gets respect from splitters. Starostin’s webpage is a great resource for looking into long-range theories, especially Nostratic and Altaic.
Bengston, Shevoroshkin, and the Starostins all worked on Dene-Caucasian. This hypothesis seems a lot more controversial.
- 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.