The hypothetical ancestral language of the Nostratic family is called Proto-Nostratic, following standard linguistic practice. Proto-Nostratic would necessarily have been spoken at an earlier time than the language families descended from it, which would place it toward the end of the Paleolithic period.
Nostratic is sometimes called a macrofamily or a superfamily, but these terms have no scientific signification: they simply denote a language family that groups two or more other language families and is not (or not yet) generally accepted by those linguists who have concerned themselves with the question.
In contrast to some other macrofamilies, most versions of the Nostratic hypothesis rely upon an application of the comparative method, involving systematic sound-and-meaning correspondences between the constituent families as well as systematic correspondences in their grammar. Notwithstanding this, the hypothesis is very controversial.
The Nostratic hypothesis has varying degrees of acceptance, depending in part on local academic traditions. In Russia, it is endorsed by a substantial minority of linguists working in relevant areas, e.g. Vladimir Dybo, but does not constitute a generally accepted theory. In the English-speaking world, it is strongly condemned by a minority of linguists, e.g. Lyle Campbell; others take an agnostic view, e.g. Philip Baldi (2002); a few support similar but not identical classifications, e.g. Merritt Ruhlen; declared supporters of the Nostratic hypothesis, e.g. Allan Bomhard, are a small minority at the present time (2008).
The concept of Nostratic can be best understood in the context of the discovery of the Indo-European family of languages and the methods developed in its investigation. When Sir William Jones first suggested the Indo-European hypothesis in 1786, he backed up his idea with a systematic examination of what could be termed "phono-semantic sets" — words which, in different languages, have both similar sounds and similar meanings. Jones essentially argued that too many of these sets occurred for mere coincidence to explain their existence, laying particular emphasis on the resemblance between morphological patterns: declensions and conjugations. He proposed that the languages in question must have stemmed from a single language at some time in the past, and that they had diverged from one another due to geographical separation and the passage of time. The idea of a "root language" thus took hold, a concept to which the evolution of the Romance languages from Latin offered itself as a clear parallel.
A second major concept to keep in mind involves the argument, starting with Jacob Grimm, that languages do not evolve in a haphazard manner, but rather according to certain rules. Using these rules, one could theoretically run the evolutionary process backwards and reconstruct the root language. Comparative linguists have done this, producing parts of the hypothetical language, named Proto-Indo-European.
A third concept suggests that, by examining the words in the Proto-Indo-European language, one can determine some things about the time and place of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Words for objects and concepts that were not familiar to the speakers of Proto-Indo-European would receive essentially random names after the time when the languages began to split; only things they knew would produce phono-semantic sets in the successor languages. Proto-Indo-European features many words relating to animal husbandry, agriculture, and plains-like landscapes. From this, scholars have plausibly argued that Proto-Indo-European existed as a living language some time between 6000 BC and 4000 BC in the plains to the north of the Black Sea. (As a measure of the difficulty of this task, some argue that the reconstructed vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European, together with other known information about migrations, indicates a northern Anatolian landscape, although this area notably lacks flat ground.)
Altogether, the Indo-European hypothesis has proven wildly successful, and naturally linguists have tried to apply the same general theory to a wide variety of other languages. Many languages have been shown to be related to other languages, forming large families similar to Indo-European. On the face of it, it is logical that the family tree could converge further, and that some or all language families could be related to one another.
The last quarter of the 19th century saw various linguists putting forward proposals linking the Indo-European languages to other language families, such as Finno-Ugric, Altaic and Sumerian (Sweet 1900: vii, 112–132).
These proposals were taken much farther in 1903 when Holger Pedersen, a major Danish linguist, proposed "Nostratic", a common ancestor for the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, Yukaghir, Eskimo, Semitic, and Hamitic languages, with the door left open to the eventual inclusion of others.
The name derives from the Latin word nostras, meaning 'our fellow-countryman' (plural: nostrates). Some linguists who broadly accept the concept have criticised the name as reflecting the ethnocentrism frequent among Europeans at the time (Ruhlen 1991: 384). Even so, it arguably transcends these associations. Proposed alternative names such as Mitian, formed from the characteristic first- and second-person pronouns mi 'I' and ti 'you' (ib. 259), have not attained the same currency.
An early supporter was the French linguist Albert Cuny — better known for his role in the development of the laryngeal theory (Szemerényi 1996:124) — who published his Recherches sur le vocalisme, le consonantisme et la formation des racines en « nostratique », ancêtre de l'indo-européen et du chamito-sémitique ('Researches on the Vocalism, Consonantism, and Formation of Roots in "Nostratic", Ancestor of Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic') in 1943. Although Cuny enjoyed a high reputation as a linguist, the work was coldly received.
While Pedersen's Nostratic hypothesis did not make much headway in the West, it became quite popular in what was then the Soviet Union. Working independently at first, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky elaborated the first version of the contemporary form of the hypothesis during the 1960s. They expanded it to include additional language families. Illich-Svitych also prepared the first dictionary of the hypothetical language.
The language families proposed for inclusion in Nostratic vary, but all Nostraticists agree on a common core of language families, with differences of opinion appearing over the inclusion of additional families.
The three groups universally accepted among Nostraticists are Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic. (The validity of the Altaic family is currently in dispute but is accepted by all Nostraticists.) Nearly all also include the Dravidian and Kartvelian language families in Nostratic.
Following Pedersen, Illich-Svitych, and Dolgopolsky, most advocates of the theory have included Afro-Asiatic, though criticisms by Joseph Greenberg and others from the late 1980s onward suggested a reassessment of this position.
A fairly representative grouping, arranged in rough geographical order (and probable order of phylogenetic branching), would include:
The Sumerian and Etruscan languages, usually regarded as language isolates, are thought by some to be Nostratic languages as well. Others, however, consider one or both to be members of another macrofamily called Dené-Caucasian.
Another notional isolate, the Elamite language, also figures in a number of Nostratic classifications. It is frequently grouped with Dravidian as Elamo-Dravidian, but may well be an independent branch.
In 1987 Joseph Greenberg proposed a similar macrofamily which he called Eurasiatic. It included the same "Euraltaic" core (Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic), but excluded some of the above-listed families, most notably Afro-Asiatic. At about this time Russian Nostraticists, notably Sergei Starostin, constructed a revised version of Nostratic which was slightly broader than Greenberg's grouping but which similarly left out Afro-Asiatic.
Recently, however, a consensus has been emerging among proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis. Greenberg in fact basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' (his Eurasiatic) and a southern 'tier' (principally Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian). The American Nostraticist Allan Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Afro-Asiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin (2002) arrives at a tripartite overall grouping: he considers Afro-Asiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else ). Sergei Starostin's school has now re-included Afro-Asiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic, while reserving the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping which comprises the rest of the macrofamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Dravidian and Kartvelian.
(Part of the confusion stems from the definition of Nostratic: "those families that are related to Indo-European" [Pedersen as cited by Ruhlen, 2001]. Thus, which languages are Nostratic depends on which are considered to be discoverably related to Indo-European, and this is where opinions differ.)
According to Greenberg, Eurasiatic and Amerind form a genetic node, being more closely related to each other than either is to "the other families of the Old World" (2002: 2). This would place most of the Native American languages within Nostratic, an unusual hypothesis from the Nostraticist point of view.
It is too early to evaluate the emerging hypotheses of remoter affiliations in which Nostratic itself is incorporated into an even broader linguistic 'mega-phylum', sometimes called Borean, which would also include at least the Dené-Caucasian and perhaps the Amerind and Austric superfamilies.
Allan Bomhard and Colin Renfrew are in broad agreement with the earlier conclusions of Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky in seeking the Nostratic Urheimat (original homeland) within the Mesolithic (or Epipaleolithic) Middle East, the stage which directly preceded the Neolithic and was transitional to it. Looking at the cultural assemblages of this period, two sequences in particular stand out as possible archeological correlates of the earliest Nostratians or their immediate precursors.
The first of these is focused on Palestine. The Kebaran culture of Palestine (18,000–10,500 BCE) not only introduced the microlithic assemblage into the region, it also has African affinity, specifically with the Ouchtata retouch technique associated with the microlithic Halfan culture of Egypt (24,000–17,000 BCE). The Kebarans in their turn were directly ancestral to the succeeding Natufian culture of Palestine and the Levant (10,500–8500 BCE), which has enormous significance for prehistorians as the clearest evidence of hunters and gatherers in actual transition to Neolithic food production. Both cultures extended their influence outside the region into southern Anatolia. For example, in Cilicia the Belbaşi culture (13,000–10,000 BCE) shows Kebaran influence, while the Beldibi culture (10,000–8500 BCE) shows clear Natufian influence.
The second possibility as a culture associated with the Nostratic family is the Zarzian (12,400–8500 BCE) culture of the Zagros mountains, stretching northwards into Kobistan in the Caucasus and eastwards into Iran. In western Iran, the M’lefatian culture (10,500–9000 BCE) was ancestral to the assemblages of Ali Tappah (9000–5000 BCE) and Jeitun (6000–4000 BCE). Still further east, the Hissar culture has been seen as the Mesolithic precursor to the Keltiminar culture (5500–3500 BCE) of the Kyrgyz steppe.
To have spread so widely suggests these people possessed some cultural advantages. It has been proposed that the broad spectrum revolution of Kent Flannery (1969), associated with microliths, the use of the bow and arrow, and the domestication of the dog, all of which are associated with these cultures, may have been the cultural "motor" that led to their expansion. Certainly cultures which appeared at Franchthi cave in the Aegean and Lipinski Vir in the Balkans, and the Murzak-Koba (9100–8000 BCE) and Grebenki (8500–7000 BCE) cultures of the Ukrainian steppe, all displayed these adaptations.
The phonemes tabulated below are commonly reconstructed for the Proto-Nostratic language (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin 1988). Allan Bomhard, who relies more heavily on Indo-European and less on the other Nostratic branches than the "Moscow School", reconstructs a different vowel system, with three pairs of vowels connected by ablaut: .
|Bilabial||Alveolar or dental|| Alveolo-|
¹ These phonemes do not occur in some or most reconstructions of Proto-Nostratic. They are omitted or put in brackets in the "Sound correspondences" table below, except for /p/.
² /j/ is of course the voiced palatal approximant; it is included here among the postalveolars for mere space reasons.
|Close||/i/ • /y/¹||/u/|
¹ The phoneme /y/ appears in Bomhard but not in some other reconstructions of Proto-Nostratic.
The following table is compiled from data given by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Starostin Because linguists working on Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, and Proto-Dravidian do not usually use the IPA, the transcriptions used in those fields are also given where the letters differ from the IPA symbols. The IPA symbols are between slashes because this is a phonemic transcription. The exact values of the phoneme "p1" in Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Dravidian are unknown. "0" indicates disappearance without a trace. Hyphens indicate different developments at the beginning and in the interior of words; no consonants ever occurred at the ends of word roots. (Starostin's list of affricate and fricative correspondences does not mention Afro-Asiatic or Dravidian, and Kaiser and Shevoroshkin don't mention these sounds much; hence the holes in the table.)
Note that, due to lack of research, there are at present several different mutually incompatible reconstructions of Proto-Afro-Asiatic (see for two recent ones). The one used here has been said to be based too strongly on Proto-Semitic (Yakubovich 1998 ).
Similarly, the paper by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin is much older than the newest Altaic Etymological Dictionary (2003; see Altaic languages article) and therefore assumes a somewhat different phonological system for Proto-Altaic.
(To be completed and updated further.)
Because grammar is less easily borrowed than words, grammar is usually considered stronger evidence for language relationships than vocabulary. The following correspondences (slightly modified to account for the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic by Starostin et al. ) have been suggested by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988). /N/ could be any nasal consonant. /V/ could be any vowel. (The above cautionary notes on Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian apply.)
|/na/ "originally a locative particle"¹||/en/ 'in'||-/na/||-/na/||/nu/, /n/²||-/n/|
|/Na/ or /Næ/ "animate plural"||-/NV/²||-/(e)n/||-/aːn/|
|-/t̕V/ "inanimate plural"³||4||-/t/||-/tʰ/-||-/t/-||-/æt/|
|/s(V)/ "causative-desiderative"||-/se/-||-/su/, -/sa/||-ij -/iɟ/-|
|/t̕V/- "causative-reflexive"||-t(t)- -/t(ː)/-||-/t/-6||-/t/-||/tV/-|
|/k̕o/ "intensifying and copulative"||-/kʷe/ 'and'7||-/ka/, -kä -/kæ/||-/ka/||/kwe/||/k(w)/|
In addition, Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988:314f.) write the following about Proto-Nostratic grammar (two asterisks are used for reconstructions based on reconstructions; citation format changed):
As an example of the kind of etymologies put forward by Nostraticists, we can cite the following (from Bomhard and Kerns, The Nostratic Macrofamily, p. 219).
— This exemplifies what some linguists find suspect about the Nostratic hypothesis: a single proto-form is being suggested as the ancestor of words meaning 'barley', 'wheat', 'pebbles', and 'seeds'.
— On the other hand, proponents point to parallels in standard Indo-European etymological dictionaries in which seemingly disparate meanings can convincingly be derived from reconstructed proto-forms.
Even within English, the word 'grain' has a wide range of meanings:
— Yet others argue that the terms on this list are not all from equal eras. The usage of the word grain in 'a grain of truth' is far predated by the usage of the word 'grain'.
For comparison, here is a typical Indo-European etymology (from Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, p. 598):
The following are taken from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998) and transcribed into the IPA. (The same cautionary notes apply as for the sound correspondences table.)
Personal pronouns are seldom borrowed between languages. Therefore the many correspondences between Nostratic pronouns are rather strong evidence for the existence of a Proto-Nostratic language. The difficulty of finding Afro-Asiatic cognates is, however, taken by some as evidence that Nostratic has two or three branches, Afro-Asiatic and Eurasiatic (and possibly Dravidian), and that most or all of the pronouns in the following table can only be traced to Proto-Eurasiatic.
Nivkh is a living (if moribund) language with an orthography, which is given here. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed.
For space reasons, Etruscan is not included, but the fact that it had /mi/ 'I' and /mini/ 'me' seems to fit the pattern reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic ideally, leading some (cf. Bomhard 1996) to argue that the Aegean or Tyrsenian languages were yet another Nostratic branch.
(There does not appear to be a reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo-Aleut, even though the existence of the Eskimo-Aleut family is generally accepted.)
| 'me' ~ 'mine'|
|'we' (inclusive)||/mæ/||'we'||'we'|| /ba/(nom.)|
/myn/- (oblique) 'we'
|7 'we'|| /mur/|
|'we' (exclusive)||/na/||/ne/- 'we'8||10||'we'||/naħnu/9|
Below are selected reconstructed etymologies from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998). Reconstructed (= unattested) forms are marked with an asterisk. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed. Likewise, /E/ could have been any front vowel and /N/ any nasal consonant. Only the consonants are given of Proto-Afro-Asiatic roots (see above).
Criticisms of Nostratic are grouped in the next section, replies to criticisms in the section after it. For easy reference, each criticism and its corresponding reply have the same number. Each side is free to plead its case without interference and readers to judge between them.
1. Certain critiques have pointed out that the data from individual, established language families that is cited in Nostratic comparisons often involves a high degree of errors; Campbell (1998) demonstrates this for Uralic data.
2. The technique of comparing grammatical structures (as opposed to words) has suggested to some that the Nostratic candidates lack interrelatedness.
3. Were one to collect all the words from the various known Indo-European languages and dialects which have at least one of any 4 meanings, one could easily form a list that would cover any conceivable combination of two consonants and a vowel (of which there are only about 20*20*5=2000).
1. Supposing this to be true, it would remain that in classifying languages genetically, positives count for vastly more than negatives (Ruhlen 1994). The reason for this is that, above a certain threshold, resemblances in sound/meaning correspondences are highly improbable mathematically.
2. Some grammatical endings and words have been reconstructed to Proto-Nostratic. See for instance Kerns's chapter on Nostratic syntax in Bomhard and Kerns (1994).
3. Nostraticists do not compare isolated lexical items but reconstructed proto-languages. To include a word for a proto-language it must be found in a number of languages and the forms must be relatable by regular sound changes.
In addition, many languages have restrictions on root structure, reducing the number of possible root-forms far below its mathematical maximum. These languages include, among others, Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic — all the core languages of the Nostratic hypothesis. To understand how the root structures of one language relate to those of another has long been a focus of Nostratic studies (e.g. Cuny 1943:113-159).
The late Vladislav Illich-Svitych, a notable Russian Nostraticist, decided to create a poem using his version of Proto-Nostratic. (Compare Schleicher's fable for similar attempts with several different reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European.) The famous poem is as follows:
|Nostratic (Illich-Svitych's spelling)||Nostratic (IPA)||Russian||English|
|K̥elHä wet̥ei ʕaK̥un kähla||Язык – это брод через реку времени,||Language is a ford through the river of time,|
|k̥aλai palhʌ-k̥ʌ na wetä||он ведёт нас к жилищу умерших;||it leads us to the dwelling of those gone ahead;|
|śa da ʔa-k̥eja ʔälä||но туда не сможет дойти тот,||but he cannot arrive there,|
|ja-k̥o pele t̥uba wete||кто боится глубокой воды.||who fears deep water.|
The value of K̥ or K̕ is uncertain -- it could be /k̕/ or /q̕/; H could similarly be at least /h/ or /ħ/; V or ʌ is an uncertain vowel.