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Altaic and Related Languages?

Submitted by on January 24, 2013 – 8:48 pm 26 Comments |  
Altaic Language Family MapToday’s language-family maps take up the controversial issue of Altaic. Several decades ago, many linguists grouped the Altaic languages with the Uralic languages, but that thesis is no longer tenable. Now many linguists are expressing doubt about the Altaic family itself. Languages placed within this group have a number of common features, but such features seem to many experts to result from borrowing. The farther back in history one goes, the less similar the main branches of the Altaic family appear. To the extent that this is true, Altaic cannot be regarded as a legitimate language family. I have therefore included a conventional map of Altaic, based closely on the Wikipedia language-family map found here. But I have also posted maps of the three main branches of Altaic (Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic), which may well be first-order language families themselves. Note again that the mapping is approximate at best, and refers to the situation pertaining in the mid-twentieth century rather than that of today. I have again closely followed the Wikipedia original map, although I did add a small Turkic area in northeastern Bulgaria. I wanted to add one as well in northern Cyprus, but the area is too small to be indicated given the tools that I am using.

Macro-Altaic Language Family MapA few scholars have suggested that Japanese and Korean also fall into the Altaic category, although that view is difficult to support. Others think that both languages have an Altaic superstratum,* but do not belong in the family (it has also been suggested that Japanese has an Austronesian substratum). Although the membership of Japanese and Korean in an Altaic family seems highly unlikely, I have posted a map of “Macro-Altaic” that includes both languages just to be comprehensive.

Japonic language family mapSome scholars have suggested that Japanese and Korean together form a language family of their own, but support for this thesis is also scant. Japanese is usually regarded as the main language of the much more restricted Japonic family. In addition to Japanese, this family includes the languages of the Ryukyu Archipelago, such as Okinawan. These tongues are often classified as dialects of Japanese, but by purely linguistic criteria they are languages in their own right. I have thus added a small dot to the map of the Japonic languages to indicate Okinawan. Note that the Wikipedia original map ignores the Japonic category and instead classifies Japanese as an isolate, or a language that sits alone rather than forming part of a larger family. (On the classification of Japanese, see here and here.)

Koreanic language family mapThe Wikipedia map also classifies Korean as an isolate. I have instead placed it in the Koreanic family, as several extinct languages also fall into this group, and as the tongue of Jeju island is considered by many linguists to be distinct enough from standard Korean to be classified as a language in its own right. I have thus added a dot for Jeju. It is too large, but unfortunately I cannot shrink it any further.

*A “superstratum” refers to linguistic elements imposed on a given language by high-prestige people, often rulers, who spoke a different language, whereas a “substratum” refers to the surviving linguistic elements of a group whose language was supplanted by another tongue.

Turkic Language Family Map


Mongolic Language Family MapTungusic language family map

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  • Tom D

    If it’s supposed to be the linguistic situation in the mid-20th century, then the Tungusic map has a few omissions. There were (and still are) Tungusic speakers down the Amur River in Khabarovsk Krai, even into Heilongjiang Province (especially speakers of various forms of Nanai, Oroč, and Udi [aka Udege/Udihe/etc.]), as well as on Sakhalin Island (speakers of Uil’ta [aka Orok]). There’s also a very small pocket of Even speakers on the Kamchatka Peninsula (if you look at the SIL map, they’re wrongly labeled as Evenki speakers, as are other groupings of Even on that particular map).

    • Thank you for bringing this up! Indeed there are these small Tungusic speaking groups in the Russian Far East—but I wonder if they’ve not been omitted simply because of the scale of the map.

      • Tom D

        It’s certainly possible for those in Kamchatka and on Sakhalin, but I’m not quite as sure about scale issues along the Amur.

        • Based on my understanding of census data, even in the Amur region we’re talking about small scattered communities… I might be wrong though…

    • Excellent points. The Wikipedia original actually does show Tungusic areas in central Kamchatka and in the Russian Far East. I should include these if I edit the map. The Tungusic map is probably the least accurate of those that I have posted. The Wikipedia has a a fairly good map of contemporary Tungusic distribution, which shows widely scattered groups. But it leaves out the Xibe of Xinjiang, who are listed in the same article as having the largest number of speakers of a Tungusic language (30,000, out of an ethnic population of 190,000). Language mapping, at whatever scale, is never easy!

      • Good points! Adding small dots in Kamchatka, Khabarovsk Krai and Primorye, however, would create a wrong impression that Tungusic languages in Siberia are more widely spread than in the Far East. If the map were to be made more accurately (and not at this scale and with the tools we use!), it would need to have scattered dots instead of one big area for Tungusic in Siberia as well, no?

      • Tom D

        Indeed. It looked like you’ve been going for a broad brush stroke kind of map, rather than a minutely detailed map.

        One of the perennial issues, especially in mapping the peoples of Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada is simply that there are large areas where there just aren’t people. Should one draw the map this way? But the other thing to consider is that many of the groups are nomadic. So what then? Draw the entire range of their movements over time?

        Like you said, these are questions with no easy answers.

        • These are excellent points that any linguistic cartographer needs to deal with!

  • There are more Turkic speakers in the Caucasus-Crimea region other than Azeri: Karachay-Balkar, Crimean Tatar and Nogai.

    • Thank you for pointing it out! I wonder if these groups were left out because the maps are supposed to not overlap: i.e. those areas are marked as either Indo-European or “Caucasian”—more on the latter in a future post—and so could not also be colored as Turkic. But an excellent point!

      • No doubt it is a simplification. But if you ever update the maps you might want to add dots there. I also just remembered Gagauz, spoken in Gagauzia (in Moldova).

        • Adding more dots is an excellent idea, and I may revise the maps in the future. The location of such dots, however, would have to be merely suggestive, due to the crude program that I have used to construct these maps.

  • A.F

    you have erased Yukaghir from Siberia….

    • Yukaghir languages are not in the altaic grouping. Some people relate them distantly to Uralic family, others include them in the so-called Paleo-Siberian grouping. I believe there will be more on such languages in a forthcoming post.

  • Philip Neal

    Is it too early to bring up the question of Japanese again? I would be interested to know your opinion of that interesting book ‘Koguryo, the Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives’ by Christopher Beckwith. He claims to show, on the basis of place names recorded phonetically in the 8th century AD, that a language related to Japanese (and not to Korean) was then spoken in Korea, and presents evidence for a southern origin of the two languages.

    • Tom D

      I would suggest giving Thomas Pellard’s review a read.

      In summary: Beckwith’s reconstruction of Chinese (cf. Baxter, Sagart, and Starostin’s reconstructions) and Japanese phonology (cf. Miyake’s reconstruction) are vastly different than everyone else’s. This isn’t an issue by itself, but the fact that with this book alone you have no clue how he arrived at them means you just have to take his word about possible cognates are plausible or not–not really a good thing when the whole point is to show possible cognates. This isn’t at all helped by the fact that his publisher decided to “help” by screwing up the fonts.

      He also appears to make a lot of arbitrary morphological boundaries where none exist. For instance, he claims Old Japanese töbu /təNpu/ ‘to fly’ goes back to *tö, but provides no evidence for this (the /Np/ here is a prenasalized consonant; can’t do superscript apparently). Other problems plague his reconstructions as well.

      So it’s a valuable look, and I have no problem with most of his historical information, but I have serious reservations about his linguistic conclusions.

      • Thank you for your evaluation, tom, and for the link!

      • Philip Neal

        I believe Beckwith’s Chinese reconstruction is more or less that of Pulleyblank, but Pellard’s points about Old Japanese reconstruction are well taken.

  • AltayKai

    We Altaic people are just one family with dozens of different languages and cultures. The reason for this is time. Time changes many things. At the end we are all ONE family. People who doubt these things are just afraid for us to unite again.

    • And your arguments for treating Altaic as *linguistically* (rather than politically) one family are based on what exactly, besides just a political agenda?

      • AltayKai

        Are based on an ancient nomadic family who is even more older that the Chinese themselves. We are shapeshifters of nature. We change and evolve, thats who we are.

        • You didn’t answer my question above. Just stating that certain peoples make up a family doesn’t make it so. What is the linguistic evidence?

          • AltayKai

            It doesnt make up ‘so’ in YOUR European mind. Your kind will never understand our bonds. So give it a rest.

          • Once again, what is the evidence? If you simply have an unsubstantiated opinion, a loaded political commentary, or an ideological agenda, we are not interested. In accordance with the “Comments Policy” (see above the disqus section), any further comments along those lines will be deleted.

          • AltayKai

            Even if I answered your question or gave you an evidence. You’d ask another question. And if i didnt know the answer for a question, you’d start telling lies. That’s how you people are, no dignity or respect for other nations. Come on…I know how you Europeans are. I’ve lived my whole life in your lands..

          • Indeed, I would ask another question, and then another, and so can you, and that’s how science goes forward. And this forum is for rational, reasoned, scientific discussion. If you don’t like that, you can take your nationalist agenda somewhere else. Your offensive, rude comments are not welcome here anyway. Nobody said anything offensive of you or your people so I don’t see why you allow yourself this sort of language in our civilized forum.