Volume 22 (2020)

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Mother Tongue 22 (2020)

Synopsis of Articles:

Prepared by John Bengtson, Editor

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow (1925-2016), a German scholar who excelled in the historical linguistics of the two major language families in which he worked: (a) Austro-Asiatic (or Austroasiatic, part of Austric), and (b) Na-Dene, a major family of North America. A large part of this issue deals with a discussion of the Na-Dene family.


We celebrate the lives of several eminent scholars who departed this life in the years 2018 and 2019, all of whom contributed immensely to historical linguistics, language in prehistory, and associated historical sciences involved in the “Emerging Synthesis” of understanding human prehistory. These titans were Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922–2018), Eric Pratt Hamp (1920–2019), Stephen L. Zegura (1943–2019), and Murray Gell-Mann (1929–2019).

Na-Dene and Beyond (discussion)

When Edward Sapir proposed the Na-Dene family of languages in 1915, it was thought by him to consist of three linguistic units: (a) the Haida language, (b) the Tlingit language, and © the Athabaskan family (Tanana, Carrier, Sarsi, Mattole, Hupa, Navajo, etc.). At that time the Eyak language was little known, but it eventually became clear that it belonged to Na-Dene and was close to Athabaskan. The following structure of the Na-Dene family eventually became more or less generally accepted: it was thought that Haida was the most divergent of the languages, and thus had split off first from the rest of the family. Then Tlingit split off, then Eyak, leaving the core Athabaskan family. Even from the beginning some experts were unwilling to accept the Na-Dene family. For example, Pliny Earle Goddard could not even accept the relatedness of Tlingit and Athabaskan (let alone Haida). Decades later Robert Levine published an article purporting to demolish Sapir’s evidence for connecting Haida to the rest of Na-Dene. Many experts, such as Michael Krauss, concurred with Levine, while some eventually accepted the original unity of Tlingit-Eyak-Athabaskan.

In the 1950s Dell Hymes contended “that the positional categories of the verb in Haida, Tlingit, and Athabaskan correlate in a way that can neither be the result of chance nor be the result of borrowing.” Meanwhile, Pinnow, beginning in the 1960s, continued to amass evidence for a Na-Dene family that still, for him, included Haida, correcting and adding to Sapir’s evidence. As part of his book Language in the Americas Greenberg critically examined Levine’s methods and conclusions, maintaining that many of Levine’s criticisms were invalid, and even if all the critiques were accepted, much of Sapir’s evidence remained intact. Alexis Manaster Ramer, while disagreeing somewhat with some of Greenberg’s arguments, also found fault with Levine’s claims. More recently John Enrico, an expert in the Haida language, has adduced powerful evidence of the validity of Sapir’s original Na-Dene hypothesis. Nevertheless, it seems that most of the current North American Na-Dene/Athabaskan establishment continues to deny the membership of Haida.

Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow, Na-Dene and beyond by Jan Henrik Holst. 

In Holst’s “anchor” article two topics intimately connected with Pinnow’s research are discussed, and new thoughts are brought into the debate. Holst emphasizes his conclusion that “the ND family is real (including both Tlingit and Haida).” He also discusses problems of subgrouping. The last section deals with possible language relationships beyond Na-Dene. He suggests a possible unit consisting of Na-Dene, Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan, and bearing the name Lakitisch, English Lakitic, from a shared word for ‘hand’, which is lak or similar in these families. Holst emphasizes also, that although working within a small language family is easier, “one should [not] refrain from any work across the established language families. Especially when good progress can be made, such work should be done. … Sometimes, however, it is a tiny being ahead in openmindedness that enables one to see, or to hypothesize, a point which others may be unable to reach. It is such open-mindedness that can often be observed when reading Pinnow – which brings us back to the scholar we started out with and who should be remembered.”

Comments on ‘Na-Dene and Beyond’; Sino-Dene (updated); the position of Haida by John D. Bengtson. 

These three segments discuss aspects of Holst’s article, more recent work on the ‘Sino-Dene’ subgroup by Pinnow and others, and some lexical and grammatical links between Haida and other Dene-Caucasian languages.

Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow, Na-Dene and beyond by Uwe R. Krämer.

Krämer, who corresponded with Pinnow for several years, brings in some interesting points about the Navajo language, in which “an action (here as an umbrella term for an action, an event, a state, etc.) within the verb, must be depicted in the most precise way possible, almost in photographic form.” Other comments involve verbal “prefix slots” in Tlingit (and other Na-Dene languages) and the system of numbering them, for which Pinnow preferred a numbering from 0 (verb stem) to the left, since “the verb stem is actually the fulcrum of the whole verb body.” Krämer, like some others, bemoans the fact that Pinnow’s “use of German as the language of his works is one of the main problems, and why Pinnow received so little attention.” Krämer defends Pinnow’s work from criticisms, averring that “Pinnow has worked and researched in the field of Na-Dene languages in the same way as we know it from Indo-European studies. He has carried out serious, meticulous research and delivered well-founded, verifiable results with regard to sound development and language kinship.” Krämer also brings in questions about Beringia, such as “the [American-]Indian cultures are much older than previously assumed, which of course throws a far more complex picture on language movement, language development or language emergence. Meanwhile one has arrived already, after evaluation of many findings, at an age of 30,000 years. We will have to wait and see what further research will reveal.” But Krämer remains highly pessimistic about “macro-family” proposals: “it is apparently not only very difficult, but – at least so my impression – almost impossible to show clear compelling research results which prove the existence of such hypothetical linguistic macro-families and their family trees.”

Significance testing of Na-Dene by Carsten Peust: 

The author applies a mathematically-based test to the issue of Na-Dene. “A computer-aided statistical lexical permutation test is applied to assess the validity of Na-Dene, a presumed extension of Athabaskan, as a linguistic family. As a result, the existence of Na-Dene is on the whole not supported. Eyak is the only external language whose connection to the Athabaskan family can be confirmed.” On the other hand, Peust rightfully emphasizes that “the failure of proving relationship [with this test] is not the same thing as proving non-relationship. It could be that the lack of success is not due to the absence of relationship, but rather due to some infelicitous decisions made here concerning either data or method. … It might be that for languages in this area, it is mistaken to focus exclusively on lexical units, but one should rather have compared the numerous available morphological affixes, if it is true that the Na-Dene languages ‘are genetically related and lost their common vocabulary’ by an unusually high rate of vocabulary change, as suggested by Pinnow … . Pinnow’s (1984) study arguing for Haida as being Na-Dene is largely based on morphology.”

An Outsider’s View on Historical Linguistics by Hartmann Römer. 

Römer is “not a professional linguist but rather a mathematical physicist with a permanent keen interest in language and philosophy.” On the Na-Dene family, “Pinnow’s work … may serve as a model. A novel method of “positional analysis” helped to corroborate the larger Na-Dene family including Haida. The hypothesis of larger Na-Dene is not yet uncontroversial, but one has the impression that the balance starts to tip in favor of it.” After a discussion of Holst’s anchor article, Römer offers a number of compelling “suggestions and warnings,” such as “prudence is necessary, but a well-placed hypothesis is a valuable and challenging contribution to research and should be encouraged. Even refutation of such a hypothesis is a real progress and need not blame its originator.” Römer tenders a kind of defense of Joseph H. Greenberg, whose work is dear to many members of ASLIP and readers of Mother Tongue: “But there is probably more truth in his findings [in Language in the Americas] than in assuming hundreds of unrelated language families in the Americas. This is very implausible, because one can safely assume that most if not all of the population of the Americas goes back to a limited number of small groups arriving rather late in the history of modern man. … I think justice demands to judge the balance of Greenberg’s work as clearly positive securing him a place among the great linguists of the 20th century. He had an extremely wide view on languages, opened up new perspectives and exerted an emboldening influence against widespread linguistic defeatism.” Römer also endorses the ASLIP policy of multidisciplinary cooperation: “For linguistics, there is no good ideological reason to disregard information from different fields like anthropology, psychology, genetics, archaeology or ethnology.”

Response to discussants of the anchor paper by Jan Henrik Holst.

The author responds to the articles by Bengtson, Krämer, Peust and Römer.

Na-Dene Numerals by Václav Blažek: 

All relevant data is summarized in table form about the numerals 1-10 in the Na-Dene languages, plus Haida. “On the basis of internal structure or internal reconstructions and external comparisons their etymologies are discussed. … In 1915 Sapir tried to demonstrate a common origin for Athapaskan, Tlingit and Haida, applying the comparative method developed by the Young Grammarians for Indo-European. Although his comparisons looked convincing, their low number, 98, and some incorrect interpretations caused doubts … After a series of important studies devoted to comparative Na-Dene linguistics Pinnow (1986) concentrates on the Haida numerals, analyzed from both perspectives of internal reconstruction and external comparison. Although his reconstructions are rather artificial and his explanations do not lack creativity, his approach is inspiring and should be taken seriously.” Blažek investigates all of the numeral lexemes in a comparative-structural analysis.

Some Notes about Dene-Caucasian by John D. Bengtson: 

Sergei L. Nikolaev of Moscow presented a report on “Sino-Caucasian Languages in America” at the First International Symposium on Language and Prehistory (Ann Arbor, 1988). The paper was later published in 1991. As far as we know, Nikolaev was the first to make an extensive direct comparison of North Caucasian and Na-Dene, though his effort was no doubt inspired by combining the earlier “Sino-Dene” hypothesis of Sapir and Shafer with the “Sino-Caucasian” hypothesis of S.A. Starostin. In his 1991 article Nikolaev added in the proposed cognates with Sino-Tibetan and Yeniseian already proposed by Starostin, thus going full circle with the first multilateral Dene-Caucasian comparisons that included the four families Na-Dene, North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan, and Yeniseian. After three decades of study of Nikolaev’s etymologies Bengtson deems that perhaps about half of them still seem plausible and are borne out by research. Perhaps about another quarter of them could be valid or promising, but Bengtson has not yet been able to verify the Na-Dene and/or North Caucasian data. The weakest part of Nikolayev’s study is morphology: only ten “pronouns and particles” are listed (9.1–9.10), of which some appear improbable, and there is no attempt to demonstrate complete or partial paradigms.


Resonant Variation in Proto-Indo-European by Gregory Haynes: 

“Upon close inspection, many roots in the reconstructed vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European show similarities, both phonetic and semantic, that suggest ancient genetic affiliations. In particular, cases of resonant variation within the context of a fixed consonant structure often show striking semantic uniformity. The examples provided suggest that, at a very early pre-Proto-Indo-European stage of the language, these resonant-variations were morphological variants of earlier primitive roots. Additionally, when evaluating the likelihood of distant language affiliations, these generalized primitive roots, not their derived variants, are the principal forms that can be meaningfully compared to the lexica of other proto-languages.”

Copious examples are presented and discussed, showing that “pre-Proto-Indo-European used resonant variation as a kind of grammatical ablaut, as a morphological process to express nuance to ancient roots in the same way that modern languages use vowel modifications, as in the English series: sing, sang, sung, song. The resonants changed, but the fundamental semantic value of the primitive root remained relatively constant.”

The Proto-Sapiens prohibitive/negative particle *ma by Pierre J. Bancel, Alain Matthey de l’Etang & John D. Bengtson: 

“We report here on a lexical root [prohibitive/negative *ma], very widespread in diverse languages worldwide, including more than 50 ancient languages, long-isolated languages, and proto-languages. Most of these rely on uncontroversial reconstructions, while others, from Proto-Nilo-Saharan to Proto-Trans-New Guinea through Proto-Austric and Proto-Amerind, go back to far more than 10,000 years ago and cover all continents.” We argue that this lexical root could only have been part of the ancestral language common to all modern humans.

Book reviews & notices

Book review | Bengtson on Basque: a radical simplification of the linguistic map of prehistoric Europe by Nicholas Davidson: 

Review article on Basque and Its Closest Relatives: A New Paradigm. An Updated Study of the Euskaro-Caucasian (Vasco-Caucasian) Hypothesis, by John D. Bengtson, 2017. “It can be seen, therefore, that the seemingly arcane debate about the origins of Basque is of major and indeed crucial importance to the study of prehistoric Europe for all of the disciplines concerned. It can be expected that John Bengtson’s new book will help place this debate front and center in the coming years.”

Book notice |  Altaic Languages: History of research, survey, classification and a sketch of comparative grammar, by V. Blažek (with M. Schwarz and O. Srba). Brno: Masaryk University Press. 2019.

The debate about the existence or non-existence of an “Altaic” language family, with its Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic (and sometimes) Koreanic and Japonic branches, has raged since the 17th century, when the Chagatai scholar Abu ’l-Ġazi Bahadur Khan wrote that Turkic and Mongolic ‘sprang from some common source’. This book describes in detail the intellectual battle that has been waged ever since between ‘Altaicists’ believing that at least some of the similarities can be attributed to common genetic origin, versus the ‘anti-Altaicists’ who favor the explanation of extensive diffusion among unrelated languages. It catalogs several generations of Altaicists and anti-Altaicists, also denoted as ‘optimists’ and ‘skeptics’, from Ramstedt and Poppe, through Clauson and Doerfer, Vovin and Georg, to the present-day Martine Robbeets, who has proposed a ‘Transeurasian’ language family with a ‘pared down’ body of lexical and grammatical evidence. This new approach by Robbeets has influenced some ‘skeptics’ as well as ‘optimists’ toward a more positive view of the Altaic hypothesis, and attracted cooperation from some younger scholars, including the authors of this book. The book also includes a large amount of data in the form of numerous tables and figures (linguistic trees, phonetic correspondences, numerals, pronouns, etc.) and a comprehensive bibliography (72 pp.).

Slab, building inscription of a temple, ancient South Arabian script, dedicated to god Talab. Limestone. From Yemen, 3rd century CE. Ancient Orient Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.