Burushaski, an un-exotic "orphan" language

Aug 19, 2011 by

Burushaski’s claim to fame is its isolate status. Put simply, it is not related to any other human language on the planet. It is spoken by some 55,000-60,000 people (called Burusho) in the Hunza-Nagar area and the Yasin area in Gilgit District, Northern Areas of Pakistan. Most of Burushaski speakers are Shi’a Muslims, and many (especially men) also speak Urdu as a second language.

Given its isolate nature, one sort of expects to find a very exotic language, unlike those of its neighborsBurushaski’s: Wakhi, an Iranian language, and Khowar, an Indo-Aryan language. But this is very far from the truth. In fact, an examination of Burushaski’s linguistic properties (for example, at the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures) reveals how un-exotic Burushaski is, especially when compared to its Iranian and Indo-Aryan neighbors.

Burushaski’s sound inventory is fairly typical. It has a 5-vowel system with /i/, /e/, /a/, o/ and /u/, and no rounded front vowels (as those found in French). Burushaski’s consonant inventory is equally “normal”, with all common consonants present and no uncommon consonants found: there are no glottalized consonants (as those found in Arabic), no obstruent laterals (as those found in many Native American languages), no word-initial velar nasal (that’s the last sound of the English king). There are no tones either, used for either lexical or grammatical functions.

When it comes to Burushaski’s morphology, it too presents a disappointment  for those who look for the exotic. Burushaski is highly agglutinative: each morpheme expresses one thing. For example, its case morphemes do not do double-duty as number, referentiality or tense/aspect/mood morphemes. Similarly, tense/aspect/mood morphemes do not also serve to express agreement, polarity or some other verbal category.

One thing that may look peculiar (especially to speakers of English) is the so-called double marking of grammatical functions. In other words, the “who did what to whom” is expressed both through case (and Burushaski has an ergative case system) and verbal marking. But similar double-marking systems are found in many languages around the world (58 languages in the WALS sample), including Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi and Iranian languages like Persian.

Interestingly, a double-marking system is also found in Basque (another isolate) and Georgian (a Kartvelian language), both of which share another relatively rare commonality with Burushaski: a vigesimal number system. This is a system in which 20 rather than 10 is used a unit of number formation; for example, 60 is not 6×10, but 3×20 (in Burushaski: iski-altar, literally “three-twenty”). The one familiar example of a vigesimal number system in a European language is the French quatre-vingt literally “four-twenty” for 80. But most European languages use a decimal number system, as does French (other than for 80 and 90). Because of these commonalities, there have been attempts to relate Burushaski to Basque or alternatively to Caucasian languages, Yeniseian languages of Siberia or even Na-Dene languages of North America, but all of these attempts have not been conclusive so far.

Other run-of-the-mill features of Burushaski include the lack of inclusive/exclusive distinction in pronouns (i.e., there is no difference between “we” which includes the hearer and another one that does not); gender distinction in third person singular pronouns only (i.e., “he” is distinct from “she”, but there are no separate pronouns for male and female “they”, “you” or “we”); and a two way distinction in demonstratives (i.e., only two degrees of proximity are distinguished, as with the English this vs. that). There are no numeral classifiers in the nominal system (as those found in Chinese) and no evidentials (as those found in, say, Turkish).

Syntactically, Burushaski exhibits the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order and uses postpositions (e.g., literally “school to” rather than our familiar English to school). As would be expected, based on cross-linguistic generalizations, Burushaski also has genitives, numerals, adjectives and demonstratives all precede the noun.

The one important generalization to draw from this is that grammatical features (or features of the sound system) by themselves cannot be used as argument for (or against) language relatedness. What needs to be found is convincing evidence of lexical cognates. In the case of Burushaski, such cognates are absent.

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