Ural-Altaic languages

Ural-Altaic languages

The Ural-Altaic languages constitute a hypothetical language family uniting the Uralic and Altaic language families. This hypothetical language family is also known as "Uralo-Altaic".

History of the hypothesis

The Altaic hypothesis, as originally proposed by Matthias Castrén in 1844, included Finno-Ugric, Samoyedic, Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. Subsequently, Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic were grouped together, on account of their especially similar features, while Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic were grouped as Uralic. Two contrasting language families were thereby formed, but the similarities between them led to their retention in a common grouping, named Ural-Altaic.

The Ural-Altaic family was widely accepted by linguists who studied Uralic and Altaic until well into the 20th century. More recently, they have almost universally rejected it, although for very different reasons. (See below, "Relationship between Uralic and Altaic".)

Relationship between Uralic and Altaic

The Altaic language family was generally accepted by linguists from the late 19th century up to the 1960s, but since then has been in dispute, and the dispute is not yet resolved as of 2008. For simplicity's sake, the following discussion assumes the validity of the Altaic language family, although for linguists who do not accept Altaic a relation of Altaic to Uralic is obviously a non-starter, though some part of "Altaic" (e.g. Turkic) might be related to Uralic, in theory.

It is important to distinguish two senses in which Uralic and Altaic might be related.

* First, do Uralic and Altaic have a demonstrable genetic relationship?

* Second, if they do have a demonstrable genetic relationship, do they form a valid linguistic taxon? For example, Germanic and Iranian have a genetic relationship via Proto-Indo-European, but they do not form a valid taxon within the Indo-European language family, whereas in contrast Iranian and Indic do via Indo-Iranian, a daughter language of Proto-Indo-European that subsequently calved into Indic and Iranian. In other words, showing genetic relationship does not suffice to establish a language family, such as the proposed Ural-Altaic family; it is also necessary to consider the family tree of the languages concerned to determine which language goes where.

This distinction is often overlooked but is fundamental to the genetic classification of languages (Greenberg 2005).

Evidence for a genetic relationship

Some linguists point out strong similarities in the pronouns of Uralic and Altaic languages. Since pronouns are among the elements of language most resistant to change and it is very rare if not unheard-of for one language to replace its pronouns wholesale with those of another, these similarities, if accepted as real, would be strong evidence for genetic relationship.

Other observations are that both Uralic and Altaic languages have vowel harmony, are agglutinating in structure (stringing suffixes, prefixes or both onto roots), use SOV word order, and lack grammatical gender. However, typological similarities such as these do not constitute evidence of genetic relationship on their own, as they may be the result of regional influence or coincidence. Thus other linguists argue that these typological similarities do not demonstrate a genetic relationship between Uralic and Altaic, ascribing these similarities instead to coincidence or mutual influence resulting in convergence.

Vocabulary of common origin

To demonstrate the existence of a language family, it is necessary to find cognate words that trace back to a common proto-language. Shared vocabulary alone does not show a relationship, as it may be loaned from one language to another or through the language of a third party.

There are shared words between, for example, Turkic and Ugric languages, because borrowing has occurred. However, it has been difficult to find Ural-Altaic words. In contrast, about 200 Uralic words are known. Such words would be found in all branches of the Uralic and Altaic trees and should follow regular sound changes from Proto-Uralic or Proto-Altaic to known modern languages. In addition, regular sound changes from Proto-Ural-Altaic to give Proto-Uralic and Proto-Altaic words should be found to demonstrate the existence of a Ural-Altaic vocabulary.

Evidence for a Ural-Altaic taxon

The vowel-harmony argument has sometimes been used to justify the necessity of a Ural-Altaic family, but vowel harmony is found in other nearby languages as well, including Chukchi and Nivkh, as well as in various languages of Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, vowel harmony is a typological feature, and, according to the predominant opinion among linguists, typological features do not provide evidence for genetic relationship.

Some linguists maintain that Uralic and Altaic are related through a larger family, such as Eurasiatic or Nostratic, within which Uralic and Altaic are no more closely related to each other than either is to any other member of the proposed family, for instance than Uralic or Altaic is to Indo-European.Fact|date=July 2008


In summary, there are the following differences of opinion among linguists who have treated of this question:

* Some view Altaic as valid, others as not.

* Among those who view Altaic as valid, some believe it is related to Uralic, but does not form a taxon with it, the two being related at a higher level only, such as the proposed Eurasiatic family.

* Although the Ural-Altaic family was formerly widely accepted, today it has almost no adherents.Fact|date=July 2008 This does not mean, however, that a genetic relationship between Uralic and Altaic is generally rejected; rather, this is a subject on which linguists disagree. The predominance of opinion favors an absence of relationship, but the numerous dissents from this view by specialists of note (e.g. Björn Collinder and Michael Fortescue) prevent one from speaking of a consensus of opinion either for or against a genetic relationship between Uralic and Altaic. In contrast, a consensus of opinion does exist against the validity of a Ural-Altaic taxon.Fact|date=July 2008

State of the question

In his "Altaic Etymological Dictionary", co-authored with Anna V. Dybo and Oleg A. Mudrak, Sergei Starostin characterized the Ural-Altaic hypothesis as "an idea now completely discarded" (2003:8).

Angela Marcantonio (2002), however, argues that the Finno-Permic and Ugric languages are no more closely related to each other than either is to Turkic, thereby positing a grouping very similar to Ural-Altaic or indeed to Castrén's original Altaic proposal. [http://homepage.univie.ac.at/Johanna.Laakso/am_rev.html#_ftnref4]

Association with nationalist politics

There are also political motivations that have been unscientifically used to support or oppose this hypothesis. The Swedes had a political motivation to present the Sami as "Asian", or an "inferior race". A linguistic connection was integral in demonstrating an Asian ancestry. Particularly important proponents of the politically motivated idea of "Finnic race" were Herman Lundborg and Gustav von Düben. Their work was based on craniometry: by finding "childlike" or neotenous features in the skulls of Uralic-speaking peoples, they reached the conclusion that Uralic speakers are racially Mongolian, and recommended policies of colonization, eugenics and racial hygiene. [http://www.student.nada.kth.se/~d95-nwa/rasII.html] This was supported by the Swedish government: the government funded the Institute of Race Biology, where Lundborg produced his research. The Ural-Altaic theory was the consensus in the 19th century but is no longer widely accepted.

Though the direction of language and population spread do not necessarily correlate to each other, DNA studies have shown that despite the geographic isolation of the Finnish and Sami peoples they are unambiguously related to other Europeans. This disproves the other part of Lundborg's hypothesis, a general genetic relationship. Similarly to Indo-European, Uralic languages are spoken by a genetically heterogeneous population. The existence of a Ural-Altaic stock cannot be expressed genetically but rather by non-genetic social factors, the field of genetic science is often confused with the topic of language origins for the purpose of creating sensationalistic rhetoric for both sides of the debate and often to support racial propaganda.

Overview of the languages involved

Uralic languages

The Uralic family tree has three main groups, Finno-Permic, Ugric, and Samoyedic.

*The Finno-Permic languages are Komi, Komi-Permyak, Udmurt, Mari, Erzya, Moksha, Merya, Muromian, Meshcherian, Southern Sami, Ume Sami, Lule Sami, Pite Sami, Northern Sami, Kainuu Sami, Kemi Sami, Akkala Sami, Inari Sami, Kildin Sami, Skolt Sami, Ter Sami, Estonian, Finnish (including Meänkieli or Tornedalian Finnish, Kven Finnish, and Ingrian Finnish), Ingrian (Izhorian), Karelian, Lude, Olonets Karelian, Livonian, Veps, Võro, and Votic.

*The Ugric languages are Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansi.

*The Samoyedic languages are subdivided into a northern and a southern group. The northern group consists of Enets, Nenets or Yurak, Nganasan or Tavgy/Tawgi, and Yurats. The southern group consists of Kamassian (Kamas), Mator, and Selkup.

A relationship of Uralic to the Yukaghir languages has been proposed.

*There are two Yukaghir languages, Northern Yukaghir and Southern Yukaghir.

Altaic languages

The language families classified as Altaic always include Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic.

*The Turkic languages include Chuvash, Khazar, Hunnic, Bolgar, Turkish, Azeri, Turkmen, Ottoman Turkish, Old Turkic, Afshar, Crimean Tatar, Urum, Qashqai, Khorasani, Salar, Gagauz, Khalaj, Pecheneg, Kipchak, Tatar, Bashkir, Baraba, Urum, Karachay-Balkar, Kumyk, Karaim, Krymchak, Kypchak, Cuman, Chagatay, Kazakh, Karakalpak, Nogay, Uzbek, Uyghur, Lop, Kyrgyz, Altay,Yakut ,Tuvan, Khakas, Shor, Fuyü Gïrgïs, Chulym, Tofa, Dolgan, Western Yugur, and Northern Altay.

*The Mongolic languages include Khalkha (Halh) Mongolian, Urdus, Oirat (Kalmyk), Darkhat, Buryat, Khamnigan Mongol, Dagur or Daur, Monguor, Kangjia, Bonan, Dongxiang, Eastern Yugur (Shira Yugur), and Moghol.

*The Tungusic languages include Evenki, Even or Lamut, Oroqen, Negidal, Solon, Manegir, Nanai, Akani, Birar, Kile, Samagir, Orok, Ulch, Oroch, Udege, Manchu, and Sibe.

Some have proposed, largely on the basis of certain typological similarities, that Korean and the Japonic languages might be highly divergent Altaic languages. This hypothesis is even more controversial than the more limited one that would only group together Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic.Fact|date=July 2008

*The Japonic languages consist of Japanese and Ryukyuan. Ryukyuan includes Amami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni.

See also

* Altaic languages
* Uralic languages
* Proto-Uralic language
* Indo-Uralic languages
* Uralo-Siberian languages
* Nostratic languages


*Greenberg, Joseph H. (2005). "Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method", edited by William Croft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
*Marcantonio, Angela (2002). "The Uralic Language Family: Facts, Myths and Statistics". Publications of the Philological Society, 35. Oxford - Boston: Blackwell.
*Shirokogoroff, S. M. (1931). "Ethnological and Linguistical Aspects of the Ural-Altaic Hypothesis". Peiping, China: The Commercial Press.
*Starostin, Sergei A., Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak. (2003). "Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages". Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-13153-1.
*Vago, R. M. (1972). "Abstract Vowel Harmony Systems in Uralic and Altaic Languages". Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

External links

* [http://www.student.nada.kth.se/~d95-nwa/rasII.html "Något om rastänkandet i Sverige"] by Niclas Wahlgren
* [http://homepage.univie.ac.at/Johanna.Laakso/am_rev.html#_ftnref4 Review of Marcantonio (2002)] by Johanna Laasko

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ural-Altaic languages —       hypothetical language grouping that includes all the languages of the Uralic and Altaic language families. Most of the evidence for including the Uralic and Altaic languages in one language family is based on similarities of language… …   Universalium

  • Altaic languages — Infobox Language family name=Altaic region=East, North, Central, and West Asia and Eastern Europe familycolor=Altaic family=One of the world s primary language families proto name=Proto Altaic child1=Turkic child2=Mongolic child3=Tungusic… …   Wikipedia

  • Ural-Altaic — [yoor′əlal tā′ik] n. a proposed language grouping that contains all the Uralic and Altaic languages adj. designating or of this group of languages …   English World dictionary

  • Ural-Altaic — U ral Al*ta ic, a. Of or pertaining to the Urals and the Altai; as the Ural Altaic, or Turanian, languages. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ural-Altaic — /yoor euhl al tay ik/, adj. 1. of or pertaining to the Ural Mountains, on the border between the Russian Federation in Europe and Siberia, and the Altai Mountains, in S Siberia and NW Mongolia, or the country or peoples around them. 2. of or… …   Universalium

  • Ural-Altaic — Turanian Tu*ra ni*an, a. [From Tur, the name, in Persian legendary history, of one of the three brothers from whom sprang the races of mankind.] Of, pertaining to, or designating, an extensive family of languages of simple structure and low grade …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ural-Altaic — noun Date: 1853 a postulated language family comprising the Uralic and Altaic languages • Ural Altaic adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Ural-Altaic — /ˌjurəl ælˈteɪɪk/ (say .yoohruhl al tayik) adjective 1. of or relating to the Ural Mountains, on the border between European Russia and Siberia, and the Altai Mountains, in southern Siberia and north western Mongolia, or the country or peoples… …   Australian-English dictionary

  • Ural-Altaic — adjective relating to or denoting a hypothetical language group formerly proposed to include the Uralic and Altaic languages …   English new terms dictionary

  • Ural-Altaic — U′ral Alta′ic n. peo a hypothesized language family that includes the Uralic family and the Altaic languages …   From formal English to slang

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