Category Archives: Indoeuropean languages

‘Eurasian’ language macro-family or just another bluff?

Andrew (at his blog) leads me to this interesting criticism by Sally Thomason of the much fabled study about a supposed new language macro-family including the most unlikely Eurasian languages such as Dravidian, Indoeuropean and “Eskimo” (sic). 
The original paper by Mark Pagel et al. proposes that a reduced core of 23 words are “ultraconserved”, allowing them to formulate their hypothesis only on them (totally substandard even for the more generous mass-comparison approach). 
When Thomason looks at the raw data she finds that of the 23 words, only 2 have consensual proto-words in Altaic, for example, all the rest having several alternatives, of which Pagel and co. cherry-picked this or that one with the sole criterion of the convenience for their speculation. 
Never mind that Altaic, as defined in that database of Starostian inspiration, includes Japonic and Koreanic, something nowadays essentially discarded. 
Also the attribute of ultraconservation, foundation for the Pagel hypothesis, is challenged by Thomason, who finds that only 6 or 7 words of the 23 are conserved from Proto-Indoeuropean into English, a very low rate considering that English vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Indoeuropean origins (be them Germanic, Old French or some other variant).
In other words and in French: rien de rien; nothing at all worth the media hype that the Pagel paper has achieved… in the short run.

Linguistic musings: Basque and Proto-Indoeuropean

I’m going through the Swadesh lists for the Western and South Eurasian languages, in order to see if a shared origin (what makes sense from the viewpoint of Prehistory) can be supported with linguistic data of some sort.
By the moment I have gone through the Basque and Proto-Indoeuropean Swadesh lists (with some small sections taken off because they only seem to generate confusion, at least to me). And I notice that  there are at least some rather clear cognates between Basque and PIE:
I compared 111 words, of which 20 look rather likely cognates and some other 13 or 14 are possible remote cognates. That makes c. 30% of possible cognates, what is surely well above my expectations (I had spotted some likely cognates earlier but did not expect so many).
The clear cognates are (eu-PIE):
(2) zu – *túh [you – sing.]
(4) gu – *wéy [we]
(5) zu(ek) – *yū [you – pl.] [notice that 2 and 5 are messed up in both Basque and IE]
(24) hiru – *tréyes (??) [three]
(49) suge – *h₂engwi [snake]
(65) hezur – *h₃ost-, *kost- [bone]
(76) aho – *h₁oh₁s- [mouth]
(77) hortz – *h₃dónts [tooth]
(86) heste – *eh₁ter- [gut]
(103) jaki(-n) – *ǵneh₃-[to know]
(149) izar – *h₂stḗr [star]
(168) hauts – *h₃és-no-, *h₃és-i- [ash]
(170) bide – *pent- [way, road]
(178) egu, egun – *h₂eǵh- [day]
(180) bero – *gʷʰer- [warm]
(184) zahar – *senh₁ó- [old]
(202) -n – (h₁?)en [in, on]
(207) izen – *h₁nḗh₃mn̥ [name]
Add to these at least the verb to be (not in the list): iza(-n) – *es(t)-
And add also two special cases from the list, yet quite clear:
(92) edan (to drink) – (93) *h₁ed- (to eat)
The change of meaning is quite acceptable, specially if we imagine the common ancestor to mean “to ingest” without liquid or solid connotations.
The other case is PIE (171) *gʷerh₃- (mountain), which I am almost persuaded it has something to do with Basque gora (up, upwards), which has a clear Basque etymology (goi-ra). It may be a coincidence or a strange case of lending but this has been haunting me for more than 20 years now since I learned some Serbocroat words, including gora (mountain) and gore (up, upwards). And now comes back in form of PIE reconstruction.
The less clear, potential, cognates would be as follow:
(28) luze – *dluh₂gʰós [long]. This I have generally suspected as a loanword from some IE language to Basque, but the main reason for this suspicion is that it begins like the usual IE words for long (long, largo, etc.) with an L-. There’s nothing else, however the connection seems more real when you go to PIE.
(33) labur, motz – *mreǵʰú- [short]
(50) har – *wrmi [worm]
(57) erro – *wréh₂ds [root]
(62) azal – *pel- [skin]
(68) adar – *keg-, *ḱer- [horn]
(71) ile – *pulh₂- [hair] [this one seems to be related to 62, maybe *Vl(e) meant once skin and hair alike (or as conceptually highly related words) – we can still discern an open vowel (a/e) in 62 and a closed one (i/u) in 71]
(72) buru – *gʰebʰelo- [head] [where *gʰeb- corresponds with the other proposed root *kaput, and -bʰelo- would correspond with Basque buru]
(78) mihi – *dn̥ǵʰwéh₂s [tongue] [probably not but still I do see some similitude]
(104) gogo(tu) – *tong- [to think] [here the Basque list reads pentsatu but this is no any genuine Basque word: gogo as noun means psyche, mind, soul, desire, and gogotu means to wish but also any other mental function, however it’s been partly replaced by Spanish loan pentsatu for rationalist uses mostly]
(172) gorri – *h₁rewdʰós [red] [I have before mentioned the importance of the sound R in West Eurasia to describe the color red: it’s not universal but it’s much more common than in East Eurasia or anywhere else I could check]
(179) urte – *yeHr-, *wet- [year]. Check also (194) PIE *wed [wet]. In Basque urte is clearly related to the water (ur) cycle and watery (not wet but close enough) would be urti.
(180) lehor – *ters- [dry]
Now the disclaimer: this are nothing but a bunch of notes for my (and potentially also your) interest. No theory is proposed, no systematics is being used, it is just a free exploration.
However I was drawn to this exercise, which is just the first two rows of  many others, because I suspect that West and South Eurasian languages (excluding Uralic and Afroasiatic, which are of different origins) may share a common origing c. 50 Ka ago. Specially if both IE and Dravidian infiltrated South Asia after the Neolithic.
On the contrary I dislike quite strongly pan-north-Asian conjectural superfamilies, specially Sino-Caucasian, which makes no sense whatsoever on light of all I know about Prehistory.
In any case, something to chew on.

Update: Octavià mentions a couple of references of other (presumably more knowledgeable) people who have in the past suggested a Basque-IE connection:

Arnaud Fournet, Comparing Basque and Proto-Indo-European: a preliminary phonetic survey. He finds some of the same connections I mention here but he goes further into terrains that are too obscure for me to assess properly.

Arnaud Etchamendy has a whole site dedicated to “demonstrate” that Basque is Indoeuropean (a bit too far in my opinion but anyhow).

I must say that, against my own expectations, a preliminary survey  I made of Basque, IE, Dravidian and NE Caucasian, seems to reinforce the idea that Basque and IE are related, more than to the other considered languages. See comments section for some more details (all this is very raw and tentative admittedly).