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Europe, Asia except for the southeast, North and Northeast Africa, the Arctic
Linguistic classification: Nostratic

Nostratic is a hypothetical language family (sometimes called a macrofamily or a superfamily) that includes many of the indigenous language families of Eurasia, including the Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic and Kartvelian languages. Usually also included are the Afroasiatic languages native to North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East, and the Dravidian languages of the Indian Subcontinent (sometimes extended to Elamo-Dravidian, connecting India and the Iranian Plateau). The exact composition and structure of the family varies among proponents.

The hypothetical ancestral language of the Nostratic family is called Proto-Nostratic.[1] Proto-Nostratic would have been spoken in the Epipaleolithic period, close to the end of the last glacial period.[2]

The Nostratic hypothesis originates with Holger Pedersen in the early 20th century. The name "Nostratic" is due to Pedersen (1903), derived from the Latin nostrates "fellow countrymen". The hypothesis was significantly expanded in the 1960s by Soviet linguists, notably Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky, termed the "Moscovite school" by Bomhard (2008), and it has received renewed attention in English-speaking academia since the 1990s.

The hypothesis is controversial and has varying degrees of acceptance amongst linguists worldwide. In Russia, it is endorsed by a minority of linguists, such as Vladimir Dybo, but is not a generally accepted hypothesis. Allan Bomhard is a supporter. Lyle Campbell presents arguments challenging the hypothesis. Some linguists take an agnostic view.[3] Eurasiatic, a similar but not identical grouping, was proposed by Joseph Greenberg (2000) and endorsed by Merritt Ruhlen: it is taken as a subfamily of Nostratic by Bomhard (2008).

History of research

Origin of the Nostratic hypothesis

The last quarter of the 19th century saw various linguists putting forward proposals linking the Indo-European languages to other language families, such as Finno-Ugric and Altaic.[4]

These proposals were taken much farther in 1903 when Holger Pedersen proposed "Nostratic", a common ancestor for the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, Yukaghir, Eskimo, Semitic, and Hamitic languages, with the door left open to the eventual inclusion of others.

The name Nostratic derives from the Latin word nostrās, meaning 'our fellow-countryman' (plural: nostrates) and has been defined, since Pedersen, as consisting of those language families that are related to Indo-European.[5] Merritt Ruhlen notes that this definition is not properly taxonomic but amorphous, since there are broader and narrower degrees of relatedness, and moreover, some linguists who broadly accept the concept (such as Greenberg and Ruhlen himself) have criticised the name as reflecting the ethnocentrism frequent among Europeans at the time.[6] Martin Bernal has described the term as distasteful because it implies that speakers of other language families are excluded from academic discussion.[7] Even so, the concept arguably transcends ethnocentric associations. (Indeed, Pedersen's older contemporary Henry Sweet attributed some of the resistance by Indo-European specialists to hypotheses of wider genetic relationships as "prejudice against dethroning [Indo-European] from its proud isolation and affiliating it to the languages of yellow races".)[8] Proposed alternative names such as Mitian, formed from the characteristic Nostratic first- and second-person pronouns mi 'I' and ti 'you' (exactly 'thou'),[9] have not attained the same currency.

An early supporter was the French linguist Albert Cuny—better known for his role in the development of the laryngeal theory[10]—who published his Recherches sur le vocalisme, le consonantisme et la formation des racines en « nostratique », ancêtre de l'indo-européen et du chamito-sémitique ('Researches on the Vocalism, Consonantism, and Formation of Roots in "Nostratic", Ancestor of Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic') in 1943. Although Cuny enjoyed a high reputation as a linguist, the work was coldly received.

Moscovite school

While Pedersen's Nostratic hypothesis did not make much headway in the West, it became quite popular in what was then the Soviet Union. Working independently at first, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky elaborated the first version of the contemporary form of the hypothesis during the 1960s. They expanded it to include additional language families. Illich-Svitych also prepared the first dictionary of the hypothetical language.

A principal source for the items in Illich-Svitych’s dictionary was the earlier work of Alfredo Trombetti (1866–1929), an Italian linguist who had developed a classification scheme for all the world’s languages, widely reviled at the time[11] and subsequently ignored by almost all linguists. In Trombetti’s time, a widely held view on classifying languages was that similarity in inflections is the surest proof of genetic relationship. In the interim, the view had taken hold that the comparative method—previously used as a means of studying languages already known to be related and without any thought of classification[12]—is the most effective means to establish genetic relationship, eventually hardening into the conviction that it is the only legitimate means to do so. This view was basic to the outlook of the new Nostraticists. Although Illich-Svitych adopted many of Trombetti’s etymologies, he sought to validate them by a systematic comparison of the sound systems of the languages concerned.

21st century

The chief events in Nostratic studies in 2008 were the posting online of the latest version of Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary[13] and the publication of Allan Bomhard's latest comprehensive treatment of the subject, Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic, in 2 volumes.[14]

Also significant was Bomhard's partly critical review of Dolgopolsky's dictionary, in which he argued that only those Nostratic etymologies that are strongest should be included, in contrast to Dolgopolsky's more expansive approach, which includes many etymologies that are possible but not secure.[15]

2008 also saw the opening of a website, Nostratica, devoted to providing important texts in Nostratic studies online.[16]

Constituent language families

The language families proposed for inclusion in Nostratic vary, but all Nostraticists agree on a common core of language families, with differences of opinion appearing over the inclusion of additional families.

The three groups universally accepted among Nostraticists are Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic; the validity of the Altaic family, while itself controversial, is taken for granted by Nostraticists. Nearly all also include the Dravidian and Kartvelian language families.

Following Pedersen, Illich-Svitych, and Dolgopolsky, most advocates of the theory have included Afroasiatic, though criticisms by Joseph Greenberg and others from the late 1980s onward suggested a reassessment of this position.

A fairly representative grouping, arranged in rough geographical order (and probable order of phylogenetic branching, following Starostin),[17] would include:

The Sumerian and Etruscan languages, usually regarded as language isolates, are thought by some to be Nostratic languages as well. Others, however, consider one or both to be members of another macrofamily called Dené–Caucasian.

Another notional isolate, the Elamite language, also figures in a number of Nostratic classifications. It is frequently grouped with Dravidian as Elamo-Dravidian.[18][19]

In 1987 Joseph Greenberg proposed a similar macrofamily which he called Eurasiatic.[20] It included the same "Euraltaic" core (Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic), but excluded some of the above-listed families, most notably Afroasiatic. At about this time Russian Nostraticists, notably Sergei Starostin, constructed a revised version of Nostratic which was slightly broader than Greenberg's grouping but which similarly left out Afroasiatic.

Recently, a consensus has been emerging among proponents of the Nostratic hypothesis. Greenberg basically agreed with the Nostratic concept, though he stressed a deep internal division between its northern 'tier' (his Eurasiatic) and a southern 'tier' (principally Afroasiatic and Dravidian). The American Nostraticist Allan Bomhard considers Eurasiatic a branch of Nostratic alongside other branches: Afroasiatic, Elamo-Dravidian, and Kartvelian. Similarly, Georgiy Starostin (2002) arrives at a tripartite overall grouping: he considers Afroasiatic, Nostratic and Elamite to be roughly equidistant and more closely related to each other than to anything else.[21] Sergei Starostin's school has now re-included Afroasiatic in a broadly defined Nostratic, while reserving the term Eurasiatic to designate the narrower subgrouping which comprises the rest of the macrofamily. Recent proposals thus differ mainly on the precise placement of Dravidian and Kartvelian.

According to Greenberg, Eurasiatic and Amerind form a genetic node, being more closely related to each other than either is to "the other families of the Old World".[22] There are a number of hypotheses incorporating Nostratic into an even broader linguistic 'mega-phylum', sometimes called Borean, which would also include at least the Dené–Caucasian and perhaps the Amerind and Austric superfamilies. The term SCAN has been used for a group that would include Sino-Caucasian, Amerind, and Nostratic.[23]

Urheimat and differentiation

Allan Bomhard and Colin Renfrew are in broad agreement with the earlier conclusions of Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky in seeking the Nostratic Urheimat (original homeland) within the Mesolithic (or Epipaleolithic) in the Fertile Crescent, the stage which directly preceded the Neolithic and was transitional to it.

Looking at the cultural assemblages of this period, two sequences in particular stand out as possible archeological correlates of the earliest Nostratians or their immediate precursors. Both hypotheses place Proto-Nostratic within the Fertile Crescent at around the end of the last glacial period.

  • The first of these is focused on the Levant. The Kebaran culture (20,000–17,000 BP)[24] not only introduced the microlithic assemblage into the region, it also has African affinity specifically with the Ouchtata retouch technique‡ associated with the microlithic Halfan culture of Egypt (20,000–17,000 BP)[25] The Kebarans in their turn were directly ancestral to the succeeding Natufian culture (10,500–8500 BCE), which has enormous significance for prehistorians as the clearest evidence of hunters and gatherers in actual transition to Neolithic food production. Both cultures extended their influence outside the region into southern Anatolia. For example, in Cilicia the Belbaşı culture (13,000–10,000 BCE) shows Kebaran influence, while the Beldibi culture (10,000–8500 BCE) shows clear Natufian influence.
  • The second possibility as a culture associated with the Nostratic family is the Zarzian (12,400–8500 BCE) culture of the Zagros mountains, stretching northwards into Kobistan in the Caucasus and eastwards into Iran. In western Iran, the M’lefatian culture (10,500–9000 BCE) was ancestral to the assemblages of Ali Tappah (9000–5000 BCE) and Jeitun (6000–4000 BCE). Still further east, the Hissar culture has been seen as the Mesolithic precursor to the Keltiminar culture (5500–3500 BCE) of the Kyrgyz steppe.

It has been proposed that the broad spectrum revolution[26] of Kent Flannery (1969),[27] associated with microliths, the use of the bow and arrow, and the domestication of the dog, all of which are associated with these cultures, may have been the cultural "motor" that led to their expansion. Certainly cultures which appeared at Franchthi Cave in the Aegean and Lepenski Vir in the Balkans, and the Murzak-Koba (9100–8000 BCE) and Grebenki (8500–7000 BCE) cultures of the Ukrainian steppe, all displayed these adaptations.

Bomhard (2008) suggests a differentiation of Proto-Nostratic by 8,000 BCE, the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution in the Levant, over a territory spanning the entire Fertile Crescent and beyond into the Caucasus (Proto-Kartvelian), Egypt and along the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa (Proto-Afroasiatic), the Iranian Plateau (Proto-Elamo-Dravidian) and into Central Asia (Proto-Eurasiatic, to be further subdivided by 5,000 BCE into Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic and Proto-Altaic).

According to scholarly opinion the Kebaran is derived from the Levantine Upper Palaeolithic in which the microlithic component originated.[28]

Ouchtata retouch is also a characteristic of the Late Ahmarian Upper Palaeolithic culture of the Levant and does not indicate African influence.[28]

Reconstruction of Proto-Nostratic

The following data is taken from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998) and transcribed into the IPA.


The phonemes tabulated below are commonly reconstructed for the Proto-Nostratic language (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin 1988). Allan Bomhard (2008), who relies more heavily on Afroasiatic and Dravidian than on Uralic, as do members of the "Moscow School", reconstructs a different vowel system, with three pairs of vowels represented as: /a/~/ə/, /e/~/i/, /o/~/u/, as well as independent /i/, /o/, and /u/. In the first three pairs of vowels, Bomhard is attempting to specify the subphonemic variation involved, inasmuch as that variation led to some of the vowel gradation (ablaut) and vowel harmony patterning found in various daughter languages.


  Bilabial Alveolar or dental Alveolo-
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
central lateral
Plosive ejective */p̕/[29] */t̕/         */k̕/ */q̕/   */ʔ/
voiceless */p/ */t/         */k/ */q/    
voiced */b/ */d/         */ɡ/ */ɢ/    
Affricate ejective   */ts̕/ */tɬ̕/ */tɕ̕/¹ */tʃ̕/          
voiceless   */ts/ */tɬ/ */tɕ/¹ */tʃ/          
voiced   */dz/ */dɮ/¹ */dʑ/¹ */dʒ/          
Fricative voiceless   */s/ */ɬ/ */ɕ/¹ */ʃ/     */χ/ */ħ/ */h/
voiced               */ʁ/ */ʕ/  
Nasal */m/ */n/   */nʲ/     */ŋ/      
Trill   */r/   */rʲ/¹            
Approximant     */l/ */lʲ/   */j/ */w/      


Front Central Back
Close */i/ • */y/[30]   */u/
Mid */e/ */o/
Near-open */æ/
Open */a/

Sound correspondences

The following table is compiled from data given by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Starostin.[31] They follow Illich-Svitych's correspondences in which Nostratic voiceless stops give (traditional) PIE voiced ones, and Nostratic glottalized stops give (traditional) PIE voiceless stops,[32] in contradiction with the PIE glottalic theory, which makes traditional PIE voiced stops appeared like glottalized ones. To correct this anomaly, linguists such as Manaster Ramer[33] and Bomhard[34] have proposed to correlate Nostratic voiceless and glottalized stops with PIE ones, so this is done in the table.

Because linguists working on Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, and Proto-Dravidian do not usually use the IPA, the transcriptions used in those fields are also given where the letters differ from the IPA symbols. The IPA symbols are between slashes because this is a phonemic transcription. The exact values of the phoneme "*p₁" in Proto-Afroasiatic and Proto-Dravidian are unknown. "0" indicates disappearance without a trace. Hyphens indicate different developments at the beginning and in the interior of words; no consonants ever occurred at the ends of word roots. (Starostin's list of affricate and fricative correspondences does not mention Afroasiatic or Dravidian, and Kaiser and Shevoroshkin don't mention these sounds much; hence the holes in the table.)

Note that, due to lack of research, there are at present several different mutually incompatible reconstructions of Proto-Afroasiatic (see ).

Similarly, the paper by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin is much older than the newest Altaic Etymological Dictionary (2003; see Altaic languages article) and therefore assumes a somewhat different phonological system for Proto-Altaic.

Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European Proto-Kartvelian Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afroasiatic
/p̕/[36] /p/, /b/ /p/, /b/ /p/ /p/ "p₁"-, -/p/-, /v/- "p₁"-, -/p/-, -/b/-
/p/ /p/ /p̕/-, /p/- /p/-, -pp- -/pː/-, -/p/- /pʰ/-, -/p/-, -/b/- /b/-, -/p/-, -/v/- /p/
/b/ bʰ /bʱ/ /b/ /p/-, -/w/- /b/ /b/-, -/v/-, -/p/- /b/
/m/ /m/ /m/ /m/ /m/, /b/ /m/ /m/
/w/ w/u̯ /w/ /w/, /u/ /w/, /u/ /b/-?, 0-, -/b/-, -0-, /u/ /v/-, 0-, -/v/- /w/, /u/
/t̕/ /d/ /t/ /t/ /d/ /d/-, -/t/-, -/d/- /t/
/t/ /t/ /t̕/ /t/-, -tt- -/tː/-, -/t/- /tʰ/-, -/t/- /d/-, -/t/-, /d/- /t̕/, /t/
/d/ dʰ /dʱ/ /d/ /t/-, -ð- -/ð/- /d/ /d/-, -ṭ- -/ʈ/-, -ḍ- -/ɖ/- /d/
/ts̕/ (/tɕ̕/) /sk/-, -/s/- /ts/, /tɕ/ ć /tɕ/ /tʃʰ/, -/s/- -/c/- -/s/-
/ts/ (/tɕ/) /sk/-, -/s/- /ts̕/, /tɕ̕/ ć /tɕ/ /s/
/dz/ (/dʑ/) /s/ /dz/, /dʑ/, /z/, /ʑ/ /s/, ś /ɕ/ /dʒ/ /z/-
/s/ (/ɕ/) /s/ /s/, /ɕ/ /s/, ś /ɕ/ /s/ j /ɟ/ /s/
/n/ /n/ -/n/- /n/ -/n/- n- /n̪/-, -n- -/n̪/-, -ṉ- -/n̺/- /n/
/nʲ/ y-/i̯- /j/-, /n/- ń /nʲ/ /nʲ/-, -/n/-? -ṇ-? -/ɳ/ /n/
/r/ (/rʲ/) /r/ /r/ /r/ /l/-?, -/r/-, /rʲ/ /n̪/-, -/r/-, -ṟ- -/r̺/-, ṛ /ɻ/ /r/
/tɬ/ /s/-, -/l/- /l/ j- /j/- /tɬ/-, -/l/-
/ɬ/ /l/ /l/ -x-? -/ɬ/-[37] /l/ /d/, /ɭ/ /l/
/l/ /l/ /l/ /l/ /l/ n- /n̪/-, -/l/- /l/
/lʲ/ /l/ /r/, /l/ l' /lʲ/ /lʲ/ ḷ /ɭ/ /l/
/tʃ̕/ /st/-, /s/- /tʃ/ ć /tɕ/ /tʃʰ/
/tʃ/ /st/ /tʃ̕/ č, š /tʃ/, /ʃ/ /tʃʰ/-, -/s/-
/dʒ/ /st/ /dʒ/ č /tʃ/ /dʒ/
/ʃ/ /s/ /ʃ/ š /ʃ/ /s/ /d/, /ɭ/
/j/ y/i̯ /j/ /j/ /j/- /j/ y /j/ /j/
/k̕/ /ɡ/, ǵ /ɡʲ/, gʷ /ɡʷ/[38] /k/ /k/ /k/-, -/ɡ/- /ɡ/-, -/k/-, -/ɡ/- /k/
/k/ /k/, ḱ /kʲ/, kʷ /kʷ/[38] /k̕/ /k/-, -kk- -/kː/-, -/k/- /kʰ/-, -/k/- /ɡ/-, -/k/-, -/ɡ/- /k̕/
/ɡ/ gʰ /ɡʱ/, ǵʰ /ɡʲʱ/, gʰʷ /ɡʷʱ/[38] /ɡ/ /k/-, -x- -/ʁ/-[37] /ɡ/ /ɡ/-, -0- /ɡ/
/ŋ/ -/n/- -/m/-? /ŋ/ -/nʲ/- n- /n̪/-, -ṉ- -/n̺/-, -/t/- -/n/-
/q̕/ h₂ /χ/[37] /q/ 0-, -/k/- 0-, -/k/-, -/ɡ/- 0-, -/ɡ/- /χ/
/q/ /k/, ḱ /kʲ/, kʷ /kʷ/[38] /q̕/-, -/k̕/- /k/-, -kk- -/kː/- /kʰ/-, -/k/- /ɡ/-, -/k/-, -/ɡ/- /k̕/
/ɢ/ h₃ /ʁ/[37] /ʁ/ -x- 0-, -/ʁ/-[37] 0-, -/ɡ/- 0 /ʁ/
/χ/ h₂ /χ/[37] /χ/ 0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?[37] 0- 0- /ħ/
/ʁ/ h₃ /ʁ/[37] /ʁ/ 0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?[37] 0- 0- /ʕ/
/ħ/ h₁ /h/[37] /h/ > 0 0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?[37] 0- 0- /ħ/
/ʕ/ h₁ /h/[37] /h/ > 0 0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?[37] 0- 0- /ʕ/
/ʔ/ h₁ /ʔ/[37] /h/ > 0 0 0 0 /ʔ/
/h/ h₂? /χ/[37] /h/ > 0 0-, -x- -/ʁ/-?[37] 0- 0- /h/
Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European[39] Proto-Kartvelian[39] Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afroasiatic[39]
/a/ /e/, /a/ /e/ /a/ /a/ /a/
/e/ /e/, 0 /e/, 0 /e/ /e/ /e/, /i/
/i/ /ai̯/, /e/, /ei̯/, /i/, 0 /e/, /i/, 0 /i/ /i/ /i/
/o/ /e/, /o/ /we/ ~ /wa/ /o/ /o/ /o/, /a/
/u/ /au̯/, /e/, /eu̯/, /u/ /u/ ~ /wa/ /u/ /u/ /u/, /o/
/æ/ /e/ /e/, /a/, /aː/ /æ/ ä /æ/ /a/
/y/ /e/ /u/ /y/, /ø/ ü /y/ /u/


Because grammar is less easily borrowed than words, grammar is usually considered stronger evidence for language relationships than vocabulary. The following correspondences (slightly modified to account for the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic by Starostin et al. [2003]) have been suggested by Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988). /N/ could be any nasal consonant. /V/ could be any vowel. (The above cautionary notes on Afroasiatic and Dravidian apply.)

Proto-Nostratic Proto-Indo-European Proto-Kartvelian Proto-Uralic Proto-Altaic Proto-Dravidian Proto-Afroasiatic
Noun affixes
/na/ "originally a locative particle"[40] /en/ 'in' /nu/, /n/[41] -/na/ -/na/ -/n/
/Na/ or /Næ/ "animate plural" -/(e)n/ -/NV/² -/aːn/
-/t̕V/ "inanimate plural"[42] [43] -/t/- -/t/ -/tʰ/- -/æt/
-/k̕a/ "diminutive" -/k/- -/ak̕/-, -/ik̕/ -kka -/kːa/, -kkä -/kːæ/ -/ka/ [44]
Verb affixes
/s(V)/ "causative-desiderative" -/se/- -/su/, -/sa/ -ij -/iɟ/- /ʃV/-, -/ʃ/-
/t̕V/- "causative-reflexive" -t(t)- -/t(ː)/- -/t/-[45] -/t/- /tV/-
/mæ/ "prohibitive" mē /meː/ /maː/, /moː/ /mæ/, /bæ/ /ma/- /m(j)/
/k̕o/ "intensifying and copulative" -/kʷe/ 'and'[46] /kwe/ -/ka/, -kä -/kæ/ -/ka/ /k(w)/

In addition, Kaiser and Shevoroshkin[47] write the following about Proto-Nostratic grammar (two asterisks are used for reconstructions based on reconstructions; citation format changed):

The verb stood at the end of the sentence (SV and SOV type). The 1st p[er]s[on] was formed by adding the 1st ps. pronoun **mi to the verb; similarly, the 2nd ps. was formed by adding **ti. There were no endings for the 3rd ps. present [or at least none can be reconstructed], while the 3rd ps. preterit ending was **-di (Illich-Svitych 1971, pp. 218–19). Verbs could be active and passive, causative, desiderative, and reflective; and there were special markers for most of these categories. Nouns could be animate or inanimate, and plural markers differed for each category. There were subject and object markers, locative and lative enclitic particles, etc. Pronouns distinguished direct and oblique forms, animate and inanimate categories, notions of the type 'near':'far', inclusive:exclusive […], etc. Apparently there were no prefixes. Nostratic words were either equal to roots or built by adding endings or suffixes. There are some cases of word composition...


According to Dolgopolsky Proto-Nostratic language had analytic structure, which he argues by diverging of post- and prepositions of auxiliary words in descendant languages. Dolgopolsky states three lexical categories to be in Proto-Nostratic language:

  • Lexical words,
  • Pronouns,
  • Auxiliary words.

Word order was subject–object–verb when the subject was a noun, and object–verb–subject when it was a pronoun. Attributive (expressed by a lexical word) preceded its head. Pronominal attributive ('my', 'this') might follow the noun. Auxiliary words are considered to be postpositions.

Core vocabulary

The list of etymologies of lexical words reconstructed by Dolgopolsky that are considered by Bomhard to be strong is as follows:

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are seldom borrowed between languages. Therefore the many correspondences between Nostratic pronouns are rather strong evidence for the existence of a Proto-Nostratic language. The difficulty of finding Afroasiatic cognates is, however, taken by some as evidence that Nostratic has two or three branches, Afroasiatic and Eurasiatic (and possibly Dravidian), and that most or all of the pronouns in the following table can only be traced to Proto-Eurasiatic.

Nivkh is a living (if moribund) language with an orthography, which is given here. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed.

For space reasons, Etruscan is not included, but the fact that it had /mi/ 'I' and /mini/ 'me' seems to fit the pattern reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic ideally, leading some[48] to argue that the Aegean or Tyrsenian languages were yet another Nostratic branch.

There is no reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo–Aleut, although the existence of the Eskimo–Aleut family is generally accepted.[49]

Nivkh Proto-
/mi/ h₁eǵom
/mi/ /bi/ /me/, /mi/ /met/ ни /ni/ [50] /wi/ 'I', -/mkət/ 'I [act on] thee' /mi/,[51] -/mi/[52]
'me' ~ 'mine'
(oblique cases)
/minV/ /mene/[53] /minV/- /mine/- /men/- [50]
/t̕i/ and/or
ti ~ tū
/ti/ ~ /tuː/
/ti/ /tʰi/
and/or /si/
[54] /tet/ тъи, чи
/tʰi/, /t͡ʃi/
/tu/ /ci/[55] /t(i)/
'thee' (oblique) /t̕inV/ and/or
te- /te/- tū- /tuː/- /tʰin/-
and/or /sin/-
/si/-, /se/- -/mkət/ 'I [act on] thee'
'we' (inclusive) /mæ/ /we/-, -/me/- 'we' mä- ~ me- /mæ/- ~ /me/- 'we' /ba/(nom.)
/myn/- (oblique) 'we'
/men/-, /m/- ma ~ mā
/ma/ ~ /maː/
[56] 'we'
'we' (exclusive) /na/ /ne/- 'we'[57] /naj/, /n/-[58] nām /naːm/ 'we' /naħnu/[59]
'you' (plural) /t̕æ/ -/te/[60] tä /tæ/ /tʰV/
and/or /sV/
/tit/ /tur/  ?/t(V)/

Other words

Below are selected reconstructed etymologies from Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) and Bengtson (1998). Reconstructed ( = unattested) forms are marked with an asterisk. /V/ means that it is not clear which vowel should be reconstructed. Likewise, /E/ could have been any front vowel and /N/ any nasal consonant. Only the consonants are given of Proto-Afroasiatic roots (see above).

  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕o/ or */q̕o/ 'who'
    • Proto-Indo-European *kʷo- /kʷo/- 'who', kʷi- /kʷi/- (with suffix -i-) 'what'. Ancestors of the English wh- words.
    • Proto-Afroasiatic */k̕(w)/ and /k(w)/ 'who'. The change from ejective to plain consonants in Proto-Afroasiatic is apparently regular in grammatical words (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin 1988; see also */tV/ instead of */t̕V/ above).
    • Proto-Altaic ?*/kʰa/-. The presence of /a/ instead of /o/ is unexplained, but Kaiser and Shevoroshkin (1988) regard this alternation as common among Nostratic languages.
    • Proto-Uralic *ko- ~ ku- /ko/- ~ /ku/- 'who'
    • "Yukaghir" (Northern, Southern, or both?) кин /kin/ 'who'
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */mki/, */mkin/- 'who'
    • Proto-Eskimo–Aleut */ken/ 'who'
  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕ærd/, */k̕erd/, or */k̕ird/ 'heart ~ chest' (Kaiser and Shevoroshkin [1988]; the Proto-Eskimo form given by Bengtson [1998] may indicate that the vowel was /æ/ or not).
    • Proto-Indo-European *ḱerd- /kʲerd/- 'heart'. The occurrence of *d instead of *dʰ is regular: voiceless and aspirated consonants never occur together in the same Proto-Indo-European root.
    • Afroasiatic: Proto-Chadic */k̕Vrd/- 'chest'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */mk̕erd-/ (/m/ being a prefix) 'chest ~ breast'
    • Proto-Eskimo */qatə/ 'heart ~ breast'. The presence of /q/ instead of /k/ is not clear.
  • Proto-Nostratic */q̕iwlV/ 'ear ~ hear'
    • Proto-Indo-European *ḱleu̯- /kʲleu̯/- 'hear'. Ancestor of English listen, loud.
    • Proto-Afroasiatic */k̕(w)l/ 'hear'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */q̕ur/ 'ear'
    • Proto-Altaic */kʰul/- 'ear'
    • Proto-Uralic *kūle- /kuːle/- (long vowel from fusion of -/iw/-) 'hear'
    • Proto-Dravidian *kēḷ /keːɭ/ 'hear'. (Must figure out if it's /g/- instead.)
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */vilvV/, possibly from earlier /kʷilwV/ 'ear'
  • Proto-Nostratic */kiwæ/ ~ /kiwe/ ~ /kiwi/ 'stone'
    • Afroasiatic: Proto-Chadic */kw/- 'stone'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */kwa/- 'stone'
    • Proto-Uralic *kiwe- /kiwe/- 'stone'
    • Proto-Dravidian */kwa/ 'stone'
    • Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan */xəvxə/ 'stone'; Kamchadal квал /kβal/, ков /koβ/ 'stone'
    • Proto-Eskimo–Aleut */kew/- 'stone'
  • Proto-Nostratic */wete/ 'water'
    • Proto-Indo-European *wed- /wed/- 'water ~ wet'
    • Altaic: Proto-Tungusic */ødV/ 'water'
    • Proto-Uralic *wete /wete/ 'water'
    • Proto-Dravidian *ōtV- ~ wetV- /oːtV/- ~ /wetV/- 'wet'
  • Proto-Nostratic */burV/ 'storm'
    • Proto-Indo-European *bʰer- /bʱer/- 'storm'
    • Proto-Afroasiatic (?) */bwr/- 'storm'
    • Proto-Altaic */burV/ ~ /borV/ 'storm'
    • Proto-Uralic *purki /purki/- 'snow storm ~ smoke' (-/k/- unexplained)
  • Proto-Nostratic */qant̕V/ 'front side'
    • Proto-Indo-European *h₂ant- /χant/- 'front side'
    • Proto-Afroasiatic */χnt/ 'front side'; the change from */nt̕/ to */nt/ is apparently regular
    • Proto-Altaic */antV/- 'front side'
  • Proto-Nostratic */d͡zeɢV/ 'eat'
    • Proto-Indo-European *seh₃(w)- /seʁ(w)/- 'satiated'
    • Proto-Afroasiatic (?) */zʁ/- 'be fed' ~ 'be abundant'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */d͡zeʁ/- 'become sated'
    • Proto-Altaic */d͡ʒeː/ 'eat'
    • Proto-Uralic *sexi- /seʁi/- or *sewi- /sewi/- 'eat'
  • Proto-Nostratic */nʲamo/ 'grasp'
    • Proto-Indo-European *i̯em- /jem/- 'grasp'
    • Proto-Dravidian *ñamV- /ɲamV/- 'grasp'
  • Proto-Nostratic */k̕ut̕V/ 'little'
    • Proto-Afroasiatic */k̕(w)t̕/ ~ /k(w)t̕/ ~ /kt/ 'little'
    • Proto-Kartvelian */k̕ut̕/ ~ /k̕ot̕/ 'little'
    • Proto-Dravidian *kuḍḍ- /kuɖː/- 'little'. (Must figure out if plosives correct.)

Sample text

Vladislav Illich-Svitych using his version of Proto-Nostratic composed a brief poem. (Compare Schleicher's fable for similar attempts with several different reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European.)

Nostratic (Illich-Svitych's spelling) Nostratic (IPA) Russian English
K̥elHä wet̥ei ʕaK̥un kähla /K̕elHæ wet̕ei ʕaK̕un kæhla/ Язык – это брод через реку времени, Language is a ford through the river of time,
k̥aλai palhʌ-k̥ʌ na wetä /k̕at͡ɬai palhVk̕V na wetæ/ он ведёт нас к жилищу умерших; it leads us to the dwelling of those gone before;
śa da ʔa-k̥ʌ ʔeja ʔälä /ɕa da ʔak̕V ʔeja ʔælæ/ но туда не сможет дойти тот, but he cannot arrive there,
ja-k̥o pele t̥uba wete /jak̕o pele t̕uba wete/ кто боится глубокой воды. who fears deep water.

The value of or is uncertain—it could be /k̕/ or /q̕/. H could similarly be at least /h/ or /ħ/. V or ʌ is an uncertain vowel.

Status within comparative linguistics

While the Nostratic hypothesis is not endorsed by the mainstream of comparative linguistics, Nostratic studies by nature of being based on the comparative method remain within the mainstream of contemporary linguistics from a methodological point of view; it is the scope with which the comparative method is applied rather than the methodology itself that raises eyebrows.

Nostraticists tend to refuse to include in their schema language families for which no proto-language has yet been reconstructed. This approach was criticized by Joseph Greenberg on the ground that genetic classification is necessarily prior to linguistic reconstruction[61] but this criticism has so far had no effect on Nostraticist theory and practice.

Certain critiques have pointed out that the data from individual, established language families that is cited in Nostratic comparisons often involves a high degree of errors; Campbell (1998) demonstrates this for Uralic data. Defenders of the Nostratic theory argue that were this to be true, it would remain that in classifying languages genetically, positives count for vastly more than negatives (Ruhlen 1994). The reason for this is that, above a certain threshold, resemblances in sound/meaning correspondences are highly improbable mathematically.

The technique of comparing grammatical structures (as opposed to words) has suggested to some that the Nostratic candidates lack interrelatedness. However, Pedersen's original Nostratic proposal synthesized earlier macrofamilies, some of which, including Indo-Uralic, involved extensive comparison of inflections.[62] It is true the Russian Nostraticists and Bomhard initially emphasized lexical comparisons. Bomhard recognized the necessity to explore morphological comparisons and has since published extensive work in this area (see especially Bomhard 2008:1.273–386). According to him the breakthrough came with the publication of the first volume of Joseph Greenberg's Eurasiatic work,[63] which provided a massive list of possible morphemic correspondences that has proved fruitful to explore.[64] Other important contributions on Nostratic morphology have been published by John C. Kerns[65] and Vladimir Dybo.[66]

Critics argue that were one to collect all the words from the various known Indo-European languages and dialects which have at least one of any 4 meanings, one could easily form a list that would cover any conceivable combination of two consonants and a vowel (of which there are only about 20*20*5=2000). Nostraticists respond that they do not compare isolated lexical items but reconstructed proto-languages. To include a word for a proto-language it must be found in a number of languages and the forms must be relatable by regular sound changes. In addition, many languages have restrictions on root structure, reducing the number of possible root-forms far below its mathematical maximum. These languages include, among others, Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic—all the core languages of the Nostratic hypothesis. To understand how the root structures of one language relate to those of another has long been a focus of Nostratic studies.[67] For a highly critical assessment of the work of the Moscow School, especially the work of Illich-Svitych, cf. Campbell and Poser 2008:243-264.

It has also been argued that Nostratic comparisons mistake Wanderwörter and cross-borrowings between branches for true cognates.[68]


  1. B. Proto-Afroasiatic *bar-/*bər- 'grain, cereal': Proto-Semitic *barr-/*burr 'grain, cereal' > Hebrew bar 'grain'; Arabic burr 'wheat'; Akkadian burru 'a cereal'; Sabaean brr 'wheat'; Harsūsi berr 'corn, maize, wheat'; Mehri ber 'corn, maize, wheat'. Cushitic: Somali bur 'wheat'. (?) Proto-Southern Cushitic *bar-/*bal- 'grain (generic) > Iraqw balaŋ 'grain'; Burunge baru 'grain'; Alagwa balu 'grain' K'wadza balayiko 'grain'. Ehret 1980:338.
  2. C. Dravidian: Tamil paral 'pebble, seed, stone of fruit'; Malayalam paral 'grit, coarse grain, gravel, cowry shell'; Kota parl 'pebble, one grain (of any grain)'; Kannaḍa paral, paral 'pebble, stone' Koḍagu para 'pebble'; Tuḷu parelụ 'grain of sand, grit, gravel, grain of corn, etc.; castor seed'; Kolami Parca 'gravel'. Burrow-Emeneau 1984:353, no. 3959.
  3. D. Sumerian bar 'seed'.
  4. Proto-Indo-European *b[h]ars- seems to be a cultural loanword from Semitic (though several reputable Indo-Europeanists dispute this and consider it to be a native IE word). It should be noted that much of the IE agricultural lexicon is not shared among all branches and seems to have been borrowed, thus supporting the view that the expansion of IE languages was post-Neolithic rather than a Neolithic one as postulated by Renfrew's theory.

See also


  • Baldi, Philip (2002). The Foundations of Latin. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bengtson, John D. (1998). "The 'Far East' of Nostratic". :35–38 (image files)
  • Bomhard, Allan R., and John C. Kerns (1994). The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship. Berlin, New York, and Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-013900-6
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (1996). Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis. Signum Publishers.
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (2008). Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic: Comparative Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary, 2 volumes. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-16853-4
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (2008). A Critical Review of Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary. [2]
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (2008). The Glottalic Theory of Proto-Indo-European and Consonantism and Its Implications for Nostratic Sound Correspondences. Mother Tongue [3]
  • Bomhard, Allan R. (2011). The Nostratic Hypothesis in 2011: Trends and Issues. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man. ISBN (paperback) 978-0-9845383-0-0
  • Campbell, Lyle (1998). "Nostratic: a personal assessment". In Joseph C. Salmons and Brian D. Joseph (eds.), Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 142. John Benjamins.
  • Campbell, Lyle, and William J. Poser (2008). Language Classification: History and Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Campbell, Lyle (2004). Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Cuny, Albert (1924). Etudes prégrammaticales sur le domaine des langues indo-européennes et chamito-sémitiques. Paris: Champion.
  • Cuny, Albert (1943). Recherches sur le vocalisme, le consonantisme et la formation des racines en « nostratique », ancêtre de l'indo-européen et du chamito-sémitique. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve.
  • Cuny, Albert (1946). Invitation à l'étude comparative des langues indo-européennes et des langues chamito-sémitiques. Bordeaux: Brière.
  • Dolgopolsky, Aharon (1998). The Nostratic Macrofamily and Linguistic Paleontology. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. ISBN 978-0-9519420-7-9
  • Dolgopolsky, Aharon (2008). Nostratic Dictionary. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. [4]
  • Dybo, Vladimir (2004). "On Illič-Svityč’s study ‘Basic Features of the Proto-Language of the Nostratic Language Family'." In Nostratic Centennial Conference: The Pécs Papers, edited by Irén Hegedűs and Paul Sidwell, 115-119. Pécs: Lingua Franca Group.
  • Flannery, Kent V. (1969). In: P. J. Ucko and G. W. Dimbleby (eds.), The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals 73-100. Aldine, Chicago, IL.
  • Gamk¹relidze, Thomas V., and Vjačeslav V. Ivanov (1995). Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, translated by Johanna Nichols, 2 volumes. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014728-9 (¹Actually /q̕/ in Georgian.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph (2000, 2002). Indo-European and its Closest Relatives. The Eurasiatic Language Family. (Stanford University), v.1 Grammar, v.2 Lexicon.
  • Greenberg, Joseph (2005). Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Illich-Svitych, V. M. В. М. Иллич-Свитыч (1971). Опыт сравнения ностратических языков (семитохамитский, картвельский, индоевропейский, уральский, дравидийский, алтайский). Введение. Сравнительный словарь (b – ). Moscow: Наука.
  • Kaiser, M. (1989). "Remarks on Historical Phonology: From Nostratic to Indo-European". Reconstructing Languages and Cultures BPX 20:51-56. [5]
  • Manaster Ramer, Alexis (?). A "Glottalic" Theory of Nostratic [6]
  • Norquest, Peter (1998). "Greenberg's Visit to Arizona". :25f. (image files)
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Daniel Nettle, editors (1999). Nostratic: Examining a Linguistic Macrofamily. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. ISBN 978-1-902937-00-7
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1991). A Guide to the World's Languages, Volume 1: Classification. Edward Arnold. ISBN 0-340-56186-6
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994). On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1998). "Toutes parentes, toutes différentes". La Recherche 306:69–75. (French translation of a Scientific American article.)
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (2001). "Taxonomic Controversies in the Twentieth Century". In: Jürgen Trabant and Sean Ward (eds.), New Essays on the Origin of Language 197–214. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Salmons, Joseph C., and Brian D. Joseph, editors (1998). Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence. John Benjamins. ISBN 1-55619-597-4
  • Stachowski, Marek, "Teoria nostratyczna i szkoła moskiewska".(pdf) – LingVaria 6/1 (2011): 241-274
  • Starostin, Georgiy S. (1998). "Alveolar Consonants in Proto-Dravidian: One or More?". (pdf) Pages 1–14 (?) in Proceedings on South Asian languages
  • Starostin, Georgiy S. (2002). "On the Genetic Affiliation of the Elamite Language". (pdf) Mother Tongue 7
  • Sweet, Henry (1900, 1995, 2007). The History of Language. ISBN 81-85231-04-4 (1995); ISBN 1-4326-6993-1 (2007)
  • Szemerényi, Oswald (1996). Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Trask, R. L. (1996). Historical Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Yakubovich, I. (1998). Nostratic studies in Russia

External links

  • Stefan Georg, 2013, Review of Salmons & Joseph, eds, Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence, 1997
  • Nostratica: Resources on Distant Language Relationship
  • "Linguists debating deepest roots of language" – New York Times article on Nostratic (June 27, 1995)
  • "What is Nostratic?" by John Bengtson, in Mother Tongue Newsletter 31 (1998), pages 33–38
  • "Nostraticist Vladislav Markovich Illich-Svitych" – photograph, Nostratic poem (2002)
  • Proposed descent tree for Borean languages, including Nostratic by Sergei Starostin
  • Database query to Nostratic etymology on StarLing database (last modified 2006)

Nostratic Dictionary by Aharon Dolgopolsky (2006)

  • Main page at Cambridge University DSpace
  • HTML version)
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