The Altaic Family Controversy

Oct 16, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2012]


An earlier post described the less commonly spoken indigenous Siberian languages and suggested that they elude easy familial classification. The other languages of Siberia fall into three separate language families: Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. It has been hypothesized that these three families can be grouped together into a single Altaic language family. But the issue of genetic relatedness of these three groups of languages remains highly controversial, as many linguists think that the common features of alleged Altaic languages resulted from borrowing rather than from descent from a common ancestral tongue. A few scholars, however, take the opposite perspective and argue not only that Altaic is a genuine family, but that such a macro-Altaic family may also include Japanese, Korean, and possibly others.


The original homeland of the Turkic languages was possibly somewhere in Central Asia. Mongolia has often been suggested, but some have even speculated that the area of origin might have included the upper Yenisey Valley in southern Siberia, a region that now forms the Russian Republic of Tuva. Subsequent migration streams took Turkic speakers mostly to the south and west, but also to the north and east, beyond the Arctic Circle into northern Siberia.






Today the Turkic languages in Siberia are concentrated in the central and south-central part of the region. Specific languages included within this group are Altai, Shor, Khakass, Tuvinian (or Tuva), Tofa, and Yakut (or Sakha). These languages belong to the Northern branch of the Turkic family, in contrast to other, better-known Turkic languages, all of which belong to other branches: for example, Turkish is a Southern Turkic language, Kazakh a Western Turkic language, and Uzbek an Eastern Turkic language. The Turkic languages of Siberia have relatively large numbers of speakers, ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. The largest is Yakut (or Sakha), with 363,000 native speakers, almost all of whom live in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) of the Russian Federation. This area is known for its extreme climate, with the Verkhoyansk Range being the Northern Hemisphere’s Pole of Cold (i.e. the area with the coldest average winter conditions). The temperature in Verkhoyansk dropped to −67.8 °C (−90 °F) in 1892, and the average January temperature is −47 °C (−52.6 °F). The original homeland of the Yakut was in the vicinity of Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, from where they migrated north under the pressure of the Mongol expansion from the 13th to the 15th centuries.

Linguistic_map_of_the_Tungusic_languagesThe Tungusic languages are spoken by small groups scattered across the sparsely populated taiga forestlands of central and eastern Siberia, including Sakhalin Island, as well as adjacent parts of northeastern China and Mongolia. The one Tungusic language that is well known in history is Manchu, the language of the Manchu conquerors who established the Qing dynasty in China (1644-1911). Today, fewer than a hundred people still speak Manchu, although the ethnic population is reported to be as large as 11 million; the vast majority of Manchus have switched to Mandarin Chinese. Other Tungusic languages include Even (7,170 speakers in northeastern Siberia, scattered in the Yakut Autonomous Republic and Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Federation), Evenki (approximately 27,000 speakers spread thinly over vast areas in Russia, China, and Mongolia), Oroqen (1,200 speakers in Heilongjiang Province, China), and Nanai (3,890 speakers in the extreme far east of Russia, at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers).

Of the Tungusic peoples of Siberia, the Evenks (or Evenki) are the most important, with larger numbers than the other groups spread over a larger area. The Evenk homeland is believed by many to have been located in and around the Sayan Mountains of northern Mongolia and south-central Siberia. The Sayan area was an early locus of reindeer domestication, and the Evenk have long been noted as reindeer pastoralists. Unlike the reindeer herders of the tundra zone, the Evenks and related peoples of the taiga (or boreal forest) kept relatively small numbers of reindeer (20 to 30 per family), which they used primarily for transportation and milking, rather than for meat. By supplying protection from predators, using smudge-pots to drive away midges and other biting flies, and providing salt, the Evenk assured that their reindeer would never stray far. Reindeer riding, facilitated by the use of the saddle, gave the Tungusic people of Siberia tremendous mobility. As a result, they were able to spread over the vast expanses of the taiga. In doing so, they seem to have absorbed a number of indigenous ethnic groups into their societies, thereby reducing the cultural and linguistic diversity of Siberia.


The third branch of the putative Altaic language family, Mongolic, is centered to the south of Siberia, in Mongolia and the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia (Nei Monggol). The Mongolic language region also extends into south-central Siberia, focused on the Russian Republic of Buryatia. Languages in the same family are also scattered over a much broader area. Over 150,000 people in southeastern European Russia, for example, speak Kalmyk, a Mongolic tongue. Mogholi (or Mogul), once the language of the rulers of the Mogul Empire of northern India, is now spoken by only around 200 elderly people in Afghanistan.

The most widely spoken Mongolic language is Khalkha Mongolian, the national language of Mongolia. Roughly 2.5 million people speak this language, although if the closely related dialects of China’s Inner Mongolia are included, the number increases to more than 5 million. Two other Mongolic languages – Buriat (spoken by 369,000 people to the south and east of Lake Baikal) and Kalmyk – have official status in two constituent republics of the Russian Federation: Buryatia and Kalmykia, respectively. Considerable controversy surrounds the Buriat tongue; although most scholars consider it to be a separate language, some view it merely as another dialect of Mongolian (or Khalkha Mongolian).

Debates about the origin of the Buriat are also heated. Some scholars contend that only a few Mongolic-speakers lived in Buryatia at the time of the Russian conquest, with the vast majority of the indigenous peoples speaking Turkic or Tungusic languages, and perhaps even tongues of the Yeniseyan or Samoyed families. This view is endorsed by the Wikipedia article on the Buriats, which further claims that, “the Buryats are more closely related to the Indigenous Peoples of North America (Alaskan Natives) than the Mongolians which was concluded through DNA testings”.

Mongolian is the only indigenous Siberian language – to the extent that Buriat is a Mongolian dialect rather than a separate language – that has a long literary history. The earliest surviving Mongolian inscription is only five lines long and mentions the nephew of Genghis Khan, while the longest early literary work in Mongolian is The Secret History of the Mongols, an imperial chronicle written in Uighur script that dates from around 1240 CE. Few documents in Mongolian have survived from the period between the composition of that chronicle and the 17th century CE. Beginning in the 17th century, however, a rich Buddhist and historical literature begins to appear.

Each of the three language families discussed above – Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic – is well-established; it is the relation between these groupings that is controversial. Linguistic “lumpers”, proponents of wide-ranging genetic groupings of languages, generally favor the Altaic category, whereas “splitters” remain skeptical. An alternative explanation for the similarities found across these languages is readily available: borrowing and areal diffusion. After all, these languages have long been in continuous contact with each other, likely since prehistoric times, and it is indisputable that these languages have borrowed from each other. Many Siberian peoples, moreover, have long been extremely mobile, their movements over vast expanses of land facilitated by their possession of mounts, horses in the cases of the Buriats and Yakuts, reindeer in the case of the Evenk. The real question is thus how much of the commonalities of these various languages can be accounted for by borrowing and how much is evidence of possible common descent.

The commonalities between Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages include cognate words, as well as some shared grammatical features, such as vowel harmony, agglutinative morphology, Subject-Object-Verb order, postpositions rather than prepositions (e.g. ‘house in’ rather than ‘in house’), and post-verbal rather than pre-verbal auxiliaries (e.g. ‘arrived is’ instead of ‘is arrived’). However, the last three shared features may well be part of a typological pattern controlled by the same linguistic parameter, so the fact that all three features co-occur in these languages does not provide good evidence for common descent.

Doubt is also cast on the mutual relationship between Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages by comparisons of similarities that extends across the modern languages back into their earlier stages of evolution. If Altaic were a legitimate family, then we would expect that the further back into the past we go, the more similarities we would find. This is certainly true for Indo-European languages: there is more much common ground between Latin and Sanskrit than between Italian and Hindi. But the same does not seem to work for Altaic languages: an examination of the earliest written records of Turkic and Mongolic languages, for example, reveals fewer rather than more similarities. In other words, we can observe convergence rather than divergence between Turkic and Mongolic – a pattern that is easily explainable by borrowing and diffusion, but which makes little sense if these languages descended from a common ancestor.

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