Archive for the ‘North Caucasian’ Category

Dene-Caucasian Kinship and Dene-Caucasian Kinship Terms

Friday, June 26th, 2015

John Bengtson and George Starostin have posted a synopsis of the current status of the Dene-Caucasian, or Dene-Sino-Caucasian hypothesis. While any long-range linguistic proposal faces considerable challenges gaining acceptance among mainstream historical linguists who specialize in the reconstruction of first-order language families, Dene-Caucasian, according to Bengtson & Starostin, is a hypothesis that “offers the most logical, simple, and systemic explanation to a set of stunning similarities that manifest themselves as exclusive links between a number of linguistic taxa.” Kinship terms rarely furnish good material to test long-range linguistic connections but Dene-Caucasian is somewhat special in this regard because there is a number of intriguing similarities not only between the grammatical and lexical properties of Dene-Caucasian kinship terms from Na-Dene all the way west to Basque but also between the developmental trajectories inferred for Dene-Caucasian grammatical and kinship terminological structures. Bengtson & Starostin observe that

“the original stage [in the linguistic evolution of Dene-Caucasian.-G.D.] was characterized by significant complexity of phonology and a system of noun classification that permeated the whole morphological structure.”

And this is the precisely the conclusion I reached when comparing Dene-Caucasian sibling terminologies (The Genius of Kinship, 324-5). Yeniseian and North Caucasian sibling terms sets are radically simplified compared to Proto-Na-Dene sets, while Sino-Tibetan, Burushaski and Basque sets are intermediate (with a couple of Sino-Tibetan languages showing apparent structural archaisms placing them closer to Proto-Na-Dene systems). All sibling terminologies progressively undergo simplification but the dramatic drop in the internal diversification of the sibling set between Na-Dene, on the one hand, and Yeniseian and North Caucasian, on the other, is remarkable. Similarly, grandparental terminological complexity reconstructible for Proto-Na-Dene must have undergone simplification in the other Dene-Caucasian branches. Both diachronic tendencies fit the above description by Bengtson & Starostin of the grammatical changes affecting the putative Dene-Caucasian phylum.

Bengtson & Starostin go on to write:

“As the Na-Dene family developed separately in what is now Alaska, the overt class marking of nouns diminished, while the marking of verbs remained fully developed and, perhaps, even extended. The level of phonetic complexity in Na-Dene remained relatively high, probably because most of the non-DSC Native American languages, with whom speakers of Na-Dene had to have areal interaction, were fairly complex in that regard themselves.”

This assessment of Na-Dene grammatical and phonological conservatism again finds confirmation in Na-Dene kinship terminologies. Although kinship terminologies in all Na-Dene branches underwent noticeable changes, our best perspective on the original Dene-Caucasian kinship terminological system comes from Proto-Na-Dene.

Of special interest to the students of comparative kinship terms in Eurasia is the proposed reconstruction of Dene-noun prefixes (see below, Table 7).

KinshipStudies-DeneCaucasianNounPrefixes copyThe origin of Basque osaba ‘uncle’ and iseba ‘aunt’ is clarified by comparing the initial formants o– and i– to the pervasive and productive North Caucasian noun prefixes such as Avar was ‘son’ vs. yas ‘daughter’, wac ‘brother’ vs. yac ‘sister’. Notably, in Na-Dene the potential cognate (e.g., y– in Eyak yahs ‘woman’s child’ or in Birket-Smith & De Laguna’s [The Eyak Indians of the Copper River Delta, Alaska, 1938, 566] notation siac, with a possessive prefix s-) indexes Ego-Gender and not Alter-Gender. Harry Hoijer (“Athabascan Kinship Systems,” 1956, 330, no. 50) reconstructs –yaze ‘woman’s son’ for Proto-Athabascan but a number of other forms for children (nos. 48-52) show a similar prefix (see below).

KinshipStudies-AthabascanHoijer copy


This is very much in agreement with the presence of Ego-Gender in Proto-Na-Dene sibling terminologies – precisely the feature that gives the only New World branch of Dene-Caucasian its archaic complexity, which is barely found in the Sino-Caucasian languages of the Old World (see above).

Note also how Alter-Gender is neutralized in both Eyak yahs, Avar –as ‘child’ and Basque –saba ‘parent’s sibling’ (without the noun prefixes), a semantic development that likely reflects an archaic emphasis on Ego-Gender vs. Alter-Gender.

Basque –saba ‘parent’s sibling’ (with fossilized possessive s-?) is intriguing in the light of Navaho shibizhi ‘father’s sibling; step-father’. Navaho and Western Apache are unique among Na-Dene languages in neutralizing Alter-Gender in the terms for ‘parent’s sibling’ (see Opler, “The Kinship Systems of the Southern Athabaskan-Speaking Tribes,” 1936) and this is precisely the development observed in Basque. Nav shibizhi was extended to ‘father’s brother’ from the original concept ‘father’s sister’ (Proto-Athabascan *ma-, *me-, *metce ‘father’s sister’ in Hoijer 1956 (see below, although in the light of Basque –seba one may need to reconstruct *ba-, *be-, *betce).

KinshipStudies-AthabascanHoijerFZ copy

It’s likely that the Proto-Na-Dene term for ‘father’s sister’ also covered its reciprocal, namely ‘woman’s brother’s children’ (as in Navaho and Western Apache) – an ancient semantic pattern altogethaer missing from Basque. Bengtson & Starostin lament that Na-Dene internal reconstruction is still work-in-progress and this fully applies to Proto-Na-Dene kinship systems. This is what Kroeber (“Athabascan Kin Term Systems,” 1937) had to say about the cognates of Nav shibizhi:


Finally, a note on the possible connection between Dene-Caucasian and Kartvelian sibling sets. I have already pointed out (also The Genius of Kinship, 325-6) that the structural similarity between Basque, Burushaski and Svan (the most divergent of Kartvelian languages) sibling sets is remarkable, while nothing even remotely reminiscent of the Svan sibling set is found among the so-called “Nostratic” languages. One of Svan sibling terms, udil, widil ‘woman’s sister’ (< *udild, *widild) is composed of a fossilized possessive prefix u-, root –d– and a diminutive –ild. The possessive prefix can be compared with the Dene-Caucasian noun prefix u-. It’s quite likely that a generalized possessive prefix evolved from a more specific Ego-Gender marker (‘my, the woman’s, sister’).



Indo-European and North Caucasian: Linguistic Typology, Kinship Terms and Autosomal Genetics

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Ranko Matasovic presented rich typological evidence (consonant-to-vowel ratio, tonal accent, number suppletion in personal pronouns, the presence of gender and the morphological optative and, possibly, the presence of glottalized consonants and ergativity) in favor of areal contacts between Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and North Caucasian (NC) in the eastern part of the Pontic steppe. He writes (pp. 306-307):

“The adduced typological parallels between PIE and Caucasian languages make it likely that PIE was, indeed, in contact with languages of the northern Caucasus. However, these contacts could also have been of indirect nature, since there are no demonstrable loanwords from North Caucasian languages in PIE, or vice versa. If such loanwords exist, their number is certainly not high. If direct contacts did exist, we cannot determine their nature: both long-term bilingualism due to exogamy and trade networks, as well as rather rapid language shift appear equally possible.”

Matasovic (p. 288-289) mentions one of such loanwords, namely the PIE kinship term *snuso– (Gr. nuos, Arm. nu, OCS snuxa, etc. ‘daughter-in-law’), apparently borrowed into many North Caucasian languages (Chechen nus, Avar nus, Akhvakh nusa, Kabardian nesa) as well as into Megrelian (nosa). But he fails to mention the cases of 1) PIE *swesor ‘sister’ and Chechen sesag ‘wife’, Lak sus, Lezgin swas, Ubykh sasa ‘bride’ and 2) PIE *geme– ‘son-in-law’  (Skrt jamatar, Avest zamatar, Gk gambros, etc.) and Chechen zam-o, Ingush sam-e ‘best man’, Lezgin c:am, Agul zam (Nikolayev S. L., and S. A. Starostin. ? North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary. Moscow, 1994). The combination of the these three apparent loanwords, all referring to marriage and affinity, favor the long-term exogamy hypothesis between PIE speakers and the natives of the Caucasus.

Naturally, if long-term marriage exchange was indeed practiced between PIE speakers and the natives of the Caucasus, we may expect to find its genetic traces in mitochondrial, Y-DNA and/or autosomal DNA. The amateur genome blogger Dienekes Pontikos recently reported the elevated frequencies of a “Caucasus” autosomal component among modern Indo-Europeans and its absence among Basques and low frequencies among Finns. While he labeled it “West Asian” and misconstrued it as suggesting a Near Eastern origin for Indo-Europeans (in contrast to the mainstream Kurgan hypothesis), it seems to be the best available evidence for genetic exchange between Indo-European speakers and the speakers of North Caucasian languages in the Pontic steppe and North Caucasus areas. The Chechens whose language contains all three kinterm loans from PIE, show this component at 54.6%. Matasovic focuses on the Maykop culture (3700-2500 BC) as providing the best archaeological correlate to the contact zone between PIE and North Caucasian languages. The Maykop culture is centered in Adygeia, which shows 52.5% of that “Caucasus” autosomal component. We have, therefore, a very strong fit between linguistics, kinship studies, population genetics and archaeology in this case.

It remains to be seen if this fit is real or spurious. It’s noteworthy that all NC societies are strictly patrilocal and patrilineal. PIE society is also reconstructed as patrilineal and patrilocal (see The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Cultures, with the original proposal in Friedrich, Paul, “Proto-Indo-European Kinship,” Ethnology 5 (1966), pp. 1-36). This commonality would facilitate marriage exchange between the two populations in both directions, as PIE women marrying NC men would go live with their husbands without violating the rules of either society. The same works for NC women. At the same time, PIE men and NC men would rarely end up as son-in-laws in foreign households, unless they had been first taken as prisoners. We don’t know yet if PIE speakers contributed any genes to the NC speech community. Neither do we know if genetic admixture between PIE and NC speakers manifested in mtDNA and Y-DNA. If it did, then we may be able to infer from the pattern of this admixture whether this gene exchange was sex-biased and whether it took place under peaceful or violent circumstances.