Posts Tagged ‘Burushaski’

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’).



Svan Terms for ‘Sister’ and the Kartvelian Term for ‘Mother’ (With Notes on Basque and Burushaski)

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

As a follow-up to my earlier post, Heinz Fähnrichs Kartwelisches Etymologisches Worterbuch (2007, p. 119-120), which had existed in Georgian for 15 years before being translated into the more accessible German, contains an interesting etymological analysis of the Svan terms for ‘man’s sister’ and ‘woman’s sister’.

Svan is unique among Kartvelian languages in having special terms to denote siblings depending on Ego Gender. The pattern of contrasting man’s brother, woman’s brother, man’s sister, woman’s sister is very rare cross-linguistically. Unlike Klimov, Fähnrich sees the same root da– in both Svan u-d-il ‘woman’s sister’ (*udild, with the diminutive *-ild) and da-chwir ‘man’s sister’ (also in da-j ‘husband’s sister’). According to Klimov, the more specific meaning ‘woman’s sister’ found in Svan is original to the generalized meaning ‘sister’ found in the other Kartvelian languages. Another apparent archaism is the presence of the “frozen” obligatory possessive affix u– in the Svan form. We don’t know what the formant –chwir in ‘man’s sister’ comes from.

Since cross-linguistically (see The Genius of Kinship) sibling sets tend to lose semantic distinctions, rather than gain them, Svan must have lost the original term for either ‘man’s sister’ or ‘woman’s sister’. Root *da– came to replace it but it’s unclear which term is a survivor and which one is a replacement.

It’s possible that the underlying root *da– is further related to Kartvelian *ded- ‘mother, grandmother, woman, wife, mother-in-law’, which Fähnrich (pp. 128-129) presents in the following way:

If the Kartvelian term for ‘mother’ in its unreduplicated form is the ultimate source for the Svan terms for ‘man’s sister’, ‘woman’s sister’ and ‘husband’s sister’, then it’s easy to understand how the original independent stems for ‘man’s sister’ and ‘woman’s sister’ got replaced by a single-stem term. The system pulled a female term lacking Ego Gender semantics from the upper generation to create a new Ego-Gender-neutral form in the Ego generation. The morphology of u-d-il vs. the morphology of da-chwir are so different that it suggests that, since the replacement of the original terms for ‘man’s sister’, both u-d-il and da-chwir have undergone significant changes.

A close semantic parallel to the Kartvelian situation is furnished by Indo-European. Lith mosha ‘husband’s sister’ is a diminutive derivative of mote ‘mother’, while Albanian motre ‘sister’ goes back to IE *meH2ter ‘mother’. In the case of Albanian, it’s likely that the lowering of the ‘mother’ form to denote ‘sister’ (also Alb vella ‘brother’ comes from *awentlo-, which is found in Lat avus ‘grandfather’, Lat avunculus, Lith avynas and Breton eontr ‘mother’s brother’, see Huld, Martin E. 1984. Basic Albanian Etymologies. Columbus.) springs from an Omaha-type skewing in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) associated with patrilineal social organization. As part of this generational skewing, PF = MB = MBS and M = MZ = MBD. A later shift to ‘Hawaiian” or Generational nomenclature in Ego generation resulted in the form *awentlo– to acquire the meaning ‘mother’s brother’s son, mother’s sister’s son’, brother’. Finally, the shift from Generational to Lineal terminology led to the narrowing of the MBS = MZS = B semantic cluster to just refer to ‘brother’ (historical vella). It’s possible that Kartvelian has undergone a similar change and that the cognation of *ded– ‘mother’, *u-d-il ‘woman’s sister’ and da-chwir ‘man’s sister’ indicate that Proto-Kartvelian had an Omaha-type generational skewing, too.

Another Eurasian language that has the same 4-way division of sibling categories is Burushaski. But the neutralization woman’s sister ~ man’s sister in Svan is different from the neutralization found in Bur –co ‘a man’s brother; a woman’s sister’. In the Svan case, Ego Gender is neutralized, in the Burushaski case Referent Gender is neutralized.

Finally, Basque is the third language in Eurasia that displays the same pattern of classifying siblings. In all the Basque dialects but Biscayan (anaya mB, arrabea mZ, neba wB, aiztia wZ) Ego Gender is neutralized in the term for ‘brother’, so that Labourdin, Navarese, Guipuzcoan, Souletin have anay B, arreba mZ, ahizpa wZ.

While the three languages modify the original 4-term set in three different ways and the specific lexical forms don’t seem to be related, it’s possible that the rare sibling terminology attests to an ancient macrophylic unity underlying West Nostratic and West Dene-Caucasian.

Burushaski and Indo-European Kinship Terms: Burushaski suffix -taro and IE suffix *-ter.

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Ilija Cašule, of Macquarie University in Australia, is attracting more and more attention with his Indo-European-Burushaski hypothesis. As part of his thoroughgoing comparison between Indo-European and Burushaski, Cašule has looked at kinship terms (see p. 12 in the attached). Although, at first glance (see here), Burushaski kin terms support the Dene-Caucasian placement of Burushaski (if one is willing to entertain any long-range proposals at all), Cašule brings up the Burushaski plural suffix –taro used almost exclusively with kinship terms, which does strike one as similar to the ubiquitous Indo-European kin term ending –ter. As I argued at length elsewhere (here and here), IE kinship terms are puzzling in a lot of respects. One of them is the fact that many key kinship terms are already complex morphological structures at the Proto-Indo-European level, and the daughter languages don’t shed any light on the function of those widely-spread IE suffixes. Other language families typically maintain a clear trace of the semantic and pragmatic functions of kinterm-specific grammatical forms, but in IE languages such grammatical forms are obscure. Hittite data has so far contributed nothing to our understanding of the meaning of PIE –ter (or *Hter in some laryngeal reconstructions). Nostratic kinterm reconstructions are of very poor quality and they contain nothing approximating IE *-ter (see Dziebel, G. V. “Reconstructing ‘our’ kinship terminology: Comments on the Indo-European material in A. V. Dybo’s and S. V. Kullanda’s The Nostratic terminology of kinship and affinity.” Kinship Algebra, No. 10 (2006)). This suggests that the most divergent IE language hasn’t been found yet. And, who knows, maybe Cašule found it and it’s Burushaski.

Burushaski and North Caucasian Sibling Terms

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Bengston & Blažek defend the Dene-Caucasian hypothesis against the recent claim by I. Cašule that Burushaski is related to Indo-European. As part of their defense, they suggest (p. 55) etymological links between Burushaski and North Caucasian sibling terms.

Burushaski has a version of a typologically rare sibling type 8 (see Dziebel, The Genius of Kinship, 290). North Caucasian languages have type E, with the same underlying root for both brother and sister, which is two mutational steps down from type 8. The Burushaski term for ‘brother of male’ and ‘sister of female’ fits well with the North Caucasian root underlying the brother and sister terms. Bengston & Blažek see the same root behind one of Basque sibling terms and the only term for ‘sibling’ in Ket. The Dene-Caucasian hypothesis has not been well-received by the mainstream academic establishment, but it’s infinitely more robust than the Casule proposal. In light of the rarity of type 8 globally, it’s noteworthy, as I pointed out in The Genius of Kinship, that Basque, another member of the putative Dene-Caucasian stock, shares sibling type 8 with Burushaski. The reduction from type 8 to type E (North Caucasian) or A (Ket) is consistent with the global phylogeny of sibling sets.


Bengston, John D., and Václav Blažek. 2011. On the Burushaski-Indo-European Hypothesis by I. Cašule. Journal of Language Relationship 6: 25-63.