Repost: Genes and Language Match Well

Genes and Language Match Well

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.

Recently, 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. 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 improving themselves. The Ket language is also in bad shape, as hardly anyone under 35 can speak it well, and 30% of the population regard speaking Ket as useless.
The USSR did a better job with minority tongues than Putin.
There is good evidence of a link between the Ket and the  Amerindians (broken link). The Selkup are a Samoyedic people who live near the Ket. There is also good evidence linking the peoples of the Altai with Amerindians. 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 came north later on.
 
Relating to the Ket, along with the Selkup nearby, the theory linking these groups to the Amerindians supports a single migration to the Americas 16,000 years ago, but it’s not at all definitive. According to this paper (broken link) linking the Ket with Amerindians, Proto-Caucasians are thought to have evolved in Central Asia. I would place it more near the Caucasus.
 

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.

Here is a Nenets woman from Siberia. She definitely looks Northern Chinese or Korean. They have a population of 44,000, and there are 31,000 speakers of the language. It’s really two languages – Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets – but both are said to be endangered. I think at least Tundra Nenets will be around for a while though, as most kids are still learning it. The Nenets are Samoyedics like the Selkup, discussed above. The Selkup are related to the Amerindians.

It’s interesting that the Ket have also been linked genetically with the New World.

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 has 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.

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.

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. At the very least Austro-Thai, a language family consisting of the Austronesian and Tai-Kadai families. seems to have been proven in the last 10 years with the publication of a couple of important articles. Laurence Sagart is doing good work in this area.

References

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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One thought on “Repost: Genes and Language Match Well”

  1. Very interesting. Too me Afro-Asiatic seems very close to IE. But I don’t know anything about the other Eurastic or Nostraic families besides Uralic and Altaic (Japanese).

    But IE is like AA with corrupted and limited ablaut. PIE verbs did have ablaut just not to the extreme of AA languages. Even PIE/IE some nouns exhibit ablaut.

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