The Nostratic linguistic macrofamily

Ilya Yakubovich
Department of Linguistics
University of California, Berkeley


The tradition of Nostratic scholarship in Russia dates back to the early 1960's. At that time two young Russian linguists, a semitologist, A. Dolgopolsky, and a slavicist, V. Illich-Svitych, made independent attempts to collect and systematize all pertinent publications of western linguists. They critically evaluated a very heterogenous material, ranging from fantastic monogenetic constructs like those of A.Trombetti to the very sound scholarly papers of B. Collinder and H. Pedersen (Uralo-Indo-European), M. Räsänen (Uralo-Altaic), H. Pedersen, P. Meriggi and L. Heilmann (Semito-Indo-European), etc.

Both scholars came to the conclusion that the data at their disposal bore witness to the existence of a language macrofamily, whose members are Semitic (a branch of Afro-Asiatic), Kartvelian (South Caucasian), Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic; later acquaintance with the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary by Th. Burrow and M. Emeneau pushed V. Illich-Svitych to add Dravidian to the list. To designate this macrofamily they used the word Nostratic, coined earlier by H. Pedersen. In 1964 A. Dolgopolsky and V. Illych-Svitych were introduced to one another by V. Dybo, who had been aware for some time of their results, but had kept them in secret for the "purity of the experiment." Since that time both linguists worked in close contact until the untimely death of V. Illich-Svitych in 1967.

The main work of Illich-Svitych, which remained unpublished until his death, consisted of several hundred card-files with Nostratic etymologies. About 20-25% of them belong entirely to him, the others are taken from the works of his predecessors, usually with new cognates attached. V. Dybo and A. Dolgopolsky set up a working group aimed at preparing those materials for publication. Three volumes of Prolegomena to the Nostratic Comparative Dictionary were published in 1971, 1976 and 1984 respectively. The editorial work was very closely combined with original research, and since the late seventies it has been possible to speak of the existence of a "Nostratic Workshop" in Moscow. Aside from the above-mentioned people, its active corps included A. Dybo (Altaic), E. Khelimsky (Uralic), A. Korolev (Indo-European), A. Militarev (Semitic), O. Mudrak (Altaic, Eskimo), I. Pejros (Dravidian), S. Starostin (Altaic, Indo-European), O. Stolbova (Semitic), and J. Testelets (Kartvelian).

At the present time the workshop continues its work, even though its staff is not altogether the same. A. Dolgopolsky (who emigrated to Israel) and I. Pejros (who went to Australia) were replaced by the young scholars L. Kogan (Semitic) and G. Starostin (Dravidian). The final aim of the work is the creation of the comparative Nostratic online dictionary (by now the comparative databases of many Nostratic families, as well as the reconstructed vocabulary itself, are online and about to be exposed to the internet). This project is supported by the Soros Foundation and the Russian State Foundation for Humanities. The workshop does not have a publishing organ of its own, but its materials frequently appear in the Moscow Linguistic Journal (Moskovskij Linguisticheskij Zhurnal). Many members of the workshop are academically affiliated with the Russian State University for Humanities (RGGU).


There is no general work that would summarize the results of Nostratic scholarship in Russia since the untimely death of Illich-Svitych; nor has there been any attempt at a coherent Nostratic reconstruction that would replace the scheme suggested in Prolegomena.... However, it is possible to introduce some methodological considerations that are shared by most Moscow Nostraticists; these could serve as guidelines in accumulating new, as well as in reevaluating old etymologies.

1) The Afro-Asiatic languages are no longer considered to be part of the Nostratic family. First of all, such comparison is considered methodologically incorrect, since the Afro-Asiatic reconstruction is currently unfinished; this makes all of the old etymologies inherently semitocentric. The degree of divergence of Afro-Asiatic family members such as Cushitic and Semitic suggests that they are at least as old as the Indo-European family; the glottochronological comparison between the two proto-languages, to the extent that this is possible, shows that they are not closer to one another than, for example, Indo-European and Altaic; thus the Afro-Asiatic family does not postdate the Nostratic. Second, those pronominal and grammatical elements (m-'I'; t=FF 'thou'; k-'who'; -n 'Gen.'; -m 'Acc.' etc.) which make Nostratic languages similar even to non-specialists, are absent in Afro-Asiatic, if we do not stretch the data.

At the same time, Moscovite scholars are reluctant simply to discard the Nostratic/Afro-Asiatic comparative material. Some of the pertinent etymologies may bear witness to early contact between the two families and/or their original genetic affinity.

2) The Eskimo reconstruction of O. Mudrak, based on 24 different languages, supports the Nostratic identity of these languages. Within the macrofamily those idioms of the New World seem to have specific isoglosses with the Altaic languages. On the whole, the special links between Nostratic families can be loosely represented in the following way:


      Kartvelian - Indo-European - Uralic - Altaic - Eskimo
                                             \
                                              Dravidian

3) The irrelevance of the Afro-Asiatic material for Nostratic comparisons has important phonological implications. One does not need to reconstruct any more than six laryngeals and nine dental fricatives/affricates in Nostratic, since the much larger numbers obtained in previous studies were justified only by the inclusion of the Afro-Asiatic data (the Laryngeal Theory in IE is not shared by many Moscow scholars). At the present time the Nostratic workshop accepts etymologies involving laryngeals and fricatives with no regard to the exact phonemic correspondences established by Illich-Svitych. This inevitably leads to many ambiguities and incorrect etymologies; however, the collection of a wide variety of relevant materials is currently regarded as a priority over methodological rigidity. Alleged cognates will be discarded as soon as the exact number of laryngeals and fricatives in Nostratic and the new phonemic correspondences are established.

4) Alternative points of view on Nostratics are now represented by A. Dolgopolsky in Israel and A. Bomhardt in the USA. While the former largely adheres to the old views of Illich-Svitych (and his own) about the Nostratic identity of Afro-Asiatic and the consequent implications, the latter basically accepts the Moscow genealogical tree, but utterly revises the system of phonemic correspondences in view of the Glottal Theory in Indo-European. According to Moscow scholars, he frequently confuses cognate words with later borrowings (e.g. by trying to reconstruct Nostratic numerals). At the same time his work remains a constant challenge to Nostraticists in Moscow, making them to look closer into the non-trivial cases of correspondences.


© 1998 by Ilya Yakubovich


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