Nostratic languages

Nostratic is a hypothetical and controversial macrofamily, which includes many of the indigenous language families of Eurasia, although its exact composition and structure vary among proponents. It typically comprises Kartvelian, Indo-European, and Uralic languages; some languages from the disputed Altaic family; the Afroasiatic languages spoken in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East; and the Dravidian languages of the Indian Subcontinent.
The hypothetical ancestral language of the Nostratic family is called Proto-Nostratic. Proto-Nostratic would have been spoken between 15,000 and 12,000 BCE, in the Epipaleolithic period, close to the end of the last glacial period.
The Nostratic hypothesis originates with Holger Pedersen in the early 20th century. The name "Nostratic" is due to Pedersen, derived from the Latin :wikt:nostrates|nostrates "fellow countrymen". The hypothesis was significantly expanded in the 1960s by Soviet linguists, notably Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky, termed the "Moscovite school" by Allan Bomhard, and it has received renewed attention in English-speaking academia since the 1990s.
The hypothesis is controversial and has varying degrees of acceptance amongst linguists worldwide with most rejecting Nostratic and other macrofamily hypotheses. In Russia, it is endorsed by a minority of linguists, such as Vladimir Dybo, but is not a generally accepted hypothesis. Allan Bomhard is a supporter, Lyle Campbell a critic. Some linguists take an agnostic view. Eurasiatic, a similar grouping, was proposed by Joseph Greenberg and endorsed by Merritt Ruhlen: it is taken as a subfamily of Nostratic by Bomhard.

History of research

Origin of the Nostratic hypothesis

The last quarter of the 19th century saw various linguists putting forward proposals linking the Indo-European languages to other language families, such as Finno-Ugric and Altaic.
These proposals were taken much further in 1903 when Holger Pedersen proposed "Nostratic", a common ancestor for the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, Yukaghir, Eskimo, Semitic, and Hamitic languages, with the door left open to the eventual inclusion of others.
The name Nostratic derives from the Latin word nostrās, meaning 'our fellow-countryman' and has been defined, since Pedersen, as consisting of those language families that are related to Indo-European. Merritt Ruhlen notes that this definition is not properly taxonomic but amorphous, since there are broader and narrower degrees of relatedness, and moreover, some linguists who broadly accept the concept have criticised the name as reflecting the ethnocentrism frequent among Europeans at the time. Martin Bernal has described the term as distasteful because it implies that speakers of other language families are excluded from academic discussion. Even so, the concept arguably transcends ethnocentric associations. Proposed alternative names such as Mitian, formed from the characteristic Nostratic first- and second-person pronouns mi 'I' and ti 'you', have not attained the same currency.
An early supporter was the French linguist Albert Cuny—better known for his role in the development of the laryngeal theory—who published his Recherches sur le vocalisme, le consonantisme et la formation des racines en « nostratique », ancêtre de l'indo-européen et du chamito-sémitique in 1943. Although Cuny enjoyed a high reputation as a linguist, the work was coldly received.

Moscow school

While Pedersen's Nostratic hypothesis did not make much headway in the West, it became quite popular in what was then the Soviet Union. Working independently at first, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky elaborated the first version of the contemporary form of the hypothesis during the 1960s. They expanded it to include additional language families. Illich-Svitych also prepared the first dictionary of the hypothetical language.
A principal source for the items in Illich-Svitych's dictionary was the earlier work of Alfredo Trombetti, an Italian linguist who had developed a classification scheme for all the world's languages, widely reviled at the time and subsequently ignored by almost all linguists. In Trombetti's time, a widely held view on classifying languages was that similarity in inflections is the surest proof of genetic relationship. In the interim, the view had taken hold that the comparative method—previously used as a means of studying languages already known to be related and without any thought of classification—is the most effective means to establish genetic relationship, eventually hardening into the conviction that it is the only legitimate means to do so. This view was basic to the outlook of the new Nostraticists. Although Illich-Svitych adopted many of Trombetti's etymologies, he sought to validate them by a systematic comparison of the sound systems of the languages concerned.

21st century

The chief events in Nostratic studies in 2008 were the posting online of the latest version of Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary and the publication of Allan Bomhard's comprehensive treatment of the subject, Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic, in 2 volumes. 2008 also saw the opening of a website, Nostratica, devoted to providing important texts in Nostratic studies online, which is now offline. Also significant was Bomhard's partly critical review of Dolgopolsky's dictionary, in which he argued that only those Nostratic etymologies that are strongest should be included, in contrast to Dolgopolsky's more expansive approach, which includes many etymologies that are possible but not secure.
In early 2014, Allan Bomhard published his latest monograph on Nostratic, A Comprehensive Introduction to Nostratic Comparative Linguistics.

Constituent language families

The language families proposed for inclusion in Nostratic vary, but all Nostraticists agree on a common core of language families, with differences of opinion appearing over the inclusion of additional families.
The three groups universally accepted among Nostraticists are Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic; the validity of the Altaic family, while itself controversial, is taken for granted by Nostraticists. Nearly all also include the Kartvelian and Dravidian language families.
Following Pedersen, Illich-Svitych, and Dolgopolsky, most advocates of the theory have included Afroasiatic, though criticisms by Joseph Greenberg and others from the late 1980s onward suggested a reassessment of this position.
A fairly representative grouping, arranged in rough geographical order, would include:
The Sumerian and Etruscan languages, usually regarded as language isolates, are thought by some to be Nostratic languages as well. Others, however, consider one or both to be members of another macrofamily called Dené–Caucasian. Another notional isolate, the Elamite language, also figures in a number of Nostratic classifications. It is frequently grouped with Dravidian as Elamo-Dravidian.
In 1987 Joseph Greenberg proposed a similar macrofamily which he called Eurasiatic. It included the same "Euraltaic" core, but excluded some of the above-listed families, most notably Afroasiatic. At about this time Russian Nostraticists, notably Sergei Starostin, constructed a revised version of Nostratic which was slightly broader than Greenberg's grouping but which similarly left out Afroasiatic.
Beginning in the early 2000s, a consensus emerged among proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis. Greenberg basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' and a southern 'tier'. The American Nostraticist Allan Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Kartvelian, Afroasiatic, and Elamo-Dravidian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin arrives at a tripartite overall grouping: he considers Afroasiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else. Sergei Starostin's school has now re-included Afroasiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic, while reserving the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping which comprises the rest of the macrofamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Kartvelian and Dravidian.
According to Greenberg, Eurasiatic and Amerind form a genetic node, being more closely related to each other than either is to "the other families of the Old World". There are a number of hypotheses incorporating Nostratic into an even broader linguistic 'mega-phylum', sometimes called Borean, which would also include at least the Dené–Caucasian and perhaps the Amerind and Austric superfamilies. The term SCAN has been used for a group that would include Sino-Caucasian, Amerind, and Nostratic.

Urheimat and differentiation

Allan Bomhard and Colin Renfrew are in broad agreement with the earlier conclusions of Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky in seeking the Nostratic Urheimat within the Mesolithic in the Fertile Crescent, the stage which directly preceded the Neolithic and was transitional to it.
Looking at the cultural assemblages of this period, two sequences, in particular, stand out as possible archeological correlates of the earliest Nostratians or their immediate precursors. Both hypotheses place Proto-Nostratic within the Fertile Crescent at around the end of the last glacial period.
It has been proposed that the broad spectrum revolution of Kent Flannery, associated with microliths, the use of the bow and arrow, and the domestication of the dog, all of which are associated with these cultures, might have been the cultural "motor" that led to their expansion. Certainly, cultures which appeared at Franchthi Cave in the Aegean and Lepenski Vir in the Balkans, and the Murzak-Koba and Grebenki cultures of the Ukrainian steppe, all displayed these adaptations.
Bomhard suggests a differentiation of Proto-Nostratic by 8,000 BCE, the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution in the Levant, over a territory spanning the entire Fertile Crescent and beyond into the Caucasus, Egypt and along the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, the Iranian Plateau and into Central Asia.
According to some scholarly opinion the Kebaran is derived from the Levantine Upper Palaeolithic in which the microlithic component originated, although microlithic cultures were earlier found in Africa.
Ouchtata retouch is also a characteristic of the Late Ahmarian Upper Palaeolithic culture of the Levant and may not indicate African influence.

Reconstruction of Proto-Nostratic

The following data is taken from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin and Bengtson and transcribed into the.


The phonemes tabulated below are commonly reconstructed for the Proto-Nostratic language. Allan Bomhard, who relies more heavily on Afroasiatic and Dravidian than on Uralic, as do members of the "Moscow School", reconstructs a different vowel system, with three pairs of vowels represented as:, as well as independent /i/, /o/, and /u/. In the first three pairs of vowels, Bomhard is attempting to specify the subphonemic variation involved, inasmuch as that variation led to some of the vowel gradation and vowel harmony patterning found in various daughter languages.


The reconstructed consonants of Nostratic are shown in the table below. Every distinction is supposed to be contrastive by the Nostraticists who reconstruct them.


Sound correspondences

The following table is compiled from data given by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin and Starostin. They follow Illich-Svitych's correspondences in which Nostratic voiceless stops give PIE voiced ones, and Nostratic glottalized stops give PIE voiceless stops, in contradiction with the PIE glottalic theory, which makes traditional PIE voiced stops appeared like glottalized ones. To correct this anomaly, linguists such as Manaster Ramer and Bomhard have proposed to correlate Nostratic voiceless and glottalized stops with PIE ones, so this is done in the table.
Because linguists working on Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, and Proto-Dravidian do not usually use the IPA, the transcriptions used in those fields are also given where the letters differ from the IPA symbols. The IPA symbols are between slashes because this is a phonemic transcription. The exact values of the phoneme "*p₁" in Proto-Afroasiatic and Proto-Dravidian are unknown. "∅" indicates disappearance without a trace. Hyphens indicate different developments at the beginning and in the interior of words; no consonants ever occurred at the ends of word roots.
Note that, due to lack of research, there are at present several different mutually incompatible reconstructions of Proto-Afroasiatic. The one used here has been said to be based too strongly on Proto-Semitic.
Similarly, the paper by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin is much older than the newest Altaic Etymological Dictionary and therefore assumes a somewhat different phonological system for Proto-Altaic.


Because grammar is less easily borrowed than words, grammar is usually considered stronger evidence for language relationships than vocabulary. The following correspondences have been suggested by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin. /N/ could be any nasal consonant. /V/ could be any vowel.
In addition, Kaiser and Shevoroshkin write the following about Proto-Nostratic grammar :
The verb stood at the end of the sentence. The 1st ps was formed by adding the 1st ps. pronoun **mi to the verb; similarly, the 2nd ps. was formed by adding **ti. There were no endings for the 3rd ps. present , while the 3rd ps. preterit ending was **-di. Verbs could be active and passive, causative, desiderative, and reflective; and there were special markers for most of these categories. Nouns could be animate or inanimate, and plural markers differed for each category. There were subject and object markers, locative and lative enclitic particles, etc. Pronouns distinguished direct and oblique forms, animate and inanimate categories, notions of the type 'near':'far', inclusive:exclusive , etc. Apparently there were no prefixes. Nostratic words were either equal to roots or built by adding endings or suffixes. There are some cases of word composition...


According to Dolgopolsky Proto-Nostratic language had analytic structure, which he argues by diverging of post- and prepositions of auxiliary words in descendant languages.
Dolgopolsky states three lexical categories to be in the Proto-Nostratic language:
Word order was subject–object–verb when the subject was a noun, and object–verb–subject when it was a pronoun. Attributive preceded its head. Pronominal attributive might follow the noun. Auxiliary words are considered to be postpositions.

Personal pronouns

s are seldom borrowed between languages. Therefore the many correspondences between Nostratic pronouns are rather strong evidence for the existence of a Proto-Nostratic language. The difficulty of finding Afroasiatic cognates is, however, taken by some as evidence that Nostratic has two or three branches, Afroasiatic and Eurasiatic, and that most or all of the pronouns in the following table can only be traced to Proto-Eurasiatic.
Nivkh is a living language with an orthography, which is given here. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed.
For space reasons, Etruscan is not included, but the fact that it had /mi/ 'I' and /mini/ 'me' seems to fit the pattern reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic ideally, leading some to argue that the Aegean or Tyrsenian languages were yet another Nostratic branch.
There is no reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo–Aleut, although the existence of the Eskimo–Aleut family is generally accepted.
'me' ~ 'mine'
'we' 'we' 'we'
'we' 'we' 'we'
'you' ?

Other words

Below are selected reconstructed etymologies from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin and Bengtson. Reconstructed forms are marked with an asterisk. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed. Likewise, /E/ could have been any front vowel and /N/ any nasal consonant. Only the consonants are given of Proto-Afroasiatic roots.
using his version of Proto-Nostratic composed a brief poem.
Nostratic Nostratic RussianEnglishFinnish
K̥elHä wet̥ei ʕaK̥un kählaЯзык – это брод через реку времени,Language is a ford through the river of time,Kieli on kahluupaikka ajan joen yli,
k̥aλai palhʌ-k̥ʌ na wetäон ведёт нас к жилищу умерших;it leads us to the dwelling of those gone before;se johdattaa meidät kuolleiden kylään;
śa da ʔa-k̥ʌ ʔeja ʔäläно туда не сможет дойти тот,but he cannot arrive there,mutta ei voi tulla sinne se,
ja-k̥o pele t̥uba weteкто боится глубокой воды.who fears deep water.joka pelkää syvää vettä.

The value of K̥ or is uncertain—it could be or. H could similarly be at least or. V or is an uncertain vowel.

Status within comparative linguistics

While the Nostratic hypothesis is not endorsed by the mainstream of comparative linguistics, Nostratic studies by nature of being based on the comparative method remain within the mainstream of contemporary linguistics from a methodological point of view; it is the scope with which the comparative method is applied rather than the methodology itself that raises eyebrows.
Nostraticists tend to refuse to include in their schema language families for which no proto-language has yet been reconstructed. This approach was criticized by Joseph Greenberg on the ground that genetic classification is necessarily prior to linguistic reconstruction, but this criticism has so far had no effect on Nostraticist theory and practice.
Certain critiques have pointed out that the data from individual, established language families that is cited in Nostratic comparisons often involves a high degree of errors; Campbell demonstrates this for Uralic data. Defenders of the Nostratic theory argue that were this to be true, it would remain that in classifying languages genetically, positives count for vastly more than negatives. The reason for this is that, above a certain threshold, resemblances in sound/meaning correspondences are highly improbable mathematically.
Pedersen's original Nostratic proposal synthesized earlier macrofamilies, some of which, including Indo-Uralic, involved extensive comparison of inflections. It is true the Russian Nostraticists and Bomhard initially emphasized lexical comparisons. Bomhard recognized the necessity to explore morphological comparisons and has since published extensive work in this area. According to him the breakthrough came with the publication of the first volume of Joseph Greenberg's Eurasiatic work, which provided a massive list of possible morphemic correspondences that has proved fruitful to explore. Other important contributions on Nostratic morphology have been published by John C. Kerns and Vladimir Dybo.
Critics argue that were one to collect all the words from the various known Indo-European languages and dialects which have at least one of any 4 meanings, one could easily form a list that would cover any conceivable combination of two consonants and a vowel. Nostraticists respond that they do not compare isolated lexical items but reconstructed proto-languages. To include a word for a proto-language it must be found in a number of languages and the forms must be relatable by regular sound changes. In addition, many languages have restrictions on root structure, reducing the number of possible root-forms far below its mathematical maximum. These languages include, among others, Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic—all the core languages of the Nostratic hypothesis. To understand how the root structures of one language relate to those of another has long been a focus of Nostratic studies. For a highly critical assessment of the work of the Moscow School, especially the work of Illich-Svitych, cf. Campbell and Poser 2008:243-264.
It has also been argued that Nostratic comparisons mistake Wanderwörter and cross-borrowings between branches for true cognates.