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Altaic is a language family that is generally held by its proponents to include the Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic language families (Georg et al. 1999:73–74). These languages are spoken in a wide arc stretching from northeast Asia through Central Asia to Anatoliamarker and eastern Europe (Turks, Kalmyks). The group is named after the Altai Mountainsmarker, a mountain range in Central Asia.

These language families share numerous characteristics. The debate is over the origin of their similarities. One camp, often called the "Altaicists", views these similarities as arising from common descent from a Proto-Altaic language spoken several thousand years ago. The other camp, often called the "anti-Altaicists", views these similarities as arising from areal interaction between the language groups concerned. Some linguists believe the case for either interpretation is about equally strong; they have been called the "skeptics" (Georg et al. 1999:81).

Another view accepts Altaic as a valid family but includes in it only Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. This view was widespread prior to the 1960s, but has almost no supporters among specialists today (Georg et al. 1999:73–74). The expanded grouping, including Korean and, from the early 1970s on, Japanese, came to be known as "Macro-Altaic", leading to the designation by back-formation of the smaller grouping as "Micro-Altaic". Most proponents of Altaic continue to support the inclusion of Korean and Japanese.

Micro-Altaic would include about 66 living languages, to which Macro-Altaic would add Korean, Japanese, and the Ryukyuan languages for a total of about 74. (These are estimates, depending on what is considered a language and what is considered a dialect. They do not include earlier states of language, such as Old Japanese.) Micro-Altaic would have a total of about 348 million speakers today, Macro-Altaic about 558 million.

History of the Altaic idea

The idea that the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages are each others' closest relatives was allegedly first published in 1730 by Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, a Swedish officer who traveled in the eastern Russian Empiremarker while a prisoner of war after the Great Northern War. However, as has been pointed out by Alexis Manaster Ramer and Paul Sidwell (1997), Strahlenberg actually opposed the idea of a closer relationship between the languages which later became known as "Altaic" .

Nicholas Poppe (1965:125) presents the following view:

However, von Strahlenberg's classification deserves mentioning as the first attempt at classification of a large number of languages some of which are Altaic.

The term "Altaic", as the name for a language family, was introduced in 1844 by Matthias Castrén, a pioneering Finnish philologist who made major contributions to the study of the Uralic languages. As originally formulated by Castrén, Altaic included not only Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus (=Tungusic) but also Finno-Ugric and Samoyed (Poppe 1965:126). Finno-Ugric and Samoyed are not included in later formulations of Altaic. They came to be grouped in a separate family, known as Uralic (though doubts long persisted about its validity). Castrén's Altaic is thus equivalent to what later came to be known as Ural-Altaic (ib. 127). More precisely, Ural-Altaic came to subgroup Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic as "Uralic" and Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic as "Altaic", with Korean sometimes added to Altaic, and Japanese.

For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many linguists who studied Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic regarded them as members of a common Ural-Altaic family, together with Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic, based on such shared features as vowel harmony and agglutination. While the Ural-Altaic hypothesis can still be found in encyclopedias, atlases, and similar general reference works, it has not had any adherents in the linguistics community for decades. It has been characterized by Sergei Starostin as "an idea now completely discarded" (Starostin et al. 2003:8).

In 1857, the Austrian scholar Anton Boller suggested adding Japanese to Altaic or more precisely to Ural-Altaic (Miller 1986:34). For Korean, G.J. Ramstedt and E.D. Polivanov put forward additional etymologies in favor of its inclusion in the 1920s.

The culmination of decades of research and publication on the part of the author, Ramstedt's two-volume work Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft ('Introduction to Altaic Linguistics') was published in 1952–1957. It rejected grouping the Uralic languages in a common family with the Altaic ones and included Korean in Altaic, an inclusion followed by most leading Altaicists to date. Ramstedt's first volume, Lautlehre ('Phonology'), contained the first comprehensive attempt to identify regular correspondences between the sound systems of the Altaic language families. The second volume was Formenlehre ('Morphology'). (The second volume was actually published first, in 1952, with the first volume following in 1957.)

Ramstedt did not live to see the publication of his great work. He died in 1950, and the work was edited and seen through the press by Pentti Aalto, a student of his. In 1960, Nicholas Poppe presented what was in effect a heavily revised version of Ramstedt’s volume on phonology (Miller 1991:298) that has since set the standard in Altaic studies. Further contributions to Altaic linguistics in the 1960s were made by scholars such as Karl H. Menges and, on particular points, by Vladislav Illich-Svitych and others.

In the meantime, knowledge of the branches of Altaic and the individual languages of which they are composed made great strides, thanks in large part to the efforts of Vera Cincius (also spelled Tsintsius) on Tungusic (Poppe 1965:97–98) and of Poppe himself on Mongolic, with contributions by many other scholars.

Ramstedt and Cincius each had several students who carried on and extended their work (Poppe 1965:136, 98), as did Poppe.

Poppe (1965:148) considered the issue of the relationship of Korean to Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic was not settled. In his view, there were three real possibilities: (1) Korean did not belong with the other three genealogically, but had been influenced by an Altaic substratum; (2) Korean was related to the other three at the same level they were related to each other; (3) Korean had split off from the other three before they underwent a series of characteristic changes. Poppe leaned toward the third possibility (ib.), but did not commit himself to it in this work.

Roy Andrew Miller's 1971 book Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages convinced most Altaicists that Japanese also belonged to Altaic (Poppe 1976:470). Since then, the standard set of languages included in Altaic has comprised Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese.

An alternative classification, though one with much less currency among Altaicists, was proposed by John C. Street (1962), according to which Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic forms one grouping and Korean-Japanese-Ainu another, the two being linked in a common family that Street designated as "North Asiatic". The same schema was adopted by James Patrie (1982) in the context of an attempt to classify the Ainu language. The Turkic-Mongolic-Tungusic and Korean-Japanese-Ainu groupings were also posited by Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002) who, however, treated them as independent members of a larger family, which he termed Eurasiatic.

A language family or a Sprachbund?

Even as Ramstedt's Einführung was making converts and generating the modern school of Altaic studies, a newly invigorated attack on the validity of the Altaic language family was taking shape. Gerard Clauson (1956), Gerhard Doerfer (1963), and Alexander Shcherbak argued that the words and features shared by Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic were for the most part borrowings and that the rest could be attributed to chance resemblances. They argued that while there were words shared by Turkic and Mongolic, by Mongolic and Tungusic, and by all three, there were none (Doerfer: few) shared by Turkic and Tungusic but not Mongolic. If all three families had a common ancestor, we should expect losses to happen at random, not only at the geographical margins of the family; on the other hand, we should expect exactly the observed pattern if borrowing is responsible. Furthermore, they argued that many of the typological features of the supposed Altaic languages, such as agglutinative morphology and SOV word order, usually occur together in languages. In sum, the idea was that Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic form a Sprachbund – the result of convergence through intensive borrowing and long contact among speakers of languages that are not necessarily closely related. The proponents of this hypothesis are sometimes called "the Anti-Altaicists".

Doubt was also raised about the affinities of Korean and Japanese; in particular, some authors tried to connect Japanese to the Austronesian languages (Starostin et al. 2003:8–9).

Since then, the debate has raged back and forth, with defenses of Altaic in the wide sense (e.g. Sergei Starostin 1991), advocacy of a family consisting of Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic but not Turkic or Mongolic ("Macro-Tungusic", J. Marshall Unger 1990), and wholesale rejections (e.g. Doerfer 1988) being published.

Starostin's (1991) lexicostatistical research showed that the proposed Altaic groups shared about 15–20% of potential cognates within a 110-word Swadesh-Yakhontov list (e.g. Turkic–Mongolic 20%, Turkic–Tungusic 18%, Turkic–Korean 17%, Mongolic–Tungusic 22%, Mongolic–Korean 16%, Tungusic–Korean 21%). Altogether, Starostin concluded that the Altaic grouping was substantiated, though "older than most other language families in Eurasia, such as Indo-European or Finno-Ugric, and this is the reason why the modern Altaic languages preserve few common elements".

In 2003, Claus Schönig published a critical overview of the history of the Altaic hypothesis up to that time. He concluded (2003:403):

Generally, the more carefully the areal factor has been investigated, the smaller the size of the residue open to the genetic explanation has tended to become. According to many scholars it only comprises a small number of monosyllabic lexical roots, including the personal pronouns and a few other deictic and auxiliary items. For these, other possible explanations have also been proposed. Most importantly, the 'Altaic' languages do not seem to share a common basic vocabulary of the type normally present in cases of genetic relationship.

A further step in the debate was the publication of An Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages by Sergei Starostin, Anna V. Dybo, and Oleg A. Mudrak in 2003. The research for the dictionary included contributions by several young Altaic scholars, among them Ilya Gruntov and Martine Robbeets. The result of some twenty years of work, it contains 2800 proposed cognate sets, a complete set of regular sound correspondences based on those proposed sets, and a number of grammatical correspondences, as well as a few important changes to the reconstruction of Proto-Altaic. For example, while most of today's Altaic languages have vowel harmony, Proto-Altaic as reconstructed by Starostin et al. lacked it – instead various vowel assimilations between the first and second syllables of words occurred in Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic. It tries hard to distinguish loans between Turkic and Mongolic and between Mongolic and Tungusic from cognates, and it suggests words that occur in Turkic and Tungusic but not Mongolic (Starostin et al. 2003:20); all other combinations between the five branches also occur in the book. It lists 144 items of shared basic vocabulary (2003:230–234) (mostly already present in Starostin 1991 (2003:234)), including words for such items as 'eye', 'ear', 'neck', 'bone', 'blood', 'water', 'stone', 'sun', and 'two'.

This work has not changed the mind of any of the principal authors in the field, however. The debate continues unabated—e.g. S. Georg 2004, A. Vovin 2005, S. Georg 2005 (anti-Altaic); S. Starostin 2005, V. Blažek . Robbeets 2007, A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008 (pro-Altaic).

Postulated Urheimat

The earliest known texts in a language attributed to Altaic by its proponents are the Orkhon inscriptions, dating from the 8th century AD. They are written in a Turkic language. They were deciphered in 1893 by the Danish linguist Vilhelm Thomsen in a scholarly race with his rival, the Germano-Russian linguist Wilhelm Radloff. However, Radloff was the first to publish the inscriptions.

The prehistory of the peoples speaking these languages is largely unknown at the present time. Whereas for certain other linguistic groups, such as the speakers of Indo-European, Uralic, and Austronesian, we are able to frame substantial hypotheses, even if these are disputed, in the case of the proposed Altaic family everything remains to be done. As Roy Andrew Miller (1991:319–320) describes the situation:

No one knows the earliest histories of the Proto-Turkic, Proto-Mongolian, and Proto-Tungus speakers—where they lived, how frequently they changed sites, or how often their paths crossed and recrossed. There are no early written records. There are no genuinely early histories.

In the absence of written records, there are several ways to study the (pre)history of a people:

  • Identification of archaeological cultures: the material remains found at dwelling sites, burial grounds, and other places where people left traces of their activity.
  • Physical anthropology, which studies the physical characteristics of peoples, ancient and modern.
  • Genetics, in particular the study of ancient DNA.
  • Philology, which studies the evidence in language families for their primitive locations and the nature of their cultures. (For an example, see Proto-Uralic language.) Mythology and legend often contain important clues to the earlier history of peoples.
  • Glottochronology, which attempts to estimate the time depth of a language family based on an assumed rate of change in languages. Related to this is lexicostatistics, which attempts to determine the degree of relation between a set of languages by comparing the percentage of basic vocabulary (words like "I", "you", "heart", "stone", "two", "be", "and") they share in common.
  • Developing a family tree of languages and noting the relative distance of the splits that occur in it.
  • Observing evidence for contact between languages, which may indicate approximately when and where they were adjacent to each other.

All of these methods remain to be applied to the languages attributed to Altaic with the same degree of focus and intensity they have been applied to the Indo-European family (e.g. Mallory 1989, Anthony 2007).

In the absence of more extensive studies in this area, most claims about the prehistory of the Altaic-speaking peoples must be viewed as extremely preliminary. This includes the following remarks.

According to one line of reasoning, if the languages grouped as Altaic are genetically related, their great differences from each other would point to a very ancient date for their proto-language, in the Mesolithic or even the Upper Paleolithic period. (Miller 1991 however emphasizes the commonalities of these languages in all major areas: phonology, vocabulary, inflections, and syntax).

Speakers of an Altaic protolanguage might have entered Central Asia following the disappearance of the West Siberian Glacial Lake, which almost completely covered the flatlands of western Siberia up to the foothills of the Kuznetsk Alataumarker and Altaimarker mountain ranges. With the Late Glacial warming, up to the Atlantic Phase of the Post-Glacial Optimum, Mesolithic groups moved north into this area from the Hissar (6000–4000 BCE) and Keltiminar (5500–3500 BCE) cultures. These groups brought with them the bow and arrow and the dog, elements of what Kent Flannery has called the "broad-spectrum revolution". The Keltiminar culture occupied the semi-desert and desert areas of the Karakum and Kyzyl Kum deserts and the deltas of the Amu Daryamarker and Zeravshanmarker rivers (Whitney Coolidge 2005). The Keltiminar people practised a mobile hunting, gathering, and fishing subsistence system. Over time, they adopted stockbreeding.

Some seek the origin of the proposed Micro-Altaic group in the spread of the Karasuk culture and the appearance of northern Mongol Dinlin elements. The Karasuk culture is the result of a migration of the eastern part of the Dinlins. Its influence extended as far as the Ordos region of China and across into Manchuria and northern Korea. The Karasuk people lived in permanent settlements in frame-type houses. The economy was complex. They bred large-horned livestock, horses, and sheep. They developed a high level of bronze metallurgy. Characteristic of the Karasuk culture are extensive cemeteries. Tombs are fenced with stone slabs laid on crest.

Others equate the Karasuk culture with the origin of the Karasuk languages, a recently proposed language family that includes the Yeniseian languages and Burushaski but none of the suggested members of Altaic. Associating languages with archeological discoveries in the absence of written evidence is always a delicate matter. This hypothesis was dealt a major blow when the Yeniseian languages were firmly linked to the Na-Dené languages of North America in a family now called Dené-Yeniseian (Bulletin of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas 264, 31 March 2008).

According to one view, Turkic and Mongolic are more closely related to each other than either is to Tungusic. If so, the split between Turkic and Mongolic would have been the last division within the Altaic group. It has been suggested that this occurred just prior to the Xiongnu period of Central Asian history. This would imply a considerably more shallow time depth for Proto-Altaic, or at least Proto-Micro-Altaic, than the late Stone Age. Such conflicts remain to be resolved.

List of Altaicists and critics of Altaic

Note: This list is limited to linguists who have worked specifically on the Altaic problem since the publication of the first volume of Ramstedt's Einführung in 1952. The dates given are those of works concerning Altaic. For Altaicists, the version of Altaic they favor is given at the end of the entry.


  • Pentti Aalto (1955). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.
  • Anna V. Dybo (S. Starostin et al. 2003, A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Karl H. Menges (1975). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Roy Andrew Miller (1971, 1980, 1986, 1996). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Oleg A. Mudrak (S. Starostin et al. 2003). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Nicholas Poppe (1965). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and perhaps Korean.
  • Alexis Manaster Ramer. Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Martine Robbeets (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • G.J. Ramstedt (1952–1957). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.
  • George Starostin (A. Dybo and G. Starostin 2008). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • Sergei Starostin (1991, S. Starostin et al. 2003). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean–Japanese.
  • John C. Street (1962). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped as "North Asiatic".
  • Talat Tekin (1994). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic–Korean.

Major critics of Altaic

Alternate hypotheses

  • Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped in Eurasiatic.
  • James Patrie (1982). Turkic–Mongolic–Tungusic and Korean–Japanese–Ainu, grouped in a common taxon (cf. John C. Street 1962).
  • J. Marshall Unger (1990). Tungusic–Korean–Japanese ("Macro-Tungusic"), with Turkic and Mongolic as separate language families.

Comparative grammar of the proposed Altaic language family

Reconstructed phonology

Based on the proposed correspondences listed below, the following phoneme inventory has been reconstructed for the hypothetical Proto(-Macro)-Altaic language (taken from Blažek's [2006] summary of the newest Altaic etymological dictionary [Starostin et al. 2003] and transcribed into the ):


Bilabial Alveolar or dental Alveolopalatal Postalveolar  Palatal    Velar  
Plosives aspirated
Affricates aspirated
Fricatives voiceless
voiced 1
Trills 2
Approximants 2

1 This phoneme only occurred at the beginnings of words.

2 These phonemes only occurred in the interior of words.


Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close /i/ /y/ /u/
Mid /e/ /ø/ /o/
Near-open /æ/
Open /a/

It is not clear whether /æ/, /ø/, /y/ were monophthongs as shown here (presumably ) or diphthongs ( ); the evidence is equivocal. In any case, however, they only occurred in the first (and sometimes only) syllable of any word.

Every vowel occurred in long and short versions which were different phonemes in the first syllable. Starostin et al. (2003) treat length together with pitch as a prosodic feature.


As reconstructed by Starostin et al. (2003), Proto-Altaic was a pitch accent or tone language; at least the first, and probably every, syllable could have high or low pitch.

Sound correspondences

If a Proto(-Macro)-Altaic language really existed, it should be possible to reconstruct regular sound correspondences between that protolanguage and its descendants; such correspondences would make it possible to distinguish cognates from loanwords (in many cases). Such attempts have repeatedly been made. The latest version is reproduced here, taken from Blažek's (2006) summary of the newest Altaic etymological dictionary (Starostin et al. 2003) and transcribed into the .

When a Proto-Altaic phoneme developed differently depending on its position in a word (beginning, interior, or end), the special case (or all cases) is marked with a hyphen; for example, Proto-Altaic disappears (marked "0") or becomes /j/ at the beginning of a Turkic word and becomes /p/ elsewhere in a Turkic word.


Only single consonants are considered here. In the middle of words, clusters of two consonants were allowed in Proto-Altaic as reconstructed by Starostin et al. (2003); the correspondence table of these clusters spans almost 7 pages in their book (83–89), and most clusters are only found in one or a few of the reconstructed roots.

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
² ²
³ 4
6, ²,
4 7

¹ The Khalaj language has /h/ instead. (It also retains a number of other archaisms.) However, it has also added /h/ in front of words for which no initial consonant (except in some cases /ŋ/, as expected) can be reconstructed for Proto-Altaic; therefore, and because it would make them dependent on whether Khalaj happens to have preserved any given root, Starostin et al. (2003:26–28) have not used Khalaj to decide whether to reconstruct an initial in any given word and have not reconstructed a /h/ for Proto-Turkic even though it was probably there.

² The Monguor language has /f/ here instead (Kaiser & Shevoroshkin 1988); it is therefore possible that Proto-Mongolian also had /f/ which then became /h/ (and then usually disappeared) in all descendants except Monguor. Tabgač and Kitan, two extinct Mongolic languages not considered by Starostin et al. (2003), even preserve /p/ in these places (Blažek 2006).

³ This happened when the next consonant in the word was , , or .

4 In front of /i/.

5 When the next consonant in the word was /h/.

6 This happened "in syllables with original high pitch" (Starostin et al. 2003:135).

7 When followed by /æ/, /ø/, /y/.

8 When the next consonant in the word was /r/.

9 When the preceding consonant was , , , or , or when the next consonant was /g/.

10 When the following vowel was /a/, /ə/, or followed by /j/.

11 When followed by /i/ and then another vowel, or by /j/.

12 When preceded by a vowel preceded by /i/.

13 When followed by /a/.

14 Starostin et al. (2003) follow a minority opinion (Vovin 1993) in interpreting the sound of the Middle Korean letter as or rather than [z]. (Dybo & Starostin 2008:footnote 50)

15 When followed by /u/.

16 When followed by /a/, /o/, or /e/.

17 When followed by /i/ or /u/.


Vowel harmony is pervasive in the languages attributed to Altaic: most Turkic and Mongolic as well as some Tungusic languages have it, Korean is arguably in the process of losing its traces, and it is (controversially) hypothesized for Old Japanese. (Vowel harmony is also typical of the neighboring Uralic languages and was often counted among the arguments for the Ural-Altaic hypotheses.) Nevertheless, Starostin et al. (2003) reconstruct Proto-Altaic as lacking vowel harmony. Instead, according to them, vowel harmony originated in each daughter branch as assimilation of the vowel in the first syllable to the vowel in the second syllable (which was usually modified or lost later). "The situation therefore is very close, e.g., to Germanic [see Germanic umlaut] or to the Nakh languages in the Eastern Caucasus, where the quality of non-initial vowels can now only be recovered on the basis of umlaut processes in the first syllable." (Starostin et al. 2003:91) The table below is taken from Starostin et al. (2003):

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Middle Korean Proto-Japonic
first s. second s. first syllable
/a/ /a/ /a/, /a/1, 1 /a/ /a/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/a/ /e/ /a/, /a/, /i/ /a/ /a/, /e/ /ə/
/a/ /i/ , /a/ /a/, /e/ /a/ /a/, /e/, /i/ /i/
/a/ /o/ /o/, /ja/, /aj/ /a/, /i/, /e/ /a/ /ə/, /o/ /a/
/a/ /u/ /a/ /a/, /o/, /u/ /a/ /a/, /ə/, /o/, /u/ /u/
/e/ /a/ /a/, /e/ /e/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/e/ /e/ /ja/-, , /e/2 /e/, /ja/ /e/ /a/, /e/, /i/, /ə/
/e/ /i/ /ja/-, /ɛ/, /e/2 /e/, /i/ /e/ /i/, , /a/, /e/ /i/
/e/ /o/ /ʌ/, /e/ /a/, /e/, /y/3, /ø/3 /e/ /ə/, /o/, /u/ /ə/, /a/
/e/ /u/ /e/, /a/, /o/3 /e/ /o/, /u/, /a/ /u/
/i/ /a/ , /i/ /i/ /i/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/i/ /e/ , /e/2 /e/, /i/ /i/ /i/, /i/
/i/ /i/ /i/ /i/, /e/1 /i/ /i/ /i/
/i/ /o/ /i/ /i/ /o/, /u/, /i/, /ə/
/i/ /u/ , /i/ /i/ /i/ /i/, /u/
/o/ /a/ /o/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/o/ /e/ /ø/, /o/ /ø/, /y/, /o/ /o/, /u/ , /o/, /u/ /ə/
/o/ /i/ /ø/, /o/ /ø/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /u/
/o/ /o/ /o/ /u/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /ə/
/o/ /u/ /o/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /ə/, /o/, /u/ /u/
/u/ /a/ /u/, /o/ /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/u/ /e/ /y/ /o/, /u/, /y/ /u/ /a/, /e/ /ua/, /a/1
/u/ /i/ /y/, /u/ /y/, /ø/ /u/ /o/, /u/, /u/
/u/ /o/ /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /ə/
/u/ /u/ /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /u/
/æ/ /a/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /a/3 /a/
/æ/ /e/ /ia/, /ja/ /i/, /a/, /e/ /i/ /i/, /e/, /je/ /ə/
/æ/ /i/ /ia/, /ja/, /i/, /e/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /e/, /je/ /i/
/æ/ /o/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /e/ /o/, /u/ /ə/, /o/, /u/ /a/
/æ/ /u/ /e/, /a/, 1 /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /e/, /je/ /u/
/ø/ /a/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /a/, /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /ə/ /a/
/ø/ /e/ /e/, /a/, 1 /e/, /ø/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /je/ /ə/, /u/
/ø/ /i/ /ia/, /ja/, /a/1 /i/, /e/, /ø/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /ə/ /i/
/ø/ /o/ /o/, /u/ /ø/, /y/, /o/, /u/ /i/ /i/, /e/, /je/ /ə/, /a/
/ø/ /u/ /u/, /o/ /e/, /i/, /u/ /ia/, /i/4 /ə/, /u/, /je/ /u/
/y/ /a/ /o/, /u/, /i/ /o/, /u/ /a/, /e/ /a/
/y/ /e/ /y/, /ø/, /i/2 /ø/, /y/, /o/, /u/ /y/, /u/1 /a/, /e/, /ja/, /je/, /o/, /u/ /u/, /ə/
/y/ /i/ /y/, /ø/ /ø/, /y/, /o/, /u/ /i/, /u/1 , /i/, /o/, /u/ /i/
/y/ /o/ /u/, /o/ /o/, /u/ /y/ /a/, /e/, /ja/, /je/, /o/, /u/ /u/, /ə/
/y/ /u/ /i/, /o/, /u/, /y/, /ø/ /o/, /u/ /o/, /u/, /i/, /u/

1 When preceded by a bilabial consonant.

2 When followed by a trill, /l/, or .

3 When preceded or followed by a bilabial consonant.

4 When preceded by a fricative ( ).


Length and pitch in the first syllable evolved as follows according to Starostin et al. (2003), with the caveat that it is not clear which pitch was high and which was low in Proto-Altaic (Starostin et al. 2003:135). For simplicity of input and display every syllable is symbolized as "a" here:

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
1 2
1 2

¹ "Proto-Mongolian has lost all traces of the original prosody except for voicing *p > *b in syllables with original high pitch" (Starostin et al. 2003:135).

² "[…] several secondary metatonic processes happened […] in Korean, basically in the verb subsystem: all verbs have a strong tendency towards low pitch on the first syllable." (Starostin et al. 2003:135)

Morphological correspondences

Because grammar is less easily borrowed than words, grammar is usually considered stronger evidence for language relationships than vocabulary. Starostin et al. (2003) have reconstructed the following correspondences between the case and number suffixes (or clitics) of the (Macro-)Altaic languages (taken from Blažek, 2006):

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic (*), Old Turkic Proto-Mongolic (*), Classical Mongolian Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean (*), Middle Korean Proto-Japonic (*), Old Japanese
nominative: 0 0 0 0 0 0
partitive: * (accusative) (possessive)
genitive: *
dative-locative: (locative-ablative) (attributive) (attributive-locative)
dative-instrumental: (instrumental) (dative-locative)
dative-directive: (dative) (directive)
comitative-locative: (instrumental-lative)
comitative-equative: (equative) (ablative), (terminative) (comitative)
allative: (directive) * (allative)
directive: (lative)
instrumental-ablative: *? terminal dative (ablative)
singulative: *
dual: * (plural for paired objects) (plural) * (plural for paired objects)
plural: * * *
plural: *
plural: * * *

/V/ symbolizes an uncertain vowel. Suffixes reconstructed for Proto-Turkic, Proto-Mongolic, Proto-Korean, or Proto-Japonic, but not attested in Old Turkic, Classical Mongolian, Middle Korean, or Old Japanese are marked with asterisks.

Selected cognates

Personal pronouns

The table below is taken (with slight modifications) from Blažek (2006) and transcribed into IPA.

Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic (*), Classical Mongolian Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean (*), Middle Korean Proto-Japonic
"I" (nominative) * 1
"me" (oblique cases) *
"I" * (oblique)

"thou" (nominative) * 1
"thee" (oblique cases) ?*
"thou" *
"we" (nominative) *
"us" (oblique cases) *
"ye" (nominative) *
"you" (oblique)

1 이기문, 국어사 개설, 탑출판사, 1991.

As above, forms not attested in Classical Mongolian or Middle Korean but reconstructed for their ancestors are marked with an asterisk, and /V/ represents an uncertain vowel.

Other basic vocabulary

The following table is a brief selection of further proposed cognates in basic vocabulary across the Altaic family (from Starostin et al. [2003]).

Proto-Altaic meaning Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
that /di/- or /ti/- /te-re/ /ta/ /tjé/ /tso-re/
eye /ni-dy/ /n ia-sa/5 /nú-n/ /mà/-
neck /mje-k/ /nəmpV/
breast 1 /køkø-n/2 /kuku-n/2 /kokajŋi/ "pith; medulla; core" /kəkə-rə/1 "heart"
stone 3
star /ho-dun/ /osi/4

1 Contains the Proto-Altaic dual suffix : "both breasts" – "chest" – "heart".

2 Contains the Proto-Altaic singulative suffix -/nV/: "one breast".

3 Compare Baekje */turak/ "stone" (Blažek 2006).

4 This is in the Jurchen language. In modern Manchu it is usiha.

5 This is disputed by Georg (2004), who states: "The traditional Tungusological reconstruction *yāsa [ = ] cannot be replaced by the nasal-initial one espoused here, needed for the comparison." However, Starostin (2005) mentions evidence from several Tungusic languages cited by Starostin et al. (2003). Georg (2005) does not accept this, referring to Georg (1999/2000) and an upcoming paper. By that time, Starostin was already dead (Starostin 2005 was published posthumously).

Numerals and related words

In the Indo-European family, the numerals are remarkably stable. This is a rather exceptional case; especially words for higher numbers are often borrowed wholesale. (Perhaps the most famous cases are Japanese and Korean, which have two complete sets of numerals each – one native, one Chinese.) Indeed, the Altaic numerals are less stable than the Indo-European ones, but nevertheless Starostin et al. (2003) reconstruct them as follows:

Proto-Altaic meaning Proto-Altaic Proto-Turkic Proto-Mongolic Proto-Tungusic Proto-Korean Proto-Japonic
1 /byri/ /bir/ /byri/ "all, each" "at first" /pi-tə/
single /nøŋe/ /nige/ "1" /noŋ/~/non/ "be the first, begin" /nəmi/ "only"
front /emo/ /øm-gen/ "upper part of breast" /emy/- /emu/~/ume/ "1" /upe/ "upper"

/mape/ "front"
single, one of a pair "one of a pair" /son-du-/ "odd" 1 "1"

or /hə̀t-/ 1
/sa/- "together, reciprocally"
2 /tybu/ 2 "2 (feminine)"3 4
pair, couple /eki/ "2", "twins"; ? "20" /(h)ekire/ "twins"
different, other /gojV/ /gojar/ "2" /goj/~/gia/ /kía/
pair, half /puta/- "2"
3 /ŋy/ "30"5 /gu-rban/; "30" 6 /mi/-7
(footnote 8) /ìlù/ /øløŋ/9 /ila-n/ "3" /ùrù-pu/ "bissextile (year or month)"
object consisting of 3 parts /séjra/ "trident, pitchfork" "3" /sárápi/ "rake, pitchfork"
4 /dø-rben/; "40"10 /dy-gin/ /də/-
5 /ta-bun/; /ta-bin/ "50"11 /tà/- /i-tu-/12
6 ; "60"13 14 /mu/-
7 15 /jeti/ ; /dala-n/ "70"15 /nada-n/ /nìr-(kúp)/16 /nana/-
8 /jè-t-/17 /da/-
9 /xegyn/ /kəkənə/
10 or /tøbe/ /təwə/18,/-so/"-0"/i-so/50
many, a big number "100" 19 /jér(h)/ "10" "10,000"

/jə̀rə̀/ "many"
"10" /ha-rban/ "10", /ha-na/ "all" 20 -/pə/, -/pua/ "-00"21
20 or "40"22 /kori-n/ /xori-n/ /pata-ti/23
100 ?/jom/ "big number, all" 24
1000 /dymen/ or /tymen/ "10,000"25 /ti/

1 Manchu /soni/ "single, odd".

2 Old Bulgarian /tvi-rem/ "second".

3 Kitan has "2" (Blažek 2006).

4 is probably a contraction of -/ubu/-.

5 The /y/- of "3" "may also reflect the same root, although the suffixation is not clear." (Starostin et al. 2003:223)

6 Compare Silla /mir/ "3" (Blažek 2006).

7 Compare Goguryeo /mir/ "3" (Blažek 2006).

8 "third (or next after three = fourth)", "consisting of three objects"

9 "song with three out of four verses rhyming (first, second and fourth)"

10 Kitan has /dur/ "4" (Blažek 2006).

11 Kitan has /tau/ "5" (Blažek 2006).

12 "(the prefixed i- is somewhat unclear: it is also used as a separate word meaning ‘fifty’, but the historical root here is no doubt *tu-)" (Starostin et al. 2003:223). – Blažek (2006) also considers Goguryeo * "5" (from */uti/) to be related.

13 Kitan has /nir/ "6" (Blažek 2006).

14 Middle Korean has "6", which may fit here, but the required loss of initial "is not quite regular" (Starostin et al. 2003:224).

15 The Mongolian forms "may suggest an original proto-form" or /ladi/ "with dissimilation or metathesis in" Proto-Mongolic (Starostin et al. 2003:224). – Kitan has /dol/ "7".

16 in Early Middle Korean(タリクニ/チリクヒ in 二中歴).

17 "Problematic" (Starostin et al. 2003:224).

18 Compare Goguryeo /tok/ "10" (Blažek 2006).

19 Manchu "a very big number".

20 Orok "a bundle of 10 squirrels", Nanai "collection, gathering".

21 "Hundred" in names of hundreds.

22 Starostin et al. (2003) suspect this to be a reduplication: * "20 + 20".

23 /kata-ti/ would be expected; Starostin et al. (2003) think that this irregular change from /k/ to /p/ is due to influence from "2" /puta-tu/.

24 From * .

25 Also see Tümen.


Works cited

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  • Doerfer, Gerhard. 1973. "Lautgesetze und Zufall: Betrachtungen zum Omnicomparativismus." Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft 10.
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  • Doerfer, Gerhard. 1985. Mongolica-Tungusica. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Doerfer, Gerhard. 1988. Grundwort und Sprachmischung: Eine Untersuchung an Hand von Körperteilbezeichnungen. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Dybo, Anna V. and Georgiy S. Starostin. 2008. "In defense of the comparative method, or the end of the Vovin controversy." Aspects of Comparative Linguistics 3, 109–258. Moscow: RSUH Publishers.
  • Georg, Stefan, Peter A. Michalove, Alexis Manaster Ramer, and Paul J. Sidwell. 1999. "Telling general linguists about Altaic." Journal of Linguistics 35:65–98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Georg, Stefan. 1999 / 2000. "Haupt und Glieder der altaischen Hypothese: die Körperteilbezeichnungen im Türkischen, Mongolischen und Tungusischen" ('Head and members of the Altaic hypothesis: The body-part designations in Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic'). Ural-altaische Jahrbücher, neue Folge B 16, 143–182.
  • Georg, Stefan. 2004. Review of Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages. Diachronica 21.2, 445–450.
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  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000–2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, 2 volumes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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  • Menges, Karl. H. 1975. Altajische Studien II. Japanisch und Altajisch. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.
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  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1971. Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226527190.
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  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1991. "Genetic connections among the Altaic languages." In Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell (editors), Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, 1991, 293–327. ISBN 0804718970.
  • Miller, Roy Andrew. 1996. Languages and History: Japanese, Korean and Altaic. Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture. ISBN 9748299694.
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  • Ramstedt, G.J. 1957. Einführung in die altaische Sprachwissenschaft I. Lautlehre, 'Introduction to Altaic Linguistics, Volume 1: Phonology', edited and published by Pentti Aalto. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura.
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  • Starostin, Sergei A. 1991. Altajskaja problema i proisxoždenie japonskogo jazyka, 'The Altaic Problem and the Origin of the Japanese Language'. Moscow: Nauka.
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  • Starostin, Sergei A. 2005. "Response to Stefan Georg's review of the Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages." Diachronica 22(2), 451–454.
  • Strahlenberg, P.J.T. von. 1730. Das nord- und ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia.... Stockholm. (Reprint: 1975. Studia Uralo-Altaica. Szeged and Amsterdam.)
  • Strahlenberg, P.J.T. von. 1738. Russia, Siberia and Great Tartary, an Historico-geographical Description of the North and Eastern Parts of Europe and Asia.... (Reprint: 1970. New York: Arno Press.) English translation of the previous.
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  • Vovin, Alexander. 1993. "About the phonetic value of the Middle Korean grapheme ." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 56(2), 247–259.
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  • Vovin, Alexander. 2001. "Japanese, Korean, and Tungusic: evidence for genetic relationship from verbal morphology." Altaic Affinities (Proceedings of the 40th Meeting of PIAC, Provo, Utah, 1997), edited by David B. Honey and David C. Wright, 83–202. Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies.
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Further reading

  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1997. "Does Altaic exist?" In Irén Hegedus, Peter A. Michalove, and Alexis Manaster Ramer (editors), Indo-European, Nostratic and Beyond: A Festschrift for Vitaly V. Shevoroshkin, Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man, 1997, 88–93. (Reprinted in Joseph H. Greenberg, Genetic Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 325–330.)
  • Hahn, Reinhard F. 1994. LINGUIST List 5.908, 18 August 1994.
  • Janhunen, Juha. 1992. "Das Japanische in vergleichender Sicht." Journal de la Société finno-ougrienne 84, 145–161.
  • Johanson, Lars. 1999. "Cognates and copies in Altaic verb derivation." Language and Literature – Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages: Studies in Honour of Roy Andrew Miller on His 75th Birthday, edited by Karl H. Menges and Nelly Naumann, 1–13. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. (Also: HTML version.)
  • Johanson, Lars. 1999. "Attractiveness and relatedness: Notes on Turkic language contacts." Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: Special Session on Caucasian, Dravidian, and Turkic Linguistics, edited by Jeff Good and Alan C.L. Yu, 87–94. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
  • Johanson, Lars. 2002. Structural Factors in Turkic Language Contacts, translated by Vanessa Karam. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
  • Kortlandt, Frederik. 1993. "The origin of the Japanese and Korean accent systems." Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 26, 57–65.
  • Martin, Samuel E. 1966. "Lexical evidence relating Korean to Japanese." Language 12.2, 185–251.
  • Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Robbeets, Martine. 2004. "Belief or argument? The classification of the Japanese language." Eurasia Newsletter 8. Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages. Stanford University Press.
  • Sinor, Denis. 1990. Essays in Comparative Altaic Linguistics. Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies. ISBN 0933070268.

See also


External links

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