cereal grass

Nostratic languages

The Nostratic languages constitute a proposed language family that, according to its proponents, includes a high proportion of the language families of Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America.

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).

Background: From Indo-European to Nostratic

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.

Origin of the Nostratic hypothesis

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.

Nostratic Urheimat

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.

Comparative grammar of Nostratic

Reconstructed phonology

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-
Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
central lateral
Nasal /m/ /n/   /nʲ/   /ŋ/  
Plosive voiceless /p/¹ /t/       /k/ /q/   /ʔ/
ejective /p̕/ /t̕/       /k̕/ /q̕/
voiced /b/ /d/       /g/ /ɢ/
Affricate voiceless   /t͡s/ /t͡ɬ/ /t͡ɕ/¹ /t͡ʃ/        
ejective   /t͡s̕/ /t͡ɬ̕/ /t͡ɕ̕/¹ /t͡ʃ̕/    
voiced   /d͡z/ /d͡ɮ/¹ /d͡ʑ/¹ /d͡ʒ/    
Fricative voiceless   /s/ /ɬ/ /ɕ/¹ /ʃ/   /χ/ /ħ/ /h/
voiced             /ʁ/ /ʕ/  
Trill   /r/   /rʲ/¹          
Approximant     /l/ /lʲ/ /j/² /w/      

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.


Front Central Back
Close /i/ • /y/¹   /u/
Mid /e/ /o/
Near-open /æ/
Open /a/

¹ The phoneme /y/ appears in Bomhard but not in some other reconstructions of Proto-Nostratic.

Sound correspondences

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.

Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Kartvelian Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afro-Asiatic
/p/¹ /p/ "p1"-, "p1"-,
/t/ /d/ /t/ /d/ /t/ /t/
/k/ ² /k/ /k/ /k/
/q/ ³ /q/ /χ/
/ʔ/ ³ 0 0 0 /ʔ/
/p̕/ /p/ /p/
/t̕/ /t/ /t̕/
/k̕/ ² /k̕/ /k̕/
/q̕/ ² /k̕/
/b/ /b/ /b/ /b/
/d/ /d/ /d/ /d/
/g/ ² ³ /g/ /g/ /g/
/ɢ/ ³ ³ /ʁ/ 0 /ʁ/
-/c/- -/s/-
/t͡ɬ/ /l/
/t͡ʃ/ /t͡ʃʰ/ /t͡ʃ/
/t͡ʃ̕/ /st/ /t͡ʃ/
/d͡z/ /s/ /d͡ʒ/ /z/-
/d͡ʒ/ /st/ /d͡ʒ/ /d͡ʒ/
/s/ /s/ /s/ /s/
/ɬ/ /l/ ³ /l/ /l/ /l/
/ʃ/ /s/ /s/ /ʃ/
/χ/ ³ ³ 0- /χ/ 0- /ħ/
/ħ/ ³ ³ 0- 0- /ħ/
/h/ ³ ³ 0- 0- /h/
/ʁ/ ³ ³ 0- /ʁ/ 0- /ʕ/
/ʕ/ ³ ³ 0- 0- /ʕ/
/m/ /m/ /m/ /m/ /m/ /m/
/n/ /n/ /n/ -/n/- -/n/- /n/
/nʲ/ /n/
/ŋ/ -/n/- /ŋ/ -/nʲ/- -/m/-? -/n/-
/r/ /r/ /r/ /r/
/l/ /l/ /l/ /l/ /l/ /l/
/lʲ/ /l/ /lʲ/ /l/
/j/ /j/- /j/ /j/ /j/
Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European4 Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Kartvelian4 Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afro-Asiatic4
/a/ /a/ /a/ /e/ /a/
/e/ /e/ /e/
/i/ /i/ /i/ /i/
/o/ /o/ /o/
/u/ /u/ /u/
/æ/ /e/ /æ/ /a/
/y/ /e/ /u/ /u/

(To be completed and updated further.)

  • ¹ Some (such as Kaiser and Shevoroshkin [1988]) regard the inconsistency in the evolution of this phoneme as evidence that it did not exist. Compare the extreme, and mysterious, rarity of its expected derivative, /b/, in Proto-Indo-European.
  • ² Which phoneme appears in Proto-Indo-European depends on the vowel that followed it in Proto-Nostratic: a following /a/ kept the consonant plain (and changed itself into /e/ in the process); a following /æ/, /e/, or /i/ produced palatalization (and became /e/ in the process), except in the cases where /i/ became a diphthong; and a following /o/, /u/, or /y/ produced labialization (and again became /e/ in the process), except where /u/ became a diphthong.
  • 3 The values of the Proto-Indo-European h1, h2, h3 and of the Proto-Uralic x are controversial; the only evidence for the precise values shown here comes from the comparison with other Nostratic languages.
  • 4 In Proto-Indo-European, all vowels became /e/ unless preceded by /ʔ/ or diphthongized or affected by ablaut. The latter phenomenon prevents reconstruction of the vowels of most Proto-Afro-Asiatic roots; in addition, /i/ partially merged with /j/ and /u/ (at least sometimes derived from Proto-Nostratic /u/, /o/, and /y/) with /w/. Kartvelian, too, has ablaut.

Morphological correspondences

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. [2003]) 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.)

Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Kartvelian Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afro-Asiatic
Noun affixes
/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/
-/k̕a/ "diminutive" -/k/- -/ka/ 5
Verb affixes
/s(V)/ "causative-desiderative" -/se/- -/su/, -/sa/ -ij -/iɟ/-
/t̕V/- "causative-reflexive" -t(t)- -/t(ː)/- -/t/-6 -/t/- /tV/-
/mæ/ "prohibitive" /ma/- /m(j)/
/k̕o/ "intensifying and copulative" -/kʷe/ 'and'7 -/ka/, -kä -/kæ/ -/ka/ /kwe/ /k(w)/

  • ¹ Quoted from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988:313).
  • ² Marked with a question mark in Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988).
  • ³ The Eskimo-Aleut languages, too, have a plural marker -/t/. – Like them, Proto-Altaic did not distinguish animate and inanimate nouns.
  • 4 The Proto-Indo-European animate plural marker /-s/ has been suggested to belong here.
  • 5 The Kurukh language has -/kan/.
  • 6 Only in Proto-Turkic and its descendants.
  • 7 As in Latin senatus populusque romanus 'the Roman Senate and people'.

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):

The verb stood at the end of the sentence (SV and SOV type). The 1st p[er]s[on] was formed by adding the 1st ps. pronoun **mi to the verb; similarly, the 2nd ps. was formed by adding **ti. There were no endings for the 3rd ps. present [or at least none can be reconstructed], while the 3rd ps. preterit ending was **-di (Illich-Svitych 1971, pp. 218–19). Verbs could be active and passive, causative, desiderative, and reflective; and there were special markers for most of these categories. Nouns could be animate or inanimate, and plural markers differed for each category. There were subject and object markers, locative and lative enclitic particles, etc. Pronouns distinguished direct and oblique forms, animate and inanimate categories, notions of the type 'near':'far', inclusive:exclusive […], etc. Apparently there were no prefixes. Nostratic words were either equal to roots or built by adding endings or suffixes. There are some cases of word composition....

A sample Nostratic etymology

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).

  • Proto-Nostratic *bar-/*bər- 'seed, grain':
    • A. Proto-Indo-European *b[h]ars- 'grain': Latin far 'spelt, grain'; Old Icelandic barr 'barley'; Old English bere 'barley'; Old Church Slavonic brašъno 'food'. Pokorny 1959:111 *bhares- 'barley'; Walde 1927-1932. II:134 *bhares-; Mann 1984-1987:66 *bhars- 'wheat, barley'; Watkins 1985:5-6 *bhares- (*bhars-) 'barley'; Gamkrelidze-Ivanov 1984.II: 872-873 *b[h]ar(s)-.
    • B. Proto-Afro-Asiatic *bar-/*bər- 'grain, cereal': Proto-Semitic *barr-/*burr 'grain, cereal' > Hebrew bar 'grain'; Arabic burr 'wheat'; Akkadian burru 'a cereal'; Sabaean brr 'wheat'; Harsūsi berr 'corn, maize, wheat'; Mehri ber 'corn, maize, wheat'. Cushitic: Somali bur 'wheat'. (?) Proto-Southern Cushitic *bar-/*bal- 'grain (generic) > Iraqw balaŋ 'grain'; Burunge baru 'grain'; Alagwa balu 'grain' K'wadza balayiko 'grain'. Ehret 1980:338.
    • C. Dravidian: Tamil paral 'pebble, seed, stone of fruit'; Malayalam paral 'grit, coarse grain, gravel, cowry shell'; Kota parl 'pebble, one grain (of any grain)'; Kannaḍa paral, paral 'pebble, stone' Koḍagu para 'pebble'; Tuḷu parelụ 'grain of sand, grit, gravel, grain of corn, etc.; castor seed'; Kolami Parca 'gravel'. Burrow-Emeneau 1984:353, no. 3959.
    • D. Sumerian bar 'seed'.


— 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:

  1. 'grain' of sand (= 'pebble, gravel, grit, etc.')
  2. 'grain' of salt (= small crystal of salt)
  3. 'grain' = 'seed' or 'fruit' of a cereal grass
  4. overall term for plants producing 'grain'
  5. 'grain' of wood (= stratification of wood fibers)
  6. 'small quantity', a 'minute portion', or the 'least amount possible' (as in, 'not a grain of truth in what she said'), etc.

— 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):

  • PIE *pʰeis-/*pʰis- 'thresh; mill (grain)': Ved. Skt. pináṣṭi 'threshes; grinds', piṣṭá- 'threshed, ground', Avest. pišant- 'threshing', Gk. ptíssō 'thresh, grind', Lat. pīnsō 'thresh, grind', Lith. paisýti 'thresh barley a second time, cleaning it of husks' (Būga 1958-1961:I.300), Czech pěchovati 'stamp, pound, ram down'; nominal derivatives: Skt. peṣṭar- 'one who threshes', Lat. pistor 'miller, baker', pīsō 'mortar', pīlum, pistillum 'pestle', MHG vīsel 'mortar', OCS pĭšeno 'meal, flour', OPruss. som-pisinis 'bread made from coarse-ground flour'.

Further proposed cognates

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

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.)

Nivkh Proto-
/mi/ ¹ /mi/ /bi/ /met/ ¹ /mi/², -/mi/³
'me' ~ 'mine'
(oblique cases)
/minV/ /mene/4 /minV/- /mine/- /men/- ¹
/ti/ 5 /tet/ /tu/ /ci/6 /t(i)/
'thee' (oblique)
'we' (inclusive) /mæ/ 'we' 'we' /ba/(nom.)
/myn/- (oblique) 'we'
'we' /mit/
7 'we' /mur/
'we' (exclusive) /na/ /ne/- 'we'8 10 'we' /naħnu/9
'you' (plural) /t̕æ/ -/te/11 /tit/ /tur/ ?/t(V)/

  • ¹ From Indo-European data alone, this difference between 'I' and 'me' seems impossible to explain. Based on comparisons to other Nostratic languages, however, some linguists (e.g. Ruhlen 1998) interpret 'I' as a compound of a Proto-Nostratic demonstrative pronoun , a Proto-Nostratic (or Proto-Eurasiatic) verb /gæ/ ~ /ge/ ~ /gi/ that probably meant 'to be', and -/m/ – in short, 'that's me' (that demonstrative pronoun, is verb, and a derivative of Proto-Nostratic /minV/) or "c'est moi" (ce demonstrative pronoun, est verb, and another derivative of Proto-Nostratic /minV/). As support, Ruhlen (1998) cites Chukchi -/eɣəm/ and /ɣem/ 'I' and -/eɣət/ and /ɣet/ 'thou', Itelmen ким /kim/ 'I' and ма /ma/ 'me', the Proto-Eskimo suffix -/mt/ (see table), and several Uralic occurrences like Kamassian /igæm/ 'I am' or Hungarian engemet /ɛmgɛmɛt/ 'me', tégedet /teːgɛdɛt/ 'thee' (where -et is the accusative ending). Norquest (1998) cites many of the same forms and adds "Western Kamchadal" /kəmːa/ 'I' and /kəzːa/ 'thou'.
  • ² Chadic only.
  • ³ A Cushitic verb suffix.
  • 4 Genitive.
  • 5 Brahui has -/ti/ as the expected verb suffix; other Dravidian languages do not seem to have a cognate.
  • 6 /c/ may have been [c] or [t͡ʃ].
  • 7 Amur dialect only.
  • 8 In Proto-Indo-European the derivatives of /mæ/ and /na/ are thought to have fused, the former becoming the nominative stem and the latter the oblique stem. See Proto-Indo-European pronouns and particles for the whole declension paradigm. – Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) report that it has been speculated that Proto-Indo-European /ne/- had "an archaic meaning of exclusivity", which is, according to them, untestable from Indo-European data alone, but "strongly corroborated" by comparison with other Nostratic languages.
  • 9 Exclusive meaning only in Chadic.
  • 10 Verb prefix with exclusive meaning only in Svan.
  • 11 Verb suffix.

Other words

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).

  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕o/ or */q̕o/ 'who'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'who', (with suffix -i-) 'what'. Ancestors of the English wh- words.
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic */k̕(w)/ and /k(w)/ 'who'. The change from ejective to plain consonants in Proto-Afro-Asiatic is apparently regular in grammatical words (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin 1988; see also */tV/ instead of */t̕V/ above).
    • Proto-Altaic ?*/kʰa/-. The presence of /a/ instead of /o/ is unexplained, but Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) regard this alternation as common among Nostratic languages.
    • Proto-Uralic * 'who'
    • "Yukaghir" (Northern, Southern, or both?) кин /kin/ 'who'
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */mki/, */mkin/- 'who'
    • Proto-Eskimo-Aleut */ken/ 'who'
  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕ærd/, */k̕erd/, or */k̕ird/ 'heart ~ chest' (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin [1988]; the Proto-Eskimo form given by Bengtson [1998] may indicate that the vowel was /æ/ or not).
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'heart'. The occurrence of *d instead of *dʰ is regular: voiceless and aspirated consonants never occur together in the same Proto-Indo-European root.
    • Afro-Asiatic: Proto-Chadic */k̕Vrd/- 'chest'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */mk̕erd-/ (/m/ being a prefix) 'chest ~ breast'
    • Proto-Eskimo */qatə/ 'heart ~ breast'. The presence of /q/ instead of /k/ is not clear.
  • Proto-Nostratic */q̕iwlV/ 'ear ~ hear'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'hear'. Ancestor of English listen, loud.
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic */k̕(w)l/ 'hear'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */q̕ur/ 'ear'
    • Proto-Altaic */kʰul/- 'ear'
    • Proto-Uralic * (long vowel from fusion of -/iw/-) 'hear'
    • Proto-Dravidian * 'hear'. (Must figure out if it's /g/- instead.)
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */vilvV/, possibly from earlier /kʷilwV/ 'ear'
  • Proto-Nostratic * 'stone'
    • Afro-Asiatic: Proto-Chadic */kw/- 'stone'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */kwa/- 'stone'
    • Proto-Uralic * 'stone'
    • Proto-Dravidian */kwa/ 'stone'
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */xəvxə/ 'stone'; Kamchadal квал /kβal/, ков /koβ/ 'stone'
    • Proto-Eskimo-Aleut */kew/- 'stone'
  • Proto-Nostratic */wete/ 'water'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'water ~ wet'
    • Altaic: Proto-Tungusic */ødV/ 'water'
    • Proto-Uralic * 'water'
    • Proto-Dravidian * 'wet'
  • Proto-Nostratic */burV/ 'storm'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'storm'
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic (?) */bwr/- 'storm'
    • Proto-Altaic * 'storm'
    • Proto-Uralic * 'snow storm ~ smoke' (-/k/- unexplained)
  • Proto-Nostratic */qant̕V/ 'front side'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'front side'
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic */χnt/ 'front side'; the change from */nt̕/ to */nt/ is apparently regular
    • Proto-Altaic */antV/- 'front side'
  • Proto-Nostratic */d͡zeɢV/ 'eat'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'satiated'
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic (?) */zʁ/- 'be fed' ~ 'be abundant'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */d͡zeʁ/- 'become sated'
    • Proto-Altaic */d͡ʒeː/ 'eat'
    • Proto-Uralic * or * 'eat'
  • Proto-Nostratic */nʲamo/ 'grasp'
    • Proto-Indo-European * 'grasp'
    • Proto-Dravidian * 'grasp'
  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕ut̕V/ 'little'
    • Proto-Afro-Asiatic * 'little'
    • Proto-Kartvelian * 'little'
    • Proto-Dravidian * 'little'. (Must figure out if plosives correct.)

Criticisms of the Nostratic theory and replies to criticisms

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).

Nostratic poetry

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.

See also


  • Baldi, Philip (2002). The Foundations of Latin. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bengtson, John D. (1998). "The 'Far East' of Nostratic". Mother Tongue Newsletter 31:35–38 (image files)
  • Bomhard, Allan R., and John C. Kerns (1994). The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship. Berlin, New York, and Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-013900-6
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (1996). Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis. Signum Publishers.
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (2008). Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic: Comparative Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. 1765 pages. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-9004168534 (Publication date: July 15, 2008.)
  • Campbell, Lyle (1998). "Nostratic: a personal assessment". In Joseph C. Salmons and Brian D. Joseph (eds.), Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 142. John Benjamins.
  • Campbell, Lyle (2004). Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Cuny, Albert (1924). Etudes prégrammaticales sur le domaine des langues indo-européennes et chamito-sémitiques. Paris: Champion.
  • Cuny, Albert (1943). Recherches sur le vocalisme, le consonantisme et la formation des racines en « nostratique », ancêtre de l'indo-européen et du chamito-sémitique. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve.
  • Cuny, Albert (1946). Invitation à l'étude comparative des langues indo-européennes et des langues chamito-sémitiques. Bordeaux: Brière.
  • Dolgopolsky, Aharon (1998). The Nostratic Macrofamily and Linguistic Paleontology. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. ISBN 978-0951942079
  • Dolgopolsky, Aharon (2006). Nostratic Dictionary. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • Flannery, Kent V. (1969). In: P. J. Ucko and G. W. Dimbleby (eds.), The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals 73-100. Aldine, Chicago, IL.
  • Gamk¹relidze, Thomas V., and Vjačeslav V. Ivanov (1995). Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, translated by Johanna Nichols, 2 volumes. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014728-9 (¹Actually /q̕/ in Georgian.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph (2000, 2002). Indo-European and its Closest Relatives. The Eurasiatic Language Family. (Stanford University), v.1 Grammar, v.2 Lexicon.
  • [Illich-Svitych, V. M.] В. М. Иллич-Свитыч (1971). Опыт сравнения ностратических языков (семитохамитский, картвельский, индоевропейский, уральский, дравидийский, алтайский). Введение. Сравнительный словарь (b – K̕). Moscow: Наука.
  • Kaiser, M., and V. Shevoroshkin (1988). "Nostratic". Ann. Rev. Anthropol. 17:309–329.
  • Norquest, Peter (1998). "Greenberg's Visit to Arizona". Mother Tongue Newsletter 31:25f. (image files)
  • Renfrew, Colin (1991). "Before Babel: Speculations on the Origins of Linguistic Diversity". Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1(1):3-23.
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Daniel Nettle, editors (1999). Nostratic: Examining a Linguistic Macrofamily. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. ISBN 978-1902937007
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1991). A Guide to the World's Languages, Volume 1: Classification. Edward Arnold. ISBN 0-340-56186-6
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994). On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1998). "Toutes parentes, toutes différentes". La Recherche 306:69–75. (French translation of a Scientific American article.)
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (2001). "Taxonomic Controversies in the Twentieth Century". In: Jürgen Trabant and Sean Ward (eds.), New Essays on the Origin of Language 197–214. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Salmons, Joseph C., and Brian D. Joseph, editors (1998). Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence. John Benjamins. ISBN 1556195974
  • Starostin, Georgiy S. (1998). "Alveolar Consonants in Proto-Dravidian: One or More?" (pdf) Pages 1–14 (?) in Proceedings on South Asian languages
  • Starostin, Georgiy S. (2002). "On the Genetic Affiliation of the Elamite Language" (pdf) Mother Tongue 7
  • Sweet, Henry (1900, 1995, 2007). The History of Language. ISBN 8-185-23104-4 (1995) ISBN 1-432-66993-1 (2007)
  • Szemerényi, Oswald (1996). Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Trask, R. L. (1996). Historical Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Yakubovich, I. (1998). Nostratic studies in Russia

External links

Nostratic Dictionary by Aharon Dolgopolsky (2006)

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