A Brief Exploration of the Altaic Hypothesis

The Altai Mountains lie at the crossroads of Southern Siberian, Mongolia, and China. It is from these mountains, believed to be the area of origin of the Altaic familyís languages, that the family derives its name. The Altaic languages are traditionally divided into three main groups: Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic. All three languages are agglutinative, have SOV sentence structure, and contain morphophonological similarities (Reinhard). These subgroups alone span a vast geographical area in Asia and are spoken by over 80 million people (Katzner 19). However, as Ruhlen points out, "There is no consensus today on either the membership or the subgrouping of the Altaic family" (130). Some scholars would add Korean and Japanese as distant relations of the Altaic languages, raising the number of speakers sharply to 250 million (Ruhlen 127). Others would dismiss altogether the notion of an original Proto-Altaic language from which these languages hypothetically derived, or call for a realignment of current Altaic classifications. However, dissension among the ranks of scholars over this issue should not discourage further inquiry. It is my opinion that continued research along with verification of past research methods and data is necessary. This paper briefly describes the languages which have been identified as Altaic and then discusses the history of Altaic language research. This is followed by some insight into the arguments on both sides of the debate over the Altaic hypothesis and a discussion of some of the challenges facing Altaic research.

Despite the arguments, classifications of the Altaic family have been made. One recent attempt is included in this report as Appendix 1. The first subgroup, Turkic, is comprised of four main divisions: Eastern, Northern, Southern, and Western, and an additional division of Bolgar, containing only the Chuvash language. The main languages of the Eastern division are Uzbek, spoken in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and Yugur, spoken in western China. Making up the Northern division are languages such as Altai, Khakas, and Tuvin(ian), located in southern Siberia around the Altai Mountains (Katzner 19, and Appendix). The Southern division is by far the largest in terms of speaker population. It consists of Azerbaijani, spoken in Iran, and Azerbaidzhan and Turkmen, each with over a million speakers, as well as Turkish, which is spoken by 40 million people (Ruhlen 127). The main languages of the Western division are Kazakh, Kirghiz, Bashkir, and Tatar (Katzner 3,19).

The languages of the Mongolian subgroup are spoken by three million people. (Ruhlen 127). They are made up of Mongolian and its dialects, as well as two minor languages, Buryat and Kalmyk (Katzner 19). The languages of the last subgroup, Tungusic, "account for less than one-tenth of one percent of all Altaic speakers." Of note among these languages, though all but extinct today, is Manchu, the language of the great Manchu Dynasty (Katzner 20).

The "long and stormy history"(Ruhlen 128) of the Altaic family begins in the first half of the eighteenth century with Johann von Strahlenberg, who was "the first scholar who noticed similarities existing between Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus." Strahlenberg named this group of languages the Tatar Family (Yi 44). Also included in his original family were Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, and Caucasian. The first half of the nineteenth century brought more speculation, with Eskimo, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Basque, Thai, Tibetan, Dravidian, and Malay being added to classifications of different scholars. Eventually, two scholars named Castren and Schott (see Figure 1), who were contemporaries, separately proposed a language group with two main branches, the Chudic branch, which would later be called Uralic, and the Tatar branch, which would later be called Altaic. The two branches of the proposed Ural-Altaic family were originally thought to be closely related, but this theory receives little support today (Ruhlen 128).

Figure 1 illustrates several examples of prominent scholarsí classifications of Altaic languages during the last two centuries. Of particular note is Gustaf John Ramstedt (1873-1950), who is generally regarded as the father of comparative Altaic linguistics (Ruhlen 130) and who has been referred to as "the most outstanding Altaist in the history of Altaic comparative studies and the real founder of the Altaic theory" (Yi 44).

Since the idea was first conceptualized, scholars have continually debated the question of which languages make up the Altaic family and, more importantly, if such a family even exists. As has been shown above, the classification of the Altaic family has seen various changes in its makeup, with most Altaic groupings today identifying Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungus as the main constituents of the "Altaic Family." However, this is by no means a consensus among todayís scholars. The debate centers around the question of whether similarities among Altaic languages are a result of genetic relationship or language contact. Voeglin and Voeglin state,

The linguistic evidence clearly reflects long and intimate historical connections between languages in the traditional groups, but it remains a matter of interpretation as to whether this evidence points either to a convergence through diffusion (from Proto-Mongol, Proto-Tungus, and Proto-Turkic), or else to common descent with subsequent divergence (from Proto-Altaic to the modern languages in the mongol, tungus, and turkic groups). (19)

On one hand, some scholars feel that there was no Proto-Altaic language at all. They criticize the research that has been done to show relation between the Altaic languages and claim that the research that is valid shows relation due to language contact and borrowing, not an original, genetic relationship. Many anti-Altaicists point to a lack of sufficient cognate sets for numerals and body parts as support for their opposition (Reinhard). On the other hand, supporters of the Altaic hypothesis, while admitting certain shortcomings of early research endeavors, insist that enough evidence exists to validate their claims. They are seeking to prove a relationship between the traditional Altaic languages and the peripheral languages of Japanese and Korean and call for greater and more in-depth research in order to continue uncovering the truth about the origins of these languages (Miller 320-321).

In "Genetic Connections Among Altaic Languages," Altaic theory supporter R. A. Miller expounds on arguments by scholars on both sides of the Altaic debate. Sir Gerard Clauson is blamed by Miller as a major cause of anti-Altaic sentiment among scholars today. Clauson, having heard the theory that Turkish and Mongolian were related, set out to read the Secret History of the Mongols, but became discouraged when he failed to understand the text (294). He began to research more intensely and, based on comparison of vocabulary among the languages, he concluded that they were not related.

Miller also points to Deorfer as a chief opponent of Altaic theory, claiming his four volume work was "principally concerned with an item-by-item refutation of all Altaic etymologies in the literature, particularly those earlier proposed by Ramstedt and Poppe" (299). In Millerís description of Doerferís methods, we see once again the prevailing theme of genetic relationship vs. language borrowing in Altaic linguistic theory.

If the Mongolian words he studies happen to look somewhat like Turkic words and at the same time mean much the same thing as they do, this similarity is always held to be solely because these forms were earlier and separately borrowed into Mongolian from Turkic. So also for any Tungus forms encountered along the way. Parallels in forms and similarities in meanings between Tungus on the one hand and Turkic and Mongolian on the other are always, according to Doerfer, to be interpreted as pointing to borrowings from Turkic into Mongolian and then from Mongolian into Tungus. Otherwise we would have to talk about inheritances from Proto-Altaic, which is impossible, because Proto-Altaic never existed. (299-300)

It is evident by the sarcastic tone of Millerís writing that he is an ardent supporter of Altaic linguistics, but even he admits, "even though there is good reason, in the light of the morphological findings of Ramstedt . . . for initially assuming genetic relationship among the languages at issue, there is on the face of the matter no intrinsic reason why the putative cognate forms cited in support of these reconstructions might not be loans in one direction or another" (311).

We now turn to some of the problems that have arisen in the study of Altaic languages. First of all, though Ramstedtís "comparative grammar is the basis for all future work," (Yi 45) it is admittable that "the rejection of the Altaic theory by skeptics has been based, to a large extent, on numerous doubtful and often erroneous etymologies found in the studies of the Altaicists, including Ramstedt who became rather careless in his latest works . . . [and] often quoted examples from memory" (48). Miller brings to our attention another stumbling block in Altaic research, the lack of written records.

The Altaic field has no genuinely old written records, nothing of the time depth that texts such as those available from Indo-Iranian provide for the Indo-Europeanist. Even for later stages of the Altaic languages, when written records do become available for certain parts of the family, we continue to lack the kind of involved, interlocking documentation that frequently makes it possible to arrive at those nice decisions about the direction and frequency of lexical loans that so brilliantly and so frequently distinguish, for example, the work of our colleagues in the Romance languages. (307)

Another problem has been the use of modern forms of languages as data for etymological studies; many feel that the modern forms have gone through so many changes as to render the findings invalid (Yi 48). Other complications include investigation through what Ruhlen calls a "binary approach," meaning research done in only the languages of expertise of the researching scholar (131). He also goes on to say, "the fact that most members, or putative members, of Altaic are either language isolates (e.g. Korean, Ainu) or small homogeneous groups (e.g. Turkic, Mongolian, Japanese) renders the classificatory problems more difficult than with large diverse groups" (132).

Perhaps due in part to these complications of Altaic research, there seems to be a proportionate amount of opposition and skepticism to the enthusiasm and optimism surrounding Altaic comparative linguistics. In reporting the results of discussion held by a panel of scholars in Altaic languages, J. Marshall Unger stated, "we found Proto-Altaic, at best, a premature hypothesis and a pragmatically poor foundation on which to build a sustained research program" (479). While Unger does not dismiss the possibility of genetic relationships between languages heretofore classified as Altaic, he strongly criticizes the methods used thus far in researching and classifying the languages of central and eastern Asia. Unger states that if there is one lesson to be learned from his experience and observation so far, it is that " language history is not a big empty canvas to be filled with broad brush strokes and daring, sweeping lines, but a broken mosaic that must be reassembled methodically, bit by bit. There is nothing ëwrongí with the comparative method. Some linguists are just too impatient" (481-482).

With no apparent forecast for an agreement between scholars debating the origins of the "Altaic" languages, we appear to be at a crossroads, uncertain of the future. Miller describes the continuing polarization of opinions as follows.

Can anything be done to facilitate a breakthrough in Altaic historical-linguistic studies? Ever since Sir Gerardís disillusioning experience with attempting to read the Secret History, positions have increasingly hardened on both sides. Everyone who is likely to be persuaded by the work done until now is apparently already persuaded, in one direction or another. Nothing that is published now seems to change anybodyís mind, in either direction. (319)

Let us hope that Millerís observations are more of a call to action than an accurate prophesy of the future of this field. It has been apparent in my research for this paper that the Altaic hypothesis is hardly a bulletproof, widely-accepted truth of historical linguistics. But shouldnít that give us even more reason to continue searching rather than sink into discouragement? Though I have been unable, in the limited scope of research for this paper, to form a definite opinion on the validity of the Altaic hypothesis, I am convinced that more research can be nothing but beneficial. If this research turns out to prove the Altaic hypothesis wrong, so be it. Continued searching will only help us to know more about this field and the languages that are currently classified as part of the Altaic family.

APPENDIXñ Proposed Pedigree Chart for Altaic Language Family
Source: Summer Institute of Linguistics (http://www.sil.org/ethnologue/families/Altaic.html)

Works Cited

Katzner, Kenneth. The languages of the world. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.

Miller, Roy Andrew. "Genetic Connections Among the Altaic Languages." Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations Into the Prehistory of Languages. Ed. Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglass Mitchell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Reinhard, F. Hahn. "Altaic." LINGUIST list (18 Aug. 1994): n. pag. Online. Internet. [http://linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-908.html#1] 27 Jan, 1998.

Ruhlen, Merritt. A guide to the world's languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Unger, J. Marshall. "Summary report of the Altaic panel." Linguistic Change and Reconstruction Methodology. Ed. Philip Baldi. Berlin: Mouten de Gruyter, 1990.

Voegelin, Charles Frederick, and Voegelin. Classification and index of the world's languages. New York : Elsevier, c1977.

Yi, Sang-ok. "The Theory of Altaic Languages and Korean." The Korean Language. Ed. Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Seoul: Sis-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc., 1983.

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