Evolution of Human Languages

An international project on the linguistic prehistory of humanity
coordinated by the Santa Fe Institute
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Evolution of Human Languages

Working group: The Current Status of Sino-Caucasian (October 2002)

This working group, working within the scope of the "Evolution of Human Languages" project, was held in SFI on October 20 - October 25, 2002. The meeting was chaired by Sergei Starostin from the Russian Academy of Sciences. The problem of the Sino-Caucasian (or "Dene-Caucasian", provided that North American Na-Dene languages actually belong in the same place) macrofamily and its relation to other macrofamilies is one of the most actual problems for the entire EHL project, since, together with the Nostratic macrofamily, it forms the basis of nearly all modern day Eurasiatic languages, and a proper reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Caucasian is of significant help to elucidating the linguistic history of Eurasia on the whole.

In his opening speech, Sergei Starostin briefly touched upon the problem as a whole, specifying that, while our knowledge about comparative Sino-Caucasian phonology is already at a more or less satisfactory level (with a proposed and lexically confirmed set of correspondences between the major Sino-Caucasian branches - North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan, Yenisseian, Burushaski, and, to a lesser extent, Basque and Na-Dene), the morphological system of this macrofamily is yet to be established. He then proceeded to give a talk on the comparative morphology of North Caucasian languages, showing different ways in which the highly divergent morphological systems of these languages could be traced back to a single proto-system, and setting up a tentative reconstruction of Proto-North-Caucasian grammatical markers (such as class markers and tense and aspect markers in the verbal system).

George Starostin (Russian State University for the Humanities) gave a brief description of the verbal morphology of the Yenisseian languages (primarily Ket and the extinct Kott), showing how the Proto-Yenisseian system was modified in daughter languages. The ensuing discussion involved a comparison of the Yenisseian system with the North Caucasian one, with interesting parallels between Yenisseian and North Caucasian class, tense, and aspect markers.

John Bengtson (Association for the Study of Language In Pre-History) concluded the section on Sino-Caucasian morphology with a description of certain morphological features of the Na-Dene languages; again, similarities between the Na-Dene system and the North Caucasian and Yennisseian systems were traced, confirming with near certainty the close relationship between these families.

Finally, Timothy Usher (SFI Institute) gave a talk on the observed similarities between Sino-Tibetan and the Austric macrofamily (particularly the Mon-Khmer subbranch). He presented a large list of lexical parallels between the two families, stating that due to their huge number and close phonetic resemblance, they cannot be coincidental. He then claimed that these similarities can be explained either as a sign of close genetic resemblance between Sino-Tibetan and Austric (which would weaken the positioning of Sino-Tibetan within Sino-Caucasian) or as a sign of huge lexical borrowing between the two, and that the correctness of either of the two hypotheses can only be proven through further research.