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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

proto-Eurasiatic (language)

  I don't often blog about it but I am very interested in historical linguistic.s. Within the last couple years I've avidly read titles like The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo European and the Proto Indo-Euroepan World by Mallory and Adams,  American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America by Lyle Campbell and of course How To Kill A Dragon: Aspects of Indo European Poetics by Calvert Watkins.

  And what I've learned is that the field of historical linguistics is rife with controversy particularly when it comes to the postulation of "proto" or hypotheized languages that link one or more language families.  The most "famous" proto language is "proto Indo European" which links languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Farsi and Hindi.  Proto Indo European is generally accepted by the linguistic community, but there are larger attempts to create grander proto languages that link more language families.

  Yesterday, The Washington Post wrote an article about a claim by linguists to have identified proto-Eurasiatic.  This language includes Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Inuit-Yupik, Dravidian, Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Kartvelian.
The Washington Post actually incorrectly states that, "Several of the world’s important language families, however, fall outside that lineage, such as the one that includes Chinese and Tibetan; several African language families, and those of American Indians and Australian aborigines."

  You don't need a degree in linguistics, let alone historical linguistics, to recognize that the Inuit-Yupik language family is, in fact, a language of "American Indians."  The claims of a link between Inuit-Yupik and language families like Uralic or Indo European  have been made since the 1970s.    There is also an unresolved issue of whether Inuit-Yupik is the language of a group of late comers across the Bering strait or whether they were the ancestors of the main migration into North America.  The main mover in this area was Joseph H. Greenberg: The  "area" in question being the attempt to link language families in North America with those in Asia.

     In 1987, "Greenberg classified all the languages of the Americas into three groups: Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene and Amerind.  This proposal has received much attention in the popular media and by scholars of disciplines outside of linguistics but it has been rejected by the majority of specialists in the field."  Skepticism aside, this hypothesis was confirmed by a DNA study that was reported in the New York Times last July.

   Another implication is the link between Indo-European and the major language families of North and East Asia, specifically Uralic and Altaic.  This would seem to favor an origin of Indo-European languages at the Northern end of the spectrum of locations hypothesized by scientists.

   Anyway, if you know anything about historical linguistics you have to be skeptical of such claims, especially when they are embraced by mainstream media outlets but it's an interesting theory. And considering that another main aspect of Greenberg's thesis was confirmed by DNA tests it makes sense that other parts of his theory would also be found true.

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