“Altaic” is a common term applied by linguists to a number of language families, spread across Central Asia and the Far East and sharing a large, most likely non-coincidental, number of structural and morphemic similarities. At the onset of Altaic studies, these similarities were ascribed to the one-time existence of an ancestral language—“Proto-Altaic,” from which all these families are descended; circumstantial evidence and glottochronological calculations tentatively date this language to some time around the 6th–7th millennium
The debate over the nature of the relationship between the various units that constitute “Altaic,” sometimes referred to as “the Altaic controversy,” has been one of the most hotly debated topics in 20th-century historical linguistics and a major focal point of studies dealing with the prehistory of Central and East Eurasia. Supporters of “Proto-Altaic,” commonly known as “(pro-)Altaicists,” claim that only divergence from an original common ancestor can account for the observed regular phonetic correspondences and other structural similarities, whereas “anti-Altaicists,” without denying the existence of such similarities, insist that they do not belong to the “core” layers of the respective languages and are therefore better explained as results of lexical borrowing and other forms of areal linguistic contact.
As a rule, “pro-Altaicists” claim that “Proto-Altaic” is as reconstructible by means of the classic comparative method as any uncontroversial linguistic family; in support of this view, they have produced several attempts to assemble large bodies of etymological evidence for the hypothesis, backed by systems of regular phonetic correspondences between compared languages. All of these, however, have been heavily criticized by “anti-Altaicists” for lack of methodological rigor, implausibility of proposed phonetic and/or semantic changes, and confusion of recent borrowings with items allegedly inherited from a common ancestor. Despite the validity of many of these objections, it remains unclear whether they are sufficient to completely discredit the hypothesis of a genetic connection between the various branches of “Altaic,” which continues to be actively supported by a small, but stable scholarly minority.
Since the start of the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th century
Linguistic influence is found on all levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon. In those cases where only innovative patterns are shared between the two language groups, it is often difficult to make out where the innovation started; thus the great similarities in syllable structure between Maghrebian Arabic and northern Berber are the result of innovations within both language families, and it is difficult to tell where it started. Morphological influence seems to be mediated exclusively by lexical borrowing. Especially in Berber, this has led to parallel systems in the morphology, where native words always have native morphology, while loans either have nativized morphology or retain Arabic-like patterns. In the lexicon, it is especially Berber that takes over scores of loanwords from Arabic, amounting in one case to over one-third of the basic lexicon as defined by 100-word lists.
While in phonology Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA) dialects preserved the phonological system of Old Indo-Aryan (OIA) virtually intact, their morphosyntax underwent far-reaching changes, which altered fundamentally the synthetic morphology of earlier Prākrits in the direction of the analytic typology of New Indo-Aryan (NIA). Speaking holistically, the “accusative alignment” of OIA (Vedic Sanskrit) was restructured as an “ergative alignment” in Western IA languages, and it is precisely during the Late MIA period (ca. 5th–12th centuries
(a) We shall start with the restructuring of the nominal case system in terms of the reduction of the number of cases from seven to four. This phonologically motivated process resulted ultimately in the rise of the binary distinction of the “absolutive” versus “oblique” case at the end of the MIA period). (b) The crucial role of animacy in the restructuring of the pronominal system and the rise of the “double-oblique” system in Ardha-Māgadhī and Western Apabhramśa will be explicated. (c) In the verbal system we witness complete remodeling of the aspectual system as a consequence of the loss of earlier synthetic forms expressing the perfective (Aorist) and “retrospective” (Perfect) aspect. Early Prākrits (Pāli) preserved their sigmatic Aorists (and the sigmatic Future) until late MIA centuries, while on the Iranian side the loss of the “sigmatic” aorist was accelerated in Middle Persian by the “weakening” of s > h > Ø. (d) The development and the establishment of “ergative alignment” at the end of the MIA period will be presented as a consequence of the above typological changes: the rise of the “absolutive” vs. “oblique” case system; the loss of the finite morphology of the perfective and retrospective aspect; and the recreation of the aspectual contrast of perfectivity by means of quasinominal (participial) forms. (e) Concurrently with the development toward the analyticity in grammatical aspect, we witness the evolution of lexical aspect (Aktionsart) ushering in the florescence of “serial” verbs in New Indo-Aryan.
On the whole, a contingency view of alignment considers the increase in ergativity as a by-product of the restoration of the OIA aspectual triad: Imperfective–Perfective–Perfect (in morphological terms Present–Aorist–Perfect). The NIA Perfective and Perfect are aligned ergatively, while their finite OIA ancestors (Aorist and Perfect) were aligned accusatively. Detailed linguistic analysis of Middle Indo-Aryan texts offers us a unique opportunity for a deeper comprehension of the formative period of the NIA state of affairs.
Aidan Pine and Mark Turin
The world is home to an extraordinary level of linguistic diversity, with roughly 7,000 languages currently spoken and signed. Yet this diversity is highly unstable and is being rapidly eroded through a series of complex and interrelated processes that result in or lead to language loss. The combination of monolingualism and networks of global trade languages that are increasingly technologized have led to over half of the world’s population speaking one of only 13 languages. Such linguistic homogenization leaves in its wake a linguistic landscape that is increasingly endangered.
A wide range of factors contribute to language loss and attrition. While some—such as natural disasters—are unique to particular language communities and specific geographical regions, many have similar origins and are common across endangered language communities around the globe. The harmful legacy of colonization and the enduring impact of disenfranchising policies relating to Indigenous and minority languages are at the heart of language attrition from New Zealand to Hawai’i, and from Canada to Nepal.
Language loss does not occur in isolation, nor is it inevitable or in any way “natural.” The process also has wide-ranging social and economic repercussions for the language communities in question. Language is so heavily intertwined with cultural knowledge and political identity that speech forms often serve as meaningful indicators of a community’s vitality and social well-being. More than ever before, there are vigorous and collaborative efforts underway to reverse the trend of language loss and to reclaim and revitalize endangered languages. Such approaches vary significantly, from making use of digital technologies in order to engage individual and younger learners to community-oriented language nests and immersion programs. Drawing on diverse techniques and communities, the question of measuring the success of language revitalization programs has driven research forward in the areas of statistical assessments of linguistic diversity, endangerment, and vulnerability. Current efforts are re-evaluating the established triad of documentation-conservation-revitalization in favor of more unified, holistic, and community-led approaches.
Victor A. Friedman
The Balkan languages were the first group of languages whose similarities were explained in modern linguistic terms as a result of language contact rather than as a result of descent from a common ancestor. Nikolai Trubetzkoy coined the term Sprachbund ‘linguistic league’ (as opposed to Sprachfamilie ‘language family’) to describe this relationship. Balkan linguistics, as both a subset of and precursor to contact linguistics, is, at its base, an historical linguistic discipline. It seeks to explain similarities among the relevant languages as the result of diffusion rather than of either transmission or of putative universal, typological properties of human language (which latter assumes parallel developments whose causation is ahistorical, i.e., unconnected with either contact or ancestry). The relevant languages are, with the exception of Turkic, all part of the Indo-European language family, but they belong to five distinct groups that are known to have been separated for a significant length of time (presumably millennia). Moreover, for four out of five Indo-European groups as well as for Turkic, there exists documentation that goes back more than a millennium, and in some cases several millennia. The Balkan languages are thus the oldest example of a well-documented and still living Sprachbund.
The primary questions that Balkan linguistics seeks to answer are these: What are the results of language contact in the Balkan languages, and how did they come about? The Balkan languages are traditionally defined as Albanian, Modern Greek, Balkan Romance (Romanian, Aromanian, and Meglenoromanian), and Balkan Slavic (Bulgarian, Macedonian, and the southernmost dialects of the former Serbo-Croatian). In recent decades, it has been recognized that the relevant dialects of Romani, Judezmo, and Turkish and Gagauz also participate in at least some of the convergent processes that are taken as definitive of the Balkan linguistic league. While the language family is defined by regular sound correspondences, which in turn help define shared morphology and a core lexicon, the Balkan linguistic league is defined principally by shared morphosyntactic developments and a shared lexicon of borrowings often called “cultural.” In the Balkan linguistic league, phonological developments are sometimes shared among different languages at the dialectal level, but there are no such features that characterize the Balkan languages as a group. Just as in the language family not every diagnostic item is represented in every branch, so, too, in the Balkan linguistic league not every feature is equally represented in all languages and dialects.
Among the most characteristic morphosyntactic features are the following: (1) replacement of infinitives by analytic subjunctives, (2) the use of a particle derived from etymological ‘want’ to mark the future, (3) replacement of synthetic gradation of adjectives with analytic constructions, (4) replacement of conditionals by anterior futures, (5) resumptive clitic pronouns for certain direct and indirect objects, (6) various simplifications in the declensional system, (7) postposed definite articles (for Balkan Slavic, Balkan Romance, and Albanian), (8) grammaticalized evidentials (Balkan Slavic, Albanian, Turkic, and to some extent Balkan Romance and Romani). While some of these convergences began in the ancient or medieval periods, the Balkan linguistic league took its definitive modern shape during the centuries of the Ottoman Empire (14th to early 20th centuries).
Cynthia L. Allen
Middle English is the name given to the English of the period from approximately 1100 to approximately 1450. This period is marked by substantial developments in all areas of English grammar. It is also the period of English when different dialects are the most fully attested in the texts. At the beginning of the Middle English period, the sociolinguistic status of English was low due to the Norman Invasion, and although religious texts of Old English composition continued to be copied and updated, few original compositions are extant. By the end of the period, English had regained its status as the language of government, law, and literature generally.
Although some notable changes to the phonemic inventory of consonants date from the Middle English period, the most dramatic phonological developments of the period involve vowels. The reduction of the vowels of unstressed syllables, one of the changes that marks the beginning of the Middle English period, is a phonological change with substantial morphological effects, as it substantially reduced the number of distinctive inflectional forms. Constituent order replaced case marking as the primary means of signaling grammatical relations. By the end of the Middle English period, subject-verb-object order had become established as the norm.
The lexicon of English was transformed in this period by an enormous influx of French words. The role of derivational morphology declined as its functions were to some extent replaced by the adoption of French words. Most Scandinavian loans in English first appear in the texts of this period. The Scandinavian loans are typically everyday words, while the words adopted from French are more often in areas of government, law, and higher culture, reflecting the nature of the contact between English speakers and the speakers of these languages.
The density of the Scandinavian population in the northern part of England is generally held to be responsible for the earlier appearance of changes in the north than in the south. The replacement of the third person plural personal pronoun hie by the Scandinavian they is an example of a development which is apparent only in the north early in Middle English but became general in English by the end of this period.
An important phonological development of later Middle English is the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift, which affected long vowels and involved successive changes and was implemented differently in different dialects, the north-south divide being the most evident.
Early Middle English is a language that cannot be understood by Modern English readers without special study, while the language of the late Middle English period, especially that coming from the London area, can be understood with the heavy use of explanatory notes.
George van Driem
Several language families and a few language isolates are represented in the Himalayas, the world’s greatest massif, running a length of over 3,600 km. The most well-represented language family in this region happens to be the Trans-Himalayan language family, whose very centre of gravity and phylogenetic diversity is situated within the Eastern Himalaya. This most populous language family on our planet in terms of numbers of speakers used to be known as Tibeto-Burman but, in some circles, the family formerly also went by the names “Indo-Chinese” or “Sino-Tibetan”, the latter two labels actually designating empirically unsupported and now obsolete models of language relationship. The study of Trans-Himalayan historical grammar began with Brian Houghton Hodgson in the 1830s, who during this time served at Kathmandu as the British Resident to the Kingdom of Nepal. Periodically, minor studies devoted attention to several of the more salient morphosyntactic phenomena of Trans-Himalayan historical grammar, but Stuart Wolfenden contributed the first major monograph to the subject in the 1920s. Finally, the historical morphosyntax of the Trans-Himalayan language family came to be the focus of numerous linguistic studies from the 1970s onward, and since that time our understanding of the historical grammar of the language family has changed drastically.
As ever more languages out of the hundreds of previously undocumented Trans-Himalayan tongues came to be described and analysed in great detail, it came to be understood that the flamboyant verbal agreement morphology observed in languages such as the Kiranti languages of eastern Nepal and the rGyalrongic languages of southwestern China were neither grammatically innovative nor represented typological flukes, but instead represented the most grammatically conservative languages within the entire language family. Subsequently, cognate inflectional systems or vestiges of cognate conjugational morphology were discovered in most other branches of the language family as well. The geographical centre, as well as the centre of phylogenetic diversity of the Trans-Himalayan language family, was identified as the highland arc of the Eastern Himalaya. Sinitic languages, although representing by far the most populous single branch of the Trans-Himalayan family, were now understood as constituting just one out of many subgroups, not more divergent from other branches than any one of the four dozen other subgroups making up the language family. The various types of epistemic marking systems observed sporadically throughout the region were shown to be secondary innovations, reflecting a great variety of semantically distinct language-specific grammatical categories. Particularly, languages showing the typology of the Loloish or Sinitic type were shown to be innovative in their grammar, having lost much of the original Trans-Himalayan morphosyntax.
Jack B. Martin
The Muskogean languages are a family of languages indigenous to the southeastern United States. Members of the family include Chickasaw, Choctaw, Alabama, Koasati, Apalachee, Hitchiti-Mikasuki, and Muskogee (Creek). The trade language Mobilian Jargon is based on Muskogean vocabulary and grammar. The Muskogean languages all have SOV word order. Noun phrases are marked for subject or non-subject case. Alienable and inalienable possession is marked on possessed nouns. Agreement on verbs for subjects and objects is sensitive to agency. The languages have grammatical tone (used to indicate verbal aspect) and switch reference. Several of the languages have measured tense systems (indicating several degrees of distance in the past).
The Northeast Asia is one of the unique points on the globe where there are many language isolates and portmanteau families. From a conservative point of view, the Japanese language is a member of such a portmanteau family that has recently and increasingly been called Japonic in the Western literature. While Japanese is unquestionably a member of this Japonic language family, which consists of two Japanese languages (Japanese itself and the moribund Hachijō language) and four or five relatively closely related Ryūkyūan languages (Amami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and possibly Yonaguni), attempts have also been made to establish a genetic relationship between Japanese and various other language families. Most of these attempts have been amateurish, a major exception being the Koreo-Japonic hypothesis, which still remains unproven as well. It is also quite likely that the Japonic language family (or, more precisely, Insular Japonic) is the only linguistic grouping whose genetic relationship can be established beyond any doubt. A genetic relationship is also likely to exist between Japonic and a number of fragmentarily attested languages that once flourished in the south and center of the Korean Peninsula, but that died out no later than 9th century A.D. The paucity of material available does not allow one to establish solid predictive-productive regular correspondences in many cases, but intuitively the genetic relationship seems to be a matter of fact. Anything beyond intuition, however, lies in the realm of conjecture and speculation. The alleged Koreo-Japonic relationship is best explained by a centuries-long contact relationship rather than by common origin, given such factors as the virtual absence of any kind of shared paradigmatic morphology, as well as by multiple problems in establishing the real (and not imaginable or made-to-fit) regular correspondences. The Japanese-“Altaic” hypothesis is even more speculative and far-fetched. Consequently, the conclusion is that the Japanese language or the Japonic language family has no demonstrable relationship with any other language family or language isolate on the planet.
Anthony P. Grant
The Penutian language family, Penutian phylum, or better still, Penutian hypothesis is one of the largest genealogical linguistic groupings to have been proposed for western North America. It involves 16 families or isolates. Only a few of these families are demonstrably relatable to one another according to current knowledge and diachronic techniques. Sometimes Penutian is split by observers into groups of languages assumed to be interrelated, and this is done without assumptions that the groups themselves are interrelated.
This article focuses on the Canadian and US languages in “Sapir’s Penutian,” the most commonly accepted version; the most southerly family within Penutian is thus held as Yokutsan of California’s Sierra Nevada. It discusses the subclassification of the so-called Penutian languages into families and smaller units; aspects of their phonology, morphosyntax, and contact histories; and issues in their revitalization and the potential reconstruction of Proto-Penutian.