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Altaic languages

Altaic is a putative language family which would include 60 languages spoken by about 250 million people, mostly in and around Central Asia. The relationships among these languages remain a matter of debate among historical linguists, and the existence of Altaic as a family is rejected by many.

Its proponents consider it to include the Turkic languages, the Mongolian languages and the Tungusic languages (or Manchu-Tungus). The Japonic languages and Korean are often also included, and Ainu has been suggested by some.


History of the Altaic theory

The Altaic family, under the name "Tatar", was first postulated by Schott in 1849, as a family uniting Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungus; he used the name "Altaic" to refer to what would now be called Ural-Altaic (a hypothesis generally rejected.) Castrén (1862) put forward a similar view, but classified Turkic with what we would now call Uralic. Anton Boller suggested adding Korean and Japanese in 1857; for Korean, G. J. Ramstedt and E. D. Polivanov put forward more etymologies in the 1920's. Japonic has commonly been linked to Korean (eg Samuel Martin 1966), and in 1971 Roy Miller suggested relating it to both Korean and Altaic. His suggestion has been taken up and developed by various historical linguists such as Sergei Starostin.

Ainu has much less commonly been linked to Altaic, for instance by Street (1962) and Patrie (1982). In recent years it has more commonly been linked to the Austronesian languages, if anything.


There are two main schools of thought about the Altaic theory. One is that the proposed constituent language families (Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic in the basic theory; with the addition of Korean and Japanese in extended versions) are genetically or 'divergently' related by descent from a common ancestor, 'Proto-Altaic'. The other school rejects this theory (so it is often called the 'Anti-Altaic' school) and argues that the member languages are related by convergence (mainly loan influence).

This theory is claimed by its opponents to mainly be based on typological similiarities, such as vowel harmony, lack of grammatical gender and agglutinative typology, and loanwords. In fact, its proponents have put together a large variety of etymologies (eg Ramstedt, Martin, Starostin). However, its opponents explain these as loanwords or mutual influence, arguing that, although Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic families do have similarities, they are the result of intensive borrowing and long contact among speakers.

The Altaic theory is supported by many linguists, but many other linguists (eg Doerfer 1963, Bernard Comrie 1981) do not regard Altaic as a valid group, and see it as three (or more) separate language families.

See also


Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:55:52
Last updated: 05-07-2005 18:09:53