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Title: Altaic  
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Subject: Chinese language, Comparative method, Clash of Civilizations, Tangut people, Turan, History of Siberia, Instrumental case, Urheimat, Comparative linguistics, Christopher I. Beckwith
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East, North, Central, and West Asia and Eastern Europe
Linguistic classification: Proposed major language family
ISO 639-2 / 5: tut

Altaic (/ælˈtɨk/, /ɑːl-/) is a proposed language family that includes the Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic, and Japonic languages.[1] These languages are spoken in a wide arc stretching from northeast Asia through Central Asia to Anatolia and eastern Europe (Turks, Kalmyks).[2] The group is named after the Altai Mountains, a mountain range in Central Asia.

These language families share numerous characteristics. The debate is over the origin of their similarities. One camp, often called the "Altaicists", views these similarities as arising from common descent from a proto-Altaic language spoken several thousand years ago. The other camp, often called the "anti-Altaicists", views these similarities as arising from areal interaction between the language groups concerned. Some linguists believe the case for either interpretation is about equally strong; they have been called the "skeptics".[3]

Another view accepts Altaic as a valid family but includes in it only Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. This view was widespread prior to the 1960s, but has almost no supporters among specialists today.[4] The expanded grouping, including Korean and Japanese, came to be known as "Macro-Altaic", leading to the designation of the smaller grouping as "Micro-Altaic" by retronymy. Most proponents of Altaic continue to support the inclusion of Korean and Japanese.[5]

Micro-Altaic includes about 66 living languages,[6] to which Macro-Altaic would add Korean, Japanese, and the Ryukyuan languages for a total of about 74. (These are estimates, depending on what is considered a language and what is considered a dialect. They do not include earlier states of language, such as Middle Mongol or Old Japanese.) Micro-Altaic has a total of about 348 million speakers today, Macro-Altaic about 558 million.

History of the Altaic idea

The idea that the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages are closely related to each other was allegedly first published in 1730 by Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, a Swedish officer who traveled in the eastern Russian Empire while a prisoner of war after the Great Northern War. However, as has been pointed out by Alexis Manaster Ramer and Paul Sidwell (1997), von Strahlenberg actually opposed the idea of a closer relationship between the languages which later became known as "Altaic". Von Strahlenberg's classification was the first attempt at classification of a large number of languages some of which are Altaic.[7]

Birth of the Altaic theory

The term "Altaic", as the name for a language family, was introduced in 1844 by Matthias Castrén, a pioneering Finnish philologist who made major contributions to the study of the Uralic languages. As originally formulated by Castrén, Altaic included not only Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus (=Tungusic) but also Finno-Ugric and Samoyed.[8] Finno-Ugric and Samoyed are not included in later formulations of Altaic. They came to be grouped in a separate family, known as Uralic (though doubts long persisted about its validity). Castrén's Altaic is thus equivalent to what later came to be known as Ural–Altaic.[9] More precisely, Ural–Altaic came to subgroup Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic as "Uralic" and Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic as "Altaic", with Korean sometimes added to Altaic, and less often Japanese.

Early debates

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many linguists who studied Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic regarded them as members of a common Ural–Altaic family, together with Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic, based on such shared features as vowel harmony and agglutination. While the Ural–Altaic hypothesis can still be found in encyclopedias, atlases, and similar general references, it has not had any adherents in the linguistics community for decades. It has been characterized by Sergei Starostin as "an idea now completely discarded".[10]

In 1857, the Austrian scholar Anton Boller suggested adding Japanese to Altaic or more precisely to Ural–Altaic.[11]

G.J. Ramstedt and E.D. Polivanov in the 1920s advocated the inclusion of Korean. Ramstedt's two-volume magnum opus, Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft ('Introduction to Altaic Linguistics') was published in 1952–1957. He rejected the Ural–Altaic hypothesis, included Korean in Altaic, an inclusion followed by most leading Altaicists to date. The first volume, Lautlehre ('Phonology'), contained the first comprehensive attempt to identify regular correspondences between the sound systems of the Altaic language families. In 1960, Nicholas Poppe presented what was in effect a heavily revised version of Ramstedt’s volume on phonology[12] that has since set the standard in Altaic studies.

Poppe considered the issue of the relationship of Korean to Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic not settled.[13] In his view, there were three possibilities: (1) Korean did not belong with the other three genealogically, but had been influenced by an Altaic substratum; (2) Korean was related to the other three at the same level they were related to each other; (3) Korean had split off from the other three before they underwent a series of characteristic changes.

Development of the Macro-Altaic theory

Roy Andrew Miller's 1971 book Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages convinced most Altaicists that Japanese also belonged to Altaic.[14] Since then, the standard set of languages included in Altaic has comprised Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese.

An alternative classification, though one with much less currency among Altaicists, was proposed by John C. Street (1962), according to which Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic forms one grouping and Korean-Japanese-Ainu another, the two being linked in a common family that Street designated as "North Asiatic". The same schema was adopted by James Patrie (1982) in the context of an attempt to classify the Ainu language. The Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic and Korean-Japanese-Ainu groupings were also posited by Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002) who, however, treated them as independent members of a larger family, which he termed Eurasiatic.

Anti-Altaicists Gerard Clauson (1956), Gerhard Doerfer (1963), and Alexander Shcherbak argued that the words and features shared by Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic were for the most part borrowings and that the rest could be attributed to chance resemblances. They noted that there was little vocabulary shared by Turkic and Tungusic but not Mongolic. They reasoned that if all three families had a common ancestor, we should expect losses to happen at random, not only at the geographical margins of the family, and that the observed pattern is consistent with borrowing. Furthermore, they argued that many of the typological features of the supposed Altaic languages, such as agglutinative morphology and SOV word order, usually co-occur in languages. In sum, the idea was that Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic form a Sprachbund – the result of convergence through intensive borrowing and long contact among speakers of languages that are not necessarily closely related.

Doubt was also raised about the affinities of Korean and Japanese; in particular, some authors tried to connect Japanese to the Austronesian languages.[15]

Starostin's (1991) lexicostatistical research claimed that the proposed Altaic groups shared about 15–20% of potential cognates within a 110-word Swadesh-Yakhontov list (e.g. Turkic–Mongolic 20%, Turkic–Tungusic 18%, Turkic–Korean 17%, Mongolic–Tungusic 22%, Mongolic–Korean 16%, Tungusic–Korean 21%). Altogether, Starostin concluded that the Altaic grouping was substantiated, though "older than most other language families in Eurasia, such as Indo-European or Finno-Ugric, and this is the reason why the modern Altaic languages preserve few common elements".

Unger (1990) advocates a family consisting of Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic but not Turkic or Mongolic, and Doerfer (1988) rejects all the genetic claims over these major groups. In 2003, Claus Schönig published a critical overview of the history of the Altaic hypothesis up to that time. He concluded:

Generally, the more carefully the areal factor has been investigated, the smaller the size of the residue open to the genetic explanation has tended to become. According to many scholars it only comprises a small number of monosyllabic lexical roots, including the personal pronouns and a few other deictic and auxiliary items. For these, other possible explanations have also been proposed. Most importantly, the 'Altaic' languages do not seem to share a common basic vocabulary of the type normally present in cases of genetic relationship.[16]

In 2003, the An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages was published by Starostin, Dybo, and Mudrak. It contains 2800 proposed cognate sets, a set of sound laws based on those proposed sets, and a number of grammatical correspondences, as well as a few important changes to the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic. For example, while most of today's Altaic languages have vowel harmony, Proto-Altaic as reconstructed by Starostin et al. lacked it—instead various vowel assimilations between the first and second syllables of words occurred in Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic. It tries hard to distinguish loans between Turkic and Mongolic and between Mongolic and Tungusic from cognates, and it suggests words that occur in Turkic and Tungusic but not Mongolic; all other combinations between the five branches also occur in the book.[17] It lists 144 items of shared basic vocabulary (most of them already present in Starostin 1991), including words for such items as 'eye', 'ear', 'neck', 'bone', 'blood', 'water', 'stone', 'sun', and 'two'.[18] This work has not changed the mind of any of the principal authors in the field, however. The debate continues unabated – e.g. S. Georg 2004, A. Vovin 2005, S. Georg 2005 (anti-Altaic); S. Starostin 2005, V. Blažek 2006, M. Robbeets 2007, A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008 (pro-Altaic).

According to Roy Andrew Miller (1996: 98-99), the Clauson–Doerfer critique of Altaic relies exclusively on lexicon, whereas the fundamental evidence for Altaic consists in verbal morphology. Lars Johanson (2010: 15-17) suggests that a resolution of the Altaic dispute may yet come from the examination of verbal morphology and calls for a muting of the polemic. In his view, "The dark age of pro and contra slogans, unfair polemics, and humiliations is not yet completely over and done with, but there seems to be some hope for a more constructive discussion" (ib. 17).

Postulated Urheimat

The earliest known texts in a Turkic language are the Orkhon inscriptions, of which the earliest dates from around 720 AD and the latest from 735 AD (Miller 1971: 3). They were deciphered in 1893 by the Danish linguist Vilhelm Thomsen in a scholarly race with his rival, the Germano-Russian linguist Wilhelm Radloff. However, Radloff was the first to publish the inscriptions.

The first Tungusic language to be attested is Jurchen, the language of the ancestors of the Manchus. A writing system for it was devised in 1119 AD and an inscription using this system is known from 1185 (see List of Jurchen inscriptions).

The earliest Mongolic language of which we have written evidence is known as Middle Mongol. It is first attested by an inscription dated to 1224 or 1225 AD and by the Secret History of the Mongols, written in 1228 (see Mongolic languages). The earliest Para-Mongolic text is the Memorial for Yelu Yanning, written in the Khitan Large Script and dated to 986 AD.

The prehistory of the peoples speaking these languages is largely unknown. Whereas for certain other language families, such as the speakers of Indo-European, Uralic, and Austronesian, we are able to frame substantial hypotheses, in the case of the proposed Altaic family everything remains to be done.[19] In the absence of written records, there are several ways to study the (pre)history of a people:

  • Identification of archaeological cultures: the material remains found at dwelling sites, burial grounds, and other places where people left traces of their activity.
  • Physical anthropology, which studies the physical characteristics of peoples, ancient and modern.
  • Genetics, in particular the study of ancient DNA.
  • Philology, which studies the evidence in language families for their primitive locations and the nature of their cultures. (For an example, see Proto-Uralic language.) Mythology and legend often contain important clues to the earlier history of peoples.
  • Glottochronology, which attempts to estimate the time depth of a language family based on an assumed rate of change in languages. Related to this is lexicostatistics, which attempts to determine the degree of relation between a set of languages by comparing the percentage of basic vocabulary (words like "I", "you", "heart", "stone", "two", "be", "and") they share in common.
  • Developing a family tree of languages and noting the relative distance of the splits that occur in it.
  • Observing evidence for contact between languages, which may indicate approximately when and where they were adjacent to each other.

All of these methods remain to be applied to the languages attributed to Altaic with the same degree of focus and intensity they have been applied to the Indo-European family (e.g. Mallory 1989, Anthony 2007).

Macro-Altaic Urheimat

Japanese is first attested in a few short inscriptions from the 5th century AD, such as the Inariyama Sword. The first substantial text in Japanese, however, is the Kojiki, which dates from 712 AD. It is followed by the Nihon shoki, completed in 720, and that by the Man'yōshū, which dates from c. 771-785, but includes material that is about 400 years earlier (Miller 1971: 4).

The most important text for the study of early Korean is the Hyangga, a collection of 25 poems, of which some go back to the Three Kingdoms period (57–668 AD), but are preserved in an orthography that only goes back to the 9th century AD (Miller 1996: 60). Korean is copiously attested from the mid-15th century on in the phonetically precise Hangul system of writing (ib. 61).

According to Juha Janhunen, the ancestral languages of Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese were spoken in a relatively small area comprising present-day North Korea, Southern Manchuria, and Southeastern Mongolia (Johanson and Robbeets 2010: 2). However Janhunen (1992) is skeptical about an affiliation of Japanese to Altaic languages, while Róna-Tas (1998: 77) remarked that a relationship between Altaic and Japanese, if it ever existed, must be more remote than the relationship of any two of the Indo-European languages. Ramsey (2004: 340) stated that "the genetic relationship between Korean and Japanese, if it in fact exists, is probably more complex and distant than we can imagine on the basis of our present state of knowledge", a concept later restated by Lee (2011).

Supporters of Altaic formerly set the date of the Proto-Altaic language at around 4000 BC, but today at around 5000 BC (Starotsin et al. 2003) or 6000 BC (Kuz'mina 2007: 364). This would make it a language family about as old as Indo-European (4000 to 7,000 BC according to several hypotheses cited in Mallory 1997: 106) but considerably younger than Afroasiatic (c. 10,000 BC according to Diakonoff 1988: 33n, 11,000 to 16,000 BC according to Ehret 2002: 35–36).

List of Altaicists and critics of Altaic

Note: This list is limited to linguists who have worked specifically on the Altaic problem since the publication of the first volume of Ramstedt's Einführung in 1952. The dates given are those of works concerning Altaic. For Altaicists, the version of Altaic they favor is given at the end of the entry, if other than the prevailing one of Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.


  • Pentti Aalto (1955). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.
  • Anna V. Dybo (S. Starostin et al. 2003, A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008).
  • Ki-Moon Lee (K.-M. Lee and S.R. Ramsey 2011). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean and perhaps Japanese.
  • Karl H. Menges (1975). Common ancestor of Korean, Japanese and traditional Altaic dated back to the 7th or 8th millennium BC (1975: 125).
  • Roy Andrew Miller (1971, 1980, 1986, 1996).
  • Oleg A. Mudrak (S. Starostin et al. 2003).
  • Nicholas Poppe (1965). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and perhaps Korean.
  • Alexis Manaster Ramer.
  • Martine Robbeets (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008).
  • G.J. Ramstedt (1952–1957). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.
  • George Starostin (A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008).
  • Sergei Starostin (1991, S. Starostin et al. 2003).
  • John C. Street (1962). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped as "North Asiatic".
  • Talat Tekin (1994). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.

Major critics of Altaic

  • Gerard Clauson (1956, 1959, 1962).
  • Gerhard Doerfer (1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1981, 1985, 1988, 1993).
  • Stefan Georg (2004, 2005).
  • Juha Janhunen (1992).
  • Claus Schönig (2003).
  • Alexander Shcherbak.
  • Alexander Vovin (2005, 2010). Formerly an advocate of Altaic (1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001), now a critic of it.

Alternative hypotheses

  • Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped in Eurasiatic.
  • Lars Johanson (2010). Agnostic, proponent of a "Transeurasian" verbal morphology not necessarily genealogically linked.
  • James Patrie (1982). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped in a common taxon (cf. John C. Street 1962).
  • J. Marshall Unger (1990). Tungusic–Korean–Japanese ("Macro-Tungusic"), with Turkic and Mongolic as separate language families.

Comparative grammar

Reconstructed phonology

Based on the proposed correspondences listed below, the following phoneme inventory has been reconstructed for the hypothetical Proto(-Macro)-Altaic language (taken from Blažek's [2006] summary of the newest Altaic etymological dictionary [Starostin et al. 2003] and transcribed into the IPA):


Bilabial Alveolar or dental Alveolopalatal Postalveolar  Palatal    Velar  
Plosives aspirated /pʰ/ /tʰ/ /kʰ/
voiceless /p/ /t/ /k/
voiced /b/ /d/ /ɡ/
Affricates aspirated /tʃʰ/
voiceless /tʃ/
voiced /dʒ/
Fricatives voiceless /s/ /ʃ/
voiced /z/-1
Nasals /m/ /n/ /nʲ/ /ŋ/
Trills -/r/-2 /rʲ/
Approximants /l/ /lʲ/ -/j/-2

1 This phoneme only occurred at the beginnings of words.
2 These phonemes only occurred in the interior of words.


Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close /i/ /y/ /u/
Mid /e/ /ø/ /o/
Near-open /æ/
Open /a/

It is not clear whether /æ/, /ø/, /y/ were monophthongs as shown here (presumably [æ œ~ø ʏ~y]) or diphthongs ([i̯a~i̯ɑ i̯ɔ~i̯o i̯ʊ~i̯u]); the evidence is equivocal. In any case, however, they only occurred in the first (and sometimes only) syllable of any word.

Every vowel occurred in long and short versions which were different phonemes in the first syllable. Starostin et al. (2003) treat length together with pitch as a prosodic feature.


As reconstructed by Starostin et al. (2003), Proto-Altaic was a pitch accent or tone language; at least the first and probably every syllable could have a high or a low pitch.

Sound correspondences

If a Proto(-Macro)-Altaic language really existed, it should be possible to reconstruct regular sound correspondences between that protolanguage and its descendants; such correspondences would make it possible to distinguish cognates from loanwords (in many cases). Such attempts have repeatedly been made. The latest version is reproduced here, taken from Blažek's (2006) summary of the newest Altaic etymological dictionary (Starostin et al. 2003) and transcribed into the IPA.

When a Proto-Altaic phoneme developed differently depending on its position in a word (beginning, interior, or end), the special case (or all cases) is marked with a hyphen; for example, Proto-Altaic /pʰ/ disappears (marked "0") or becomes /j/ at the beginning of a Turkic word and becomes /p/ elsewhere in a Turkic word.


Only single consonants are considered here. In the middle of words, clusters of two consonants were allowed in Proto-Altaic as reconstructed by Starostin et al. (2003); the correspondence table of these clusters spans almost 7 pages in their book (83–89), and most clusters are only found in one or a few of the reconstructed roots.

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
/pʰ/ 0-¹, /j/-, /p/ /h/-², /j/-, -/b/-, -/h/-², -/b/ /p/ /p/ /p/
/p/ /b/ /b/-6, /h/-², /b/ /p/-, /b/
/b/ /b/-, -/h/-, -/b/-9, -/b/ /b/ /p/, -/b/- /p/-, /w/, /b/10, /p/11
/tʰ/ /t/-, /d/-³, /t/ /t/, /tʃ/4, -/d/ /t/ /t/ /t/
/t/ /d/-, /t/ /t/, /tʃ/4 /d/-, /dʒ/-7, /t/ /t/, -/r/- /t/-, /d/-, /t/
/d/ /j/-, /d/ /d/, /dʒ/4 /d/ /d/-, /t/-, /t/, /j/
/tʃʰ/ /tʃ/ /tʃ/ /tʃ/ /tʃ/ /t/
/tʃ/ /d/-, /tʃ/ /d/-, /dʒ/-4, /tʃ/ /s/-, -/dʒ/-, -/s/- /t/-, -/s/-
/dʒ/ /j/ /dʒ/ /dʒ/ /d/-, /j/
/kʰ/ /k/ /k/-, -/k/-, -/ɡ/-5, -/ɡ/ /x/-, /k/, /x/ /k/, /h/ /k/
/k/ /k/-, /k/, /ɡ/8 /k/-, /ɡ/ /k/-, /ɡ/-, /ɡ/ /k/-, -/h/-, -0-, -/k/
/ɡ/ /ɡ/ /ɡ/-, -/h/-, -/ɡ/-5, -/ɡ/ /ɡ/ /k/, -/h/-, -0- /k/-, /k/, 012
/s/ /s/ /s/ /s/ /s/-, /h/-, /s/ /s/
/z/ /j/ /s/
/ʃ/ /s/-, /tʃ/-13, /s/ /s/-, /tʃ/-13, /s/ /ʃ/
/m/ /b/-, -/m/- /m/ /m/ /m/ /m/
/n/ /j/-, -/n/- /n/ /n/ /n/ /n/
/nʲ/ /j/-, /nʲ/ /dʒ/-, /j/, /n/ /nʲ/ /n/-, /nʲ/14 /m/-, /n/, /m/
/ŋ/ 0-, /j/-, /ŋ/ 0-, /j/-, /ɡ/-15, /n/-16, /ŋ/, /n/, /m/, /h/ /ŋ/ /n/-, /ŋ/, 0 0-, /n/-, /m/-7, /m/, /n/
/r/ /r/ /r/ /r/ /r/ /r/, /t/4, 15
/rʲ/ /rʲ/ /r/, /t/
/l/ /j/-, /l/ /n/-, /l/-, /l/ /l/ /n/-, /r/ /n/-, /r/
/lʲ/ /j/-, /lʲ/ /d/-, /dʒ/-4, /l/ /n/-, /s/
/j/ /j/ /j/, /h/ /j/ /j/, 0 /j/, 0

¹ The Khalaj language has /h/ instead. (It also retains a number of other archaisms.) However, it has also added /h/ in front of words for which no initial consonant (except in some cases /ŋ/, as expected) can be reconstructed for Proto-Altaic; therefore, and because it would make them dependent on whether Khalaj happens to have preserved any given root, Starostin et al. (2003: 26–28) have not used Khalaj to decide whether to reconstruct an initial /pʰ/ in any given word and have not reconstructed a /h/ for Proto-Turkic even though it was probably there.
² The Monguor language has /f/ here instead (Kaiser & Shevoroshkin 1988); it is therefore possible that Proto-Mongolian also had /f/ which then became /h/ (and then usually disappeared) in all descendants except Monguor. Tabgač and Kitan, two extinct Mongolic languages not considered by Starostin et al. (2003), even preserve /p/ in these places (Blažek 2006).
³ This happened when the next consonant in the word was /lʲ/, /rʲ/, or /r/.
4 Before /i/.
5 When the next consonant in the word was /h/.
6 This happened "in syllables with original high pitch" (Starostin et al. 2003:135).
7 Before /æ/, /ø/ or /y/.
8 When the next consonant in the word was /r/.
9 When the preceding consonant was /r/, /rʲ/, /l/, or /lʲ/, or when the next consonant was /ɡ/.
10 Before /a/, /ə/, or any vowel followed by /j/.
11 Before /j/, or /i/ and then another vowel.
12 When preceded by a vowel preceded by /i/.
13 Before /a/.
14 Starostin et al. (2003) follow a minority opinion (Vovin 1993) in interpreting the sound of the Middle Korean letter as [nʲ] or [ɲ] rather than [z]. (Dybo & Starostin 2008:footnote 50)
15 Before /u/.
16 Before /a/, /o/, or /e/.


Vowel harmony is pervasive in the languages attributed to Altaic: most Turkic and Mongolic as well as some Tungusic languages have it, Korean is arguably in the process of losing its traces, and it is (controversially) hypothesized for Old Japanese. (Vowel harmony is also typical of the neighboring Uralic languages and was often counted among the arguments for the Ural–Altaic hypotheses.) Nevertheless, Starostin et al. (2003) reconstruct Proto-Altaic as lacking vowel harmony. Instead, according to them, vowel harmony originated in each daughter branch as assimilation of the vowel in the first syllable to the vowel in the second syllable (which was usually modified or lost later). "The situation therefore is very close, e.g., to Germanic [see Germanic umlaut] or to the Nakh languages in the Eastern Caucasus, where the quality of non-initial vowels can now only be recovered on the basis of umlaut processes in the first syllable." (Starostin et al. 2003:91) The table below is taken from Starostin et al. (2003):

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Middle Korean Proto-Japonic
first s. second s. first syllable
/a/ /a/ /a/, /a/1, /ʌ/1 /a/ /a/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /a/, /ɯ/ /a/, /i/ /ə/
/i/ /ɛ/, /a/ /a/, /e/ /a/, /e/, /i/ /i/
/o/ /o/, /ja/, /aj/ /a/, /i/, /e/ /ə/, /o/ /a/
/u/ /a/ /a/, /o/, /u/ /a/, /ə/, /o/, /u/ /u/
/e/ /a/ /a/, /ʌ/, /ɛ/ /a/, /e/ /e/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /ja/-, /ɛ/, /e/2 /e/, /ja/ /a/, /e/, /i/, /ɨ/ /ə/
/i/ /ja/-, /ɛ/, /e/2 /e/, /i/ /i/, /ɨ/, /a/, /e/ /i/
/o/ /ʌ/, /e/ /a/, /e/, /y/3, /ø/3 /ə/, /o/, /u/ /ə/, /a/
/u/ /ɛ/, /a/, /ʌ/ /e/, /a/, /o/3 /o/, /u/, /a/ /u/
/i/ /a/ /ɯ/, /i/ /i/ /i/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /ɛ/, /e/2 /e/, /i/ /i/, /ɨ/ /i/
/i/ /i/ /i/, /e/1 /i/ /i/
/o/ /ɯ/ /i/ /o/, /u/, /ɨ/ /i/, /ə/
/u/ /ɯ/, /i/ /i/, /ɨ/ /u/
/o/ /a/ /o/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /ø/, /o/ /ø/, /y/, /o/ /ɨ/, /o/, /u/ /ə/
/i/ /ø/, /o/ /ø/ /o/, /u/ /u/
/o/ /o/ /u/ /a/, /e/ /ə/
/u/ /o/ /o/, /u/ /ə/, /o/, /u/ /u/
/u/ /a/ /u/, /o/ /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /y/ /o/, /u/, /y/ /u/ /a/, /e/ /ua/, /a/1
/i/ /y/, /u/ /y/, /ø/ /o/, /u/, /ɨ/ /u/
/o/ /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /ɨ/ /ə/
/u/ /o/, /u/ /u/
/æ/ /a/ /ia/, /ja/, /ɛ/ /a/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /a/3 /a/
/e/ /ia/, /ja/ /i/, /a/, /e/ /i/ /i/, /e/, /je/ /ə/
/i/ /ia/, /ja/, /ɛ/ /i/, /e/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /e/, /je/ /i/
/o/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /e/ /o/, /u/ /ə/, /o/, /u/ /a/
/u/ /e/, /a/, /ʌ/1 /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /e/, /je/ /u/
/ø/ /a/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /ə/ /a/
/e/ /e/, /a/, /ʌ/1 /e/, /ø/ /o/, /u/, /je/ /ə/, /u/
/i/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /i/, /e/, /ø/ /o/, /u/, /ə/ /i/
/o/ /o/, /u/ /ø/, /y/, /o/, /u/ /i/ /i/, /e/, /je/ /ə/, /a/
/u/ /u/, /o/ /e/, /i/, /u/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /u/, /je/ /u/
/y/ /a/ /ɯ/ /o/, /u/, /i/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /y/, /ø/, /i/2 /ø/, /y/, /o/, /u/ /y/, /u/1 /a/, /e/, /ja/, /je/, /o/, /u/ /u/, /ə/
/i/ /y/, /ø/ /i/, /u/1 /ɨ/, /i/, /o/, /u/ /i/
/o/ /u/, /o/ /o/, /u/ /y/ /a/, /e/, /ja/, /je/, /o/, /u/ /u/, /ə/
/u/ /ɯ/ /i/, /o/, /u/, /y/, /ø/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /i/, /ɨ/ /u/

1 When preceded by a bilabial consonant.
2 When followed by a trill, /l/, or /lʲ/.
3 When preceded or followed by a bilabial consonant.
4 When preceded by a fricative (/s/, /ʃ/, /x/).


Length and pitch in the first syllable evolved as follows according to Starostin et al. (2003), with the caveat that it is not clear which pitch was high and which was low in Proto-Altaic (Starostin et al. 2003:135). For simplicity of input and display every syllable is symbolized as "a" here:

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
á a a1 a à2 á
à a a a á à
áː a1 a à2 á
àː a a á à

¹ "Proto-Mongolian has lost all traces of the original prosody except for voicing *p → *b in syllables with original high pitch" (Starostin et al. 2003:135).
² "[…] several secondary metatonic processes happened […] in Korean, basically in the verb subsystem: all verbs have a strong tendency towards low pitch on the first syllable." (Starostin et al. 2003:135)

Morphological correspondences

Starostin et al. (2003) have reconstructed the following correspondences between the case and number suffixes (or clitics) of the (Macro-)Altaic languages (taken from Blažek, 2006):

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic (*), Old Turkic Proto-Mongolic (*), Classical Mongolian Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean (*), Middle Korean Proto-Japonic (*), Old Japanese
nominative: - - - - - -
accusative: /be/ /ba/, /be/ /ba/, /wo/
partitive: /ɡa/ -/ʁ/, -/ɯʁ/, -/ɡ/, -/iɡ/ *-/ʁ/ (accusative) /ɡa/ /ɡa/ (possessive)
genitive: -/nʲV/ -/ŋ/ *-/n/ -/ŋi/ -/nʲ/ /nə/, /na/, /ŋa/
dative-locative: /du/, /da/ -/ta/, -/da/, -/te/, -/de/ (locative-ablative) -/da/ (dative-locative), -/du/ (attributive) /du/ (dative), -/daː/ (locative) -/tu/ (attributive-locative)
dative-instrumental: -/nV/ -/n/, -/ɯn/, -/in/ (instrumental) /ni/ (dative-locative)
dative-directive: -/kʰV/ -/qa/, -/ke/ (dative) /kiː/ (directive)
comitative-locative: -/lV/ -/li/, -/lɯʁ/ /laː/ (locative), -/liː/ (prolative), -/luʁa/ (comitative) -/ro/ (instrumental-lative)
comitative-equative: -/tʃʰa/ -/tʃa/, -/tʃe/ (equative) /tʃa/ (ablative), /tʃa/, /tʃaʁa/ (terminative) -/tə/ (comitative)
allative: -/ɡV/ -/ʁaru/, -/ɡery/ (directive) *-/ʁa/, -/a/ /ɡiː/ (allative) -/ei/
directive: -/rV/ -/ʁaru/, -/ɡery/ -/ru/ -/ro/ (lative)
instrumental-ablative: -/dʒV/ *?-/ja/, -/a/ terminal dative /dʒi/ /ju/ (ablative)
singulative: -/nV/ *-/n/ -/n/
dual: -/rʲV/ *-/rʲ/ (plural for paired objects) -/r/ (plural) *-/rə/ (plural for paired objects)
plural: -/tʰ/- *-/t/ -/d/ -/ta/, -/te/, -/tan/, -/ten/ *-/tɨr/ *-/tati/
plural: -/s/- *-/s/ -/sal/
plural: -/l/- *-/lar/ *-/nar/ -/l/, -/sal/ *-/ra/

/V/ symbolizes an uncertain vowel. Suffixes reconstructed for Proto-Turkic, Proto-Mongolic, Proto-Korean, or Proto-Japonic, but not attested in Old Turkic, Classical Mongolian, Middle Korean, or Old Japanese are marked with asterisks.

Selected cognates

Personal pronouns

The table below is taken (with slight modifications) from Blažek (2006) and transcribed into IPA.

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic (*), Classical Mongolian Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean (*), Middle Korean Proto-Japonic
"I" (nominative) /bì/ /be/ */bi/ /bi/ /-i/ /bà/
"me" (oblique cases) /mine/- /men/ */min/- /min/-
"I" Old Chinese: */ŋa/ */nad/-, -/m/- (oblique) /nà/ (Korean: 나)
/ú/ (Sino-Korean: */我/, */吾/), yi (矣)1
/a/- (Sino-Japanese: */我,吾/, - )
"thou" (nominative) /si/ and/or /tʰi/ /se/ (Turkic: Sen, Сен) */tʃi/ (Mongolian: чи) /si/ (Manchu: Si, Nanai: Си) /-si/, /-sya/1 /si/
"thee" (oblique cases) /sin/- and/or /tʰin/- /sen/ (Turkic: Sen, Сен)  ?*/tʃin/-
"thou" Proto-Tibeto-Burman /ná/ -/ŋ/ */nè/ (Korean: 너) /ná/ (Japanese: な */那/)
"we" (nominative) /bà/ /bi-rʲ/ (Turkic: Biz, Біз) */ba/ (Mongolian: Бид) /bue/ (Nanai: Буэ Manchu: be) /ú-rí/ (Korean: 우리,울 */于尸/) /bà/
"us" (oblique cases) /myn/- */man/- /myn/- (Manchu: muse)
"ye" (nominative) /sV/ and/or /tʰV/ /si-rʲ/ (Turkic: Siz, Сіз) */ta/ (Mongolian: та нар) /suː/ (Manchu: suwe)
"you" (oblique) /sVn/- /sun/-

As above, forms not attested in Classical Mongolian or Middle Korean but reconstructed for their ancestors are marked with an asterisk, and /V/ represents an uncertain vowel.

Other basic vocabulary

The following table is a brief selection of further proposed cognates in basic vocabulary across the Altaic family (from Starostin et al. [2003]). Their reconstructions and equivalences are not widely accepted by the mainstream linguists.

Proto-Altaic meaning Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
that /tʰa/ /di/- or /ti/- /te-re/ /ta/ /tjé/ /tso-re/
eye /næ̀ː/ /ni-dy/ /nʲia-sa/5 /nú-n/ /mà/-
neck /móːjno/ /boːjn/ /moŋa-n/ /mje-k/ /nəmpV/
breast /kòkʰè/ /køky-rʲ/1 /køkø-n/2 /kuku-n/2 /kokajŋi/ "pith; medulla; core" /kəkə-rə/1 "heart"
stone /tǿːlʲì/ /diaːlʲ/ /tʃila-ʁu/ /dʒola/ /toːrh/3 /(d)ísì/
star /pʰǿlʲo/ /jul-durʲ/ /ho-dun/ /osi/4 /pjɨːr/ /pə́tsí/
oath, god, sky[20] /tàŋɡiri/ /teŋri/ /taŋgarag/ /taŋgura/ /tiŋkir/

1 Contains the Proto-Altaic dual suffix -/rʲV/: "both breasts" – "chest" – "heart".
2 Contains the Proto-Altaic singulative suffix -/nV/: "one breast".
3 Compare Baekje */turak/ "stone" (Blažek 2006).
4 This is in the Jurchen language. In modern Manchu it is usiha.
5 This is disputed by Georg (2004),[21] who states: "The traditional Tungusological reconstruction *yāsa [ = /jaːsa/] cannot be replaced by the nasal-initial one espoused here, needed for the comparison." However, Starostin (2005)[22] mentions evidence from several Tungusic languages cited by Starostin et al. (2003). Georg (2005)[23] does not accept this, referring to Georg (1999/2000) and a then upcoming paper.[24]

Numerals and related words

In the Indo-European family, the numerals are remarkably stable. This is a rather exceptional case; especially words for higher numbers are often borrowed wholesale. (Perhaps the most famous cases are Japanese and Korean, which have two complete sets of numerals each – one native, one Chinese.) Indeed, the Altaic numerals are less stable than the Indo-European ones, but nevertheless Starostin et al. (2003) reconstruct them as follows:

Proto-Altaic meaning Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
1 /byri/ /bir/ /byri/ "all, each" /pìrɨ́/ "at first" /pi-tə/
single /nøŋe/ /jaŋɯrʲ/ /nige/ "1" /noŋ/~/non/ "be the first, begin" /nəmi/ "only"
front /emo/ /øm-gen/ "upper part of breast" /emy/- /emu/~/ume/ "1" /maen-/~/môn-chô "first of all"26 /upe/ "upper"
/mape/ "front"
single, one of a pair /sǿna/ /sɯŋar/ "one of a pair" /son-du-/ "odd" 1 /hə̀nàh/ "1"
or /hə̀t-/ 1
/sa/- "together, reciprocally"
2 /tybu/ 2 /dʒiw-rin/~/dʒui-rin/ "2 (feminine)"3 /dʒube/ /tuː/, /tuː-rh/4
pair, couple /pʰø̀kʰe/ /eki/ "2", /ekirʲ/ "twins"; ?/(j)ɛɡir-mi/ "20" /(h)ekire/ "twins"
different, other /gojV/ /gojar/ "2" /goj/~/gia/ /kía/
pair, half /putʃʰu/ /butʃ-uk/ /ptʃa-k/ /puta/- "2"
3 /ŋy/ /o-turʲ/ "30"5 /gu-rban/; /ɡu-tʃin/ "30" 6 /mi/-7
(footnote 8) /ìlù/ /øløŋ/9 /ila-n/ "3" /ùrù-pu/ "bissextile (year or month)"
object consisting of 3 parts /séjra/ /sere-ʁe/ "trident, pitchfork" /seːi(h)/ "3" /sárápi/ "rake, pitchfork"
4 /toːjV/ /døː-rt/ /dø-rben/; /dø-rtʃin/ "40"10 /dy-gin/ /də/-
5 /tʰu/ /ta-bun/; /ta-bin/ "50"11 /tu-nʲɡa/ /tà/- /i-tu-/12
6 /nʲu/ /dʒi-rɡu-/; /dʒi-ran/ "60"13 /nʲu-ŋu-/ 14 /mu/-
7 /nadi/15 /jeti/ /dolu-ʁan/; /dala-n/ "70"15 /nada-n/ /nìr-(kúp)/16 /nana/-
8 /dʒa/ /dʒa-pkun/ /jè-t-/17 /da/-
9 /kʰeɡVnV/ /xegyn/ /kəkənə/
10 /tʃøbe/ or /tøbe/ /dʒuba-n/ /təwə/18,/-so/"-0"/i-so/50
many, a big number /dʒøːrʲo/ /jyːrʲ/ "100" 19 /jér(h)/ "10" /jə̀rə̀/ "many" /jə̀rə̀/- "10,000"
/jə̀rə̀/ "many"
/pʰVbV/ /oː-n/ "10" /ha-rban/ "10", /ha-na/ "all" 20 -/pə/, -/pua/ "-00"21
20 /kʰyra/ /ɡɯrk/ or /kɯrk/ "40"22 /kori-n/ /xori-n/ /pata-ti/23
100 /nʲàmò/  ?/jom/ "big number, all" /dʒaʁu-n/24 /nʲamaː/ /muàmuà/
1000 /tʃỳmi/ /dymen/ or /tymen/ "10,000"25 /tʃɨ̀mɨ̀n/ /ti/

1 Manchu /soni/ "single, odd".
2 Old Bulgarian /tvi-rem/ "second".
3 Kitan has /tʃur/ "2" (Blažek 2006).
4 -/uː/- is probably a contraction of -/ubu/-.
5 The /y/- of /ytʃ/ "3" "may also reflect the same root, although the suffixation is not clear." (Starostin et al. 2003:223)
6 Compare Silla /mir/ "3" (Blažek 2006).
7 Compare Goguryeo /mir/ "3" (Blažek 2006).
8 "third (or next after three = fourth)", "consisting of three objects"
9 "song with three out of four verses rhyming (first, second and fourth)"
10 Kitan has /dur/ "4" (Blažek 2006).
11 Kitan has /tau/ "5" (Blažek 2006).
12 "(the prefixed i- is somewhat unclear: it is also used as a separate word meaning ‘fifty’, but the historical root here is no doubt *tu-)" (Starostin et al. 2003:223). – Blažek (2006) also considers Goguryeo */uts/ "5" (from */uti/) to be related.
13 Kitan has /nir/ "6" (Blažek 2006).
14 Middle Korean has /je-(sɨs)/ "6", which may fit here, but the required loss of initial /nʲ/- "is not quite regular" (Starostin et al. 2003:224).
15 The Mongolian forms "may suggest an original proto-form" /lʲadi/ or /ladi/ "with dissimilation or metathesis in" Proto-Mongolic (Starostin et al. 2003:224). – Kitan has /dol/ "7".
16 /ɖirkup/ in Early Middle Korean(タリクニ/チリクヒ in 二中歴).
17 "Problematic" (Starostin et al. 2003:224).
18 Compare Goguryeo /tok/ "10" (Blažek 2006).
19 Manchu /dʒiri/, /dʒirun/ "a very big number".
20 Orok /poːwo/ "a bundle of 10 squirrels", Nanai /poã/ "collection, gathering".
21 "Hundred" in names of hundreds.
22 Starostin et al. (2003) suspect this to be a reduplication: */kɯr-kɯr/ "20 + 20".
23 /kata-ti/ would be expected; Starostin et al. (2003) think that this irregular change from /k/ to /p/ is due to influence from "2" /puta-tu/.
24 From */nʲam-ŋu-/.
25 Also see Tümen.
26 Modern Korean – needs further investigations

See also



Works cited

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Further reading

  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1997. "Does Altaic exist?" In Irén Hegedus, Peter A. Michalove, and Alexis Manaster Ramer (editors), Indo-European, Nostratic and Beyond: A Festschrift for Vitaly V. Shevoroshkin, Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1997, 88–93. (Reprinted in Joseph H. Greenberg, Genetic Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 325–330.)
  • Hahn, Reinhard F. 1994. 5.908, 18 August 1994.
  • Janhunen, Juha. 1992. "Das Japanische in vergleichender Sicht." Journal de la Société finno-ougrienne 84, 145–161.
  • Johanson, Lars. 1999. HTML version.)
  • Johanson, Lars. 1999. "Attractiveness and relatedness: Notes on Turkic language contacts." Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: Special Session on Caucasian, Dravidian, and Turkic Linguistics, edited by Jeff Good and Alan C.L. Yu, 87–94. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
  • Johanson, Lars. 2002. Structural Factors in Turkic Language Contacts, translated by Vanessa Karam. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
  • Kortlandt, Frederik. 1993. "The origin of the Japanese and Korean accent systems." Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 26, 57–65.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1966. "Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese." Language 12.2, 185–251.
  • Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2004. "Belief or argument? The classification of the Japanese language." Eurasia Newsletter 8. Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages. Stanford University Press.
  • Sinor, Denis. 1990. Essays in Comparative Altaic Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies. ISBN 0-933070-26-8.

External links

  • Altaic languages page from the MultiTree Project at the LINGUIST List.
  • Swadesh vocabulary lists for Altaic languages (from 's Swadesh-list appendix)
  • Altaic family trees LINGUIST List
  • Monumenta altaica Altaic linguistics website, maintained by Ilya Gruntov
  • , database version by Sergei A. Starostin, Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak (does not include introductory chapters)
  • LINGUIST List 5.911 defense of Altaic by Alexis Manaster Ramer (1994)
  • LINGUIST List 5.926 1. Remarks by Alexander Vovin. 2. Clarification by J. Marshall Unger. (1994)

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