The Altaic family was first proposed in the 18th century. It was widely accepted until the 1960s, and is still listed in many encyclopedias and handbooks. Since the 1950s, many comparative linguists have rejected the proposal, after supposed cognates were found not to be valid, and Turkic and Mongolic languages were found to be converging rather than diverging over the centuries. Opponents of the theory proposed that the similarities are due to mutual linguistic influences between the groups concerned.
The original hypothesis unified only the Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic groups. Later proposals to include the Korean and Japanese languages into a "Macro-Altaic" family have always been controversial. (The original proposal was sometimes called "Micro-Altaic" by retronymy.) Most proponents of Altaic continue to support the inclusion of Korean. A common ancestral Proto-Altaic language for the "Macro" family has been tentatively reconstructed by Sergei Starostin and others.
Micro-Altaic includes about 66 living languages, to which Macro-Altaic would add Korean, Jeju, Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages, for a total of 74 (depending on what is considered a language and what is considered a dialect). These numbers do not include earlier states of languages, such as Middle Mongol, Old Korean or Old Japanese.
The earliest known texts in a Turkic language are the Orkhon inscriptions, 720–735 AD.:3 They were deciphered in 1893 by the Danish linguist Vilhelm Thomsen in a scholarly race with his rival, the German–Russian linguist Wilhelm Radloff. However, Radloff was the first to publish the inscriptions.
The first Tungusic language to be attested is Jurchen, the language of the ancestors of the Manchus. A writing system for it was devised in 1119 AD and an inscription using this system is known from 1185 (see List of Jurchen inscriptions).
Japanese is first attested in the form of names contained in a few short inscriptions in Classical Chinese from the 5th century AD, such as found on the Inariyama Sword. The first substantial text in Japanese, however, is the Kojiki, which dates from 712 AD. It is followed by the Nihon shoki, completed in 720, and that by the Man'yōshū, which dates from c. 771–785, but includes material that is from about 400 years earlier.:4
The most important text for the study of early Korean is the Hyangga, a collection of 25 poems, of which some go back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC–668 AD), but are preserved in an orthography that only goes back to the 9th century AD.:60 Korean is copiously attested from the mid-15th century on in the phonetically precise Hangul system of writing.:61
History of the Altaic family concept
The Altai Mountains in East-Central Asia give their name to the proposed language family.
In 1844, the Finnish philologistMatthias Castrén proposed a broader grouping, that later came to be called the Ural–Altaic family, which included Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus (=Tungusic) as an "Altaic" branch, and also the Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages as the "Uralic" branch (though Castrén himself used the terms "Tataric" and "Chudic").:126–127 The name "Altaic" referred to the Altai Mountains in East-Central Asia, which are approximately the center of the geographic range of the three main families. The name "Uralic" referred to the Ural Mountains.
While the Ural-Altaic family hypothesis can still be found in some encyclopedias, atlases, and similar general references, after the 1960s it has been heavily criticized. Even linguists who accept the basic Altaic family, like Sergei Starostin, completely discard the inclusion of the "Uralic" branch.:8–9
Korean and Japanese languages
In 1857, the Austrian scholar Anton Boller suggested adding Japanese to the Ural–Altaic family.:34
In the 1920s, G.J. Ramstedt and E.D. Polivanov advocated the inclusion of Korean. Decades later, in his 1952 book, Ramstedt rejected the Ural–Altaic hypothesis but again included Korean in Altaic, an inclusion followed by most leading Altaicists (supporters of the theory) to date. His book contained the first comprehensive attempt to identify regular correspondences among the sound systems within the Altaic language families.
In 1960, Nicholas Poppe published what was in effect a heavily revised version of Ramstedt's volume on phonology that has since set the standard in Altaic studies. Poppe considered the issue of the relationship of Korean to Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic not settled.:148 In his view, there were three possibilities: (1) Korean did not belong with the other three genealogically, but had been influenced by an Altaic substratum; (2) Korean was related to the other three at the same level they were related to each other; (3) Korean had split off from the other three before they underwent a series of characteristic changes.
Roy Andrew Miller's 1971 book Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages convinced most Altaicists that Japanese also belonged to Altaic. Since then, the "Macro-Altaic" has been generally assumed to include Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese.
In 1990, Unger advocated a family consisting of Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic languages, but not Turkic or Mongolic.
However, many linguists dispute the alleged affinities of Korean and Japanese to the other three groups. Some authors instead tried to connect Japanese to the Austronesian languages.:8–9
In 2017 Martine Robbeets proposed that Japanese (and possibly Korean) originated as a hybrid language. She proposed that the ancestral home of the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages was somewhere in northwestern Manchuria. A group of those proto-Altaic ("Transeurasian") speakers would have migrated south into the modern Liaoning province, where they would have been mostly assimilated by an agricultural community with an Austronesian-like language. The fusion of the two languages would have resulted in proto-Japanese and proto-Korean.
The Ainu language
In 1962 John C. Street proposed an alternative classification, with Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic in one grouping and Korean-Japanese-Ainu in another, joined in what he designated as the "North Asiatic" family. The inclusion of Ainu was adopted also by James Patrie in 1982.
The Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic and Korean-Japanese-Ainu groupings were also posited in 2000–2002 by Joseph Greenberg. However, he treated them as independent members of a larger family, which he termed Eurasiatic.
The inclusion of Ainu is not widely accepted by Altaicists. In fact, no convincing genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, and it is generally regarded as a language isolate.
Early criticism and rejection
Starting in the late 1950s, some linguists became increasingly critical of even the minimal Altaic family hypothesis, disputing the alleged evidence of genetic connection between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages.
Among the earlier critics were Gerard Clauson (1956), Gerhard Doerfer (1963), and Alexander Shcherbak. They claimed that the words and features shared by Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages were for the most part borrowings and that the rest could be attributed to chance resemblances. In 1988, Doerfer again rejected all the genetic claims over these major groups.
A major continuing supporter of the Altaic hypothesis has been S. Starostin, who published a comparative lexical analysis of the Altaic languages in (1991). He concluded that the analysis supported the Altaic grouping, although it was "older than most other language families in Eurasia, such as Indo-European or Finno-Ugric, and this is the reason why the modern Altaic languages preserve few common elements".
In 1991 and again in 1996, Roy Miller defended the Altaic hypothesis and claimed that the criticisms of Clauson and Doerfer apply exclusively to the lexical correspondences, whereas the most pressing evidence for the theory is the similarities in verbal morphology.
In 2003, Claus Schönig published a critical overview of the history of the Altaic hypothesis up to that time, siding with the earlier criticisms of Clauson, Doerfer, and Shcherbak.
Starostin's book was criticized by Stefan Georg in 2004 and 2005, and by Alexander Vovin in 2005.
Other defenses of the theory, in response to the criticisms of Georg and Vovin, were published by Starostin in 2005, Blažek in 2006, Robbeets in 2007, and Dybo and G. Starostin in 2008
In 2010, Lars Johanson echoed Miller's 1996 rebuttal to the critics, and called for a muting of the polemic.
List of supporters and critics of the Altaic hypothesis
The list below comprises linguists who have worked specifically on the Altaic problem since the publication of the first volume of Ramstedt's Einführung in 1952. The dates given are those of works concerning Altaic. For supporters of the theory, the version of Altaic they favor is given at the end of the entry, if other than the prevailing one of Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
Lars Johanson (2010). Agnostic, proponent of a "Transeurasian" verbal morphology not necessarily genealogically linked.
For the Altaic grouping
Phonological and grammatical features
The original arguments for grouping the "micro-Altaic" languages within a Uralo-Altaic family were based on such shared features as vowel harmony and agglutination.
According to Roy Miller, the most pressing evidence for the theory is the similarities in verbalmorphology.
The Etymological Dictionary by Starostin and others (2003) proposes a set of sound change laws that would explain the evolution from Proto-Altaic to the descendant languages. For example, although most of today's Altaic languages have vowel harmony, Proto-Altaic as reconstructed by them lacked it; instead, various vowel assimilations between the first and second syllables of words occurred in Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic. They also included a number of grammatical correspondences between the languages.
Starostin claimed in 1991 that the members of the proposed Altaic group shared about 15–20% of apparent cognates within a 110-word Swadesh-Yakhontov list; in particular, Turkic–Mongolic 20%, Turkic–Tungusic 18%, Turkic–Korean 17%, Mongolic–Tungusic 22%, Mongolic–Korean 16%, and Tungusic–Korean 21%. The 2003 Etymological Dictionary includes a list of 2,800 proposed cognate sets, as well as a few important changes to the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic. The authors tried hard to distinguish loans between Turkic and Mongolic and between Mongolic and Tungusic from cognates; and suggest words that occur in Turkic and Tungusic but not in Mongolic. All other combinations between the five branches also occur in the book. It lists 144 items of shared basic vocabulary, including words for such items as 'eye', 'ear', 'neck', 'bone', 'blood', 'water', 'stone', 'sun', and 'two'.
Those critics also argued that the words and features shared by Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages were for the most part borrowings and that the rest could be attributed to chance resemblances. They noted that there was little vocabulary shared by Turkic and Tungusic languages, though more shared with Mongolic languages. They reasoned that, if all three families had a common ancestor, we should expect losses to happen at random, and not only at the geographical margins of the family; and that the observed pattern is consistent with borrowing.
According to C. Schönig (2003), after accounting for areal effects, the shared lexicon that could have a common genetic origin was reduced to a small number of monosyllabic lexical roots, including the personal pronouns and a few other deictic and auxiliary items, whose sharing could be explained in other ways; not the kind of sharing expected in cases of genetic relationship.
The Sprachbund hypothesis
Instead of a common genetic origin, Clauson, Doerfer, and Shcherbak proposed (in 1956-1966) that Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages form a Sprachbund: a set of languages with similarities due to convergence through intensive borrowing and long contact, rather than common origin.
Asya Pereltsvaig further observed in 2011 that, in general, genetically related languages and families tend to diverge over time: the earlier forms are more similar than modern forms. However, she claims that an analysis of the earliest written records of Mongolic and Turkic languages shows the opposite, suggesting that they do not share a common traceable ancestor, but rather have become more similar through language contact and areal effects.
The prehistory of the peoples speaking the "Altaic" languages is largely unknown. Whereas for certain other language families, such as the speakers of Indo-European, Uralic, and Austronesian, it is possible to frame substantial hypotheses, in the case of the proposed Altaic family much remains to be done.
According to Juha Janhunen, the ancestral languages of Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese were spoken in a relatively small area comprising present-day North Korea, Southern Manchuria, and Southeastern Mongolia. However Janhunen is sceptical about an affiliation of Japanese to Altaic, while András Róna-Tas remarked that a relationship between Altaic and Japanese, if it ever existed, must be more remote than the relationship of any two of the Indo-European languages.:77 Ramsey stated that "the genetic relationship between Korean and Japanese, if it in fact exists, is probably more complex and distant than we can imagine on the basis of our present state of knowledge".
Supporters of the Altaic hypothesis formerly set the date of the Proto-Altaic language at around 4000 BC, but today at around 5000 BC or 6000 BC. This would make Altaic a language family about as old as Indo-European (4000 to 7,000 BC according to several hypotheses) but considerably younger than Afroasiatic (c. 10,000 BC:33 or 11,000 to 16,000 BC:35–36 according to different sources).
^Lyle Campbell and Mauricio J. Mixco (2007): A Glossary of Historical Linguistics; University of Utah Press. Page 7: "While 'Altaic' is repeated in encyclopedias and handbooks most specialists in these languages no longer believe that the three traditional supposed Altaic groups, Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic, are related."
^Johanna Nichols (1992) Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago University Press. Page 4: "When cognates proved not to be valid, Altaic was abandoned, and the received view now is that Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic are unrelated."
^R. M. W. Dixon (1997): The Rise and Fall of Languages. Cambridge University Press. Page 32: "Careful examination indicates that the established families, Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic, form a linguistic area (called Altaic)...Sufficient criteria have not been given that would justify talking of a genetic relationship here."
^ abAsya Pereltsvaig (2012) Languages of the World, An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. Pages 211–216: "[...T]his selection of features does not provide good evidence for common descent" [...] "we can observe convergence rather than divergence between Turkic and Mongolic languages—a pattern than is easily explainable by borrowing and diffusion rather than common descent"
^ abcRoy Andrew Miller (1971): Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. University of Chicago Press. ISBN0-226-52719-0.
^ abcdRoy Andrew Miller (1996): Languages and History: Japanese, Korean and Altaic. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture. ISBN974-8299-69-4. Pages 98–99
^ abcNicholas Poppe (1965): Introduction to Altaic Linguistics. Volume 14 of Ural-altaische Bibliothek. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
^Alexis Manaster Ramer and Paul Sidwell (1997): "The truth about Strahlenberg's classification of the languages of Northeastern Eurasia." Journal de la Société finno-ougrienne, volume 87, pages 139–160.
^Gustaf John Ramstedt (1952): Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft ("Introduction to Altaic Linguistics"). Volume I, Lautlehre ("Phonology").
^Nicholas Poppe (1960): Vergleichende Grammatik der altaischen Sprachen. Teil I. Vergleichende Lautlehre, ('Comparative Grammar of the Altaic Languages, Part 1: Comparative Phonology'). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. (Only part to appear of a projected larger work.)
^Roy Andrew Miller (1991): "Genetic connections among the Altaic languages." In Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell (editors), Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, 1991, 293–327. ISBN0-8047-1897-0.
^ abcdGerhard Doerfer (1963): "Bemerkungen zur Verwandtschaft der sog. altaische Sprachen" ('Remarks on the relationship of the so-called Altaic languages') In Gerhard Doerfer ed.: Türkische und mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen, Bd. I: Mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen, pages 51–105. Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden
^S. Robert Ramsey (2004): "Accent, Liquids, and the Search for a Common Origin for Korean and Japanese". Japanese Language and Literature, volume 38, issue 2, page 340. American Association of Teachers of Japanese.
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