The Dené-Caucasian Hypothesis

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY (“Languages of the World”)


The Dené-Caucasian Hypothesis (or Proposal) is a large scale language family connection that is purported to include languages from a wide geographic area, stretching from Asia and Europe to parts of North America. This particular language proposal is made increasingly interesting and controversial in that it connects several language isolates that mainstream linguistic theory has had trouble placing into a larger proto language.[i] Languages placed into this proposal, through several iterations of the original idea, include languages from the Caucasian, Yeniseian, Burushaski, Basque, Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dené language families. Due to the established locations and origins of these language families, the Dené-Caucasian proposal implicates a rather grand and far-reaching progression of language as a single language family. As to be expected from such a large and complex proposal, there are many opponents to the theory. Many of the arguments opposing the existence of such a super-family cite a lack of substantial, traditional linguistic evidence (such as substantial cognates and sound changes) to reasonably connect the languages implicated in this theory.[ii]
            The origins of this theory date back to separate but related schools of linguistic thought involving Native American languages and a proposed connection across the pacific. One of the schools of thought surfaced in the early 1900’s via the work of a linguist and scholar known as Edward Sapir. Sapir originally proposed a Native American language family based off of languages spoken mostly in the Northeast of the U.S. and Canada, as well as the U.S. Southwest.[iii] The Na-Dené family, as it is known, was proposed to include the Athabaskan, Eyak, Tlingit and Haida language families. Sapir had originally expressed doubts that the Na-Dené family he had come to construct was actually related to other Native American languages.[iv] Further research on the matter had led Sapir towards a belief that Na-Dené was actually related to the Sino-Tibetan language family, effectively establishing early connections across the Pacific Ocean.
Further expanding the basis of this theory, during the 1980’s a Russian linguist and scholar by the name of Sergei Starostin explored a language family connection between North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan and Yeniseian languages families via traditional linguistic methods.[v] The emerging language family would be known as Sino-Caucasian. Starostin’s work validated previous speculation towards the subject in that his methods scientifically demonstrated notable similarities between the languages. Shortly after, a linguist by the name of V.A. Chirikba further expanded the family by demonstrating evidence connecting Basque to the Caucasian (and therefore Sino-Caucasian) family.[vi] The proposed Sino-Caucasian family would establish the additional framework to later support a larger theory implicating both the Na-Dené and Sino-Caucasian families.

            In 1986, Sergei Nikolayev developed the final connection that went on to become the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis. Nikolayev proposed that the Na-Dené language family, based in parts of Southwest and Northwest of North America, is linguistically related to the Caucasian language family.[vii] This provided the basis for the far-reaching implication that Na-Dené, based in North America, is related to the Sino-Caucasian language family by way of its proposed Caucasian roots. The resulting proposal, supported by the characteristic of transitivity between languages, is the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis, which implicates a large geographic area and extensive differentiation between proposed language families.
            Due to its unconventional scale, complexity, and lack of traditional linguistic evidence, the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis is widely held as a non-mainstream proposal which has faced extensive controversy. Although it is mostly based on established and widely-accepted linguistic families, such as the Na-Dené, Caucasian and Sino-Tibetan families, the overall suggestion that these families are closely related enough to construct an umbrella language family is strongly debated. The arguments against the proposal cite a lack of conclusive genetic evidence, as well as lack of extensive traditional comparative analysis among all the proposed components of the super family.[viii] A much more historical and structured approach is sought in proving the existence of such a large scale language family. Nevertheless, the Dené-Caucasian proposal continued to find support in the developing work of other linguists such as John Bengston. During the 1990’s, Bengston further expanded the hypothesis by taking a “multilateral” approach to provide supporting evidence and similarities between its constituent languages.[ix] In addition, Bengston’s research led him to believe that Basque, Burushaski and Sumerian are also connected and included in the overall hypothesis.[x]
            Overall, the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis implicates a large number of distant language families across a large part of the world. This inescapable fact makes the proposal both innovative and controversial. A notable lack of support from the linguistic community, as well as insufficient levels of traditional linguistic or genetic evidence, detract from the strength of the proposal. Nevertheless, linguists over time have repeatedly revisited the subject and have continued to show increasingly convincing similarities that implicate a larger language family that connects many language groups that were thought to be isolates (such as Basque). Lastly, it is important to note that the Dené-Caucasian proposal is not on its own in terms of scale and complexity amongst proposed language families. In fact, Starostin’s work (as well as that of linguist Harold C. Fleming) has continued on to propose that the Dené-Caucasian language family exists within a larger macro-family called the Dené-Daic family, which also includes Austric languages.[xi] The hypothesis telescopes even further to propose a larger family comprised of Dené-Daic and Nostratic language families, called the Borean language family.[xii] In the continuing effort to understand the origins and evolution of language, these theories are often discredited and yet sometimes reborn, innovating with a hope that humanity is able to more accurately understand its linguistic beginnings.

[i] “Evolution of Human Languages.” The Tower of Babel. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. .
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Ruhlen, Merritt. On the Origin of Languages : Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994. Print.
[iv] Ibid
[v] Starostin, Sergei A. (1991), “On the Hypothesis of a Genetic Connection Between the Sino-Tibetan Languages and the Yeniseian and North Caucasian Languages”, in SHEVOROSHKIN, Vitaliy V., Dene–Sino-Caucasian languages: materials from the First International Interdisciplinary Symposium on Language and Prehistory, Ann Harbor: Bochum: Brockmeyer, pp. 12–41
[vi] Ruhlen 25.
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Current Issues in Linguistic Taxonomy, Peter A. Michalove, Stefan Georg and Alexis Manaster Ramer
Annual Review of Anthropology , Vol. 27, (1998), pp. 451-472 (JSTOR).
[ix] Ruhlen 25.
[x] Ibid.
[xii] “Sergei Starostin.” Nasa. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. .

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  • John Cowan

    Minor linguistic subtlety: by the name of is normally used in English to introduce an unknown person of no consequence. Named would be better here.

    • Richard Marsh

      That bothered me, too. “One of the schools of thought surfaced in the early 1900’s via the work of a linguist and scholar known as Edward Sapir.” He was obviously a linguist and scholar; otherwise, he wouldn’t have come up with the theory, so “a linguist and scholar known as” is unnecessary, and, as you imply, a bit demeaning. Same with “a Russian linguist and scholar by the name of Sergei Starostin” and “a linguist by the name of V.A. Chirikba”. It’s sloppy writing.