30 Nov 2007

A ramble about the Nostratic pronominal system

I'm sure I must have hinted before that I hate when some treat long-range theories (like Nostratic, North Caucasian, Dene-Caucasian, or whatever far-away proto-language) as if they're written in stone. A person with a level head recognizes these ideas for what they are, idle conjectures requiring many ammendments before something more substantial can be made of them. However, I'm not against conjecture as long as it's fully differentiated from facts or well-substantiated theories. I also think there is an important difference between sharing conjectures for discussion on a blog or in a forum versus wasting trees to write a manifesto of your pseudolinguistic doctrine for you to enforce on disbelievers.

As much as I sound like a conservative fart for downplaying long-range comparison, I'm actually quite interested in it. It's just that I haven't read anything serious enough for me to go "wow!" yet and as I learn more, the errors in books start to become more apparent. Overall, I'm the most impressed (in a very moderate sense) by the Nostratic hypothesis as presented by Allan Bomhard who proposes that Indo-European, Uralic-Yukaghir, Altaic, Eskimo-Aleut, Elamite, Dravidian, Sumerian, Kartvelian and Afro-Asiatic language families come from a parent language dated to about 15 000 BCE in a period following the last ice age. He wasn't the first to come up with this century-old theory but he had a few different takes on it. For now, Nostratic is not an established theory because it doesn't present enough evidence to prove its claims, but it doesn't hurt to suggest further improvements that may help to inspire discussion and, just maybe, progress.

When looking through Allan Bomhard's Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis (1996) or The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship (1994) co-authored by Allan Bomhard and John Kerns, one thing that I noticed was how many pronouns are being reconstructed without a clear structure. This is but one of a number of serious gaps in this theory just waiting to be resolved. The reconstructions presented by Bomhard and Kerns are always cited ad nauseum in ablaut pairs (e.g. *ma-/mə-) which of course serves no other purpose than to make the book twice as long. Since the ablaut patterns are said to be regular, there is no need to cite the second pair of each reconstruction any more than it is necessary to cite the Indo-European root *bʰer- as *bʰer-/*bʰor-/*bʰēr/*bʰr̥- each and every time. So I will dispense with irrelevancies and cite only the first pair of each of their reconstructions below.

First off, Bomhard and Kerns, on page 3 of The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship, show us this list of pronouns in the 1st and 2nd persons: *mi "I" [1ps], *tʰi "you" [2ps], *ma "we" [1pp.inclusive], *wa "we" [1pp] and *na "we" [1pp]. Immediately after are "notes" which are hampered either by irrelevancies or false information. For example, it suffices to say that Indo-European (IE) has a 1ps enclitic pronoun *me, 1ps genitive *mene, verbal 1ps thematic secondary ending *-m and verbal 1pp ending *-mes, the last being nothing more than a 1ps element with the plural ending *-es. So indeed there is ample evidence of an underlying 1ps pronominal root *me- in the deepest recesses of IE's prehistory. It's development in IE's Celtic branch however is wasteful rambling since it's obviously immaterial to Nostratic reconstruction and *me is well established in all other branches of IE even without the consideration of Celtic. Basing an Afro-Asiatic reconstruction solely on Chadic is bad practice known as "reaching". The so-called Etruscan imperative endings cited (-ti, , -θi) are without substantiation, if not provably false altogether, despite ad hoc claims made by some prominent Etruscologists such as Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante. The belief that these endings are imperatives are based on ad hoc comparisons with Indo-European imperatives in *-dʰí (e.g. *h₁sdʰí /ʔəsdí/ "be!").

These aren't all the first and second person pronouns that are suggested by Bomhard and Kerns (see here). False comparisons are made between an underlying Uralic and Eskimo-Aleut 1ps ending in a velar stop on the one hand and Indo-European *h₁eǵoh₂ (cited as *ʔekʼ-) on the other[1]. Some fun pronoun splicing of random data from the Afro-Asiatic family and presto changeo, yet another 1ps pronoun, *ʔa-. Then don't forget Bomhard's 1st person pronoun *ʔiya, supposedly proved by evidence from Chadic.

So in the 1st person alone, we now have five claims: *ʔa-, *ʔiya-, *ma-, *na- and *wa-. I'll discuss this more later.

(Continue reading the sequel: A ramble about the Nostratic pronominal system, part 2.)

[1] Read my views on the etymology of PIE's nominative 1ps pronoun in The origin of Indo-European ego.


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