Dené-Caucasian languages

Dené-Caucasian languages

Infobox Language family
region=scattered in Eurasia; northern North America
child1=Caucasian (controversial)
child4=Na-Dené (incl. Haida – controversial)
child7=Almosan (sometimes included)
child8=Sumerian (sometimes included)

The Dené-Caucasian (also called Sino-Caucasian or Dené-Sino-Caucasian) language family is a proposed language superfamily containing at least the Basque, Caucasian, Yeniseian, Burushaski, Sino-Tibetan, and Na-Dené languages. Its existence is controversial; however, not much discussion between supporters and skeptics has happened yet, because most of the research on the hypothesis only started in the 1990s.

History of the hypothesis

The first glimpses appeared in the works of Robert Bleichsteiner, Karl Bouda, E. J. Furnée, René Lafon, Edward Sapir, Robert Shafer, Morris Swadesh, Olivier Guy Tailleur, Vladimir N. Toporov, Alfredo Trombetti and other scholars of the early 20th century. Morris Swadesh proposed the grouping under the name "Vasco-Dene" (for Basque and Navajo, the geographic extremes) in 1959, but Mary Haas attributes the Vasco-Dene hypothesis to Edward Sapir.

In the 1980s, it was Sergei Starostin who, using strict linguistic methods (proposing regular phonological correspondences, reconstructions, glottochronology, etc.) first put the idea that the Caucasian, Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan languages are related on firmer ground. [See Starostin 1984, Starostin 1991]

In 1991, Sergei L. Nikolayev added the Na-Dené languages. [See Nikola(y)ev 1991] Their inclusion has been complicated by the ongoing dispute as to whether Haida belongs to the family or not. The proponents of the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis incline towards supporters of Haida's membership in Na-Dené, such as Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow [See Pinnow 1985a, Pinnow 1985b, Pinnow 1986a, Pinnow 1986b, Pinnow 1988, Pinnow 1990a, Pinnow 1990b] or, most recently, John Enrico. [See Enrico 2004] Interestingly enough, Edward J. Vajda, who otherwise rejects the Dené-Caucasian hypothesis, has suggested that Tlingit, Eyak, and the Athabaskan languages are closely related to the Yeniseian languages, but he denies any genetic relationship of the former three to Haida. [See Vajda 2000a, Vajda 2000b, Vajda 2000c, Vajda 2000d, Vajda 2000e, Vajda 2001a, Vajda 2001b, Vajda 2002, Vajda 2004] Vajda's ideas on the relationship of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit and Yeniseian have found support independently in works of various authors, including Heinrich K. Werner [See Werner 2004] or Merritt Ruhlen. [See Ruhlen 1998] DNA analyses have not shown any special connection between the modern Ket population and the modern speakers of the Na-Dené languages, [See Rubicz et al. 2002] , but their relevance for stating a linguistic affinity is rather limited, as there is no direct correlation between genes and languages.

In 1996, John D. Bengtson added the Vasconic languages (including Basque, its extinct relative or ancestor Aquitanian, and maybe also Iberian), and one year later he proposed the inclusion of Burushaski. The same year, in his article for Mother Tongue, Bengtson concluded Sumerian might have been a remnant of a distinct subgroup of the Dené-Caucasian languages. [See Bengtson 1996, Bengtson 1997, Bengtson 1997] It should be noted, however, that two other papers on the genetic affinity of Sumerian appeared in the same volume: while Allan R. Bomhard considered Sumerian to be a sister of Nostratic, Igor M. Diakonoff compared it to the Munda languages. [See Bomhard 1997, Diakonoff 1997] In 1998, Vitaliy V. Shevoroshkin rejected the Amerind affinity of the Almosan (Algonquian-Wakashan) languages, suggesting instead their relationship with Dené-Caucasian. A few years later, he offered a number of lexical and phonological correspondences between the North Caucasian, the Salishan, and the Wakashan languages, concluding that the latter two might represent a distinct branch of the former and that they must have separated after the break of the Avar-Andi-Tsezian unity in the period about the 2nd-3rd millennia BC.See Shevoroshkin 1998, Shevoroshkin 2003, and Shevoroshkin 2004]


In 2008, the first element of this hypothesis to be well received by specialists of the languages in question was announced. [] Edward Vajda demonstrated numerous parallels between proto-Yeniseian and proto-Na-Dene verbal morphology, based on recent reconstructions of proto-Yeniseian by himself and of proto-Na-Dene announced at the same conference by Jeff Leer of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Vajda also rejects the notion that Haida is a member of the Na-Dene family.

Evidence for Dené-Caucasian

The existence of Dené-Caucasian is supported by:
* many words that correspond between some or all of the families referred to Dené-Caucasian;
* regular sound correspondences between these words;
* the presence in the shared vocabulary of words that are rarely borrowed or otherwise replaced, such as personal pronouns (see below);
* elements of grammar, such as verb prefixes and their positions (see below), noun class prefixes (see below) and case suffixes that are shared between at least some of the component families;
* a reconstruction of the sound system, the basic parts of the grammar, and much of the vocabulary of the superfamily's most recent common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Dené-Caucasian language.

Potential problems include:
* the somewhat heavy reliance on the reconstruction of Proto-(North-)Caucasian by Starostin and Nikolayev. [See Starostin 1994] This reconstruction contains much uncertainty due to the extreme complexity of the sound systems of the Caucasian languages; the sound correspondences between these languages are difficult to trace.
* the use of the reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Tibetan by Peiros and Starostin, [See Peiros & Starostin 1996] parts of which have been criticized on various grounds, [See Handel 1998] although Starostin himself has proposed a few revisions. [See Starostin 1994] All reconstructions of Proto-Sino-Tibetan suffer from the facts that many languages of the huge Sino-Tibetan family are underresearched and that the shape of the Sino-Tibetan tree is poorly known and partly controversial;
* the use of Starostin's reconstruction of Proto-YeniseianFact|date=February 2008 rather than the competing one by VajdaFact|date=February 2008 or that by Werner [See Werner 2004] ;
* the use of Bengtson's reconstruction of Proto-/Pre-Basque rather than Trask's;
* the slow progress in the reconstruction of Proto-Na-Dene, so that Haida and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit have so far mostly been considered separately.

hared pronominal morphemes

Several roots can be reconstructed for the 1st and 2nd person singular pronouns. This may indicate that there were pronouns with irregular declension (suppletion) in Proto-Dené-Caucasian, like "I" vs "me" throughout Indo-European. In the presumed daughter languages some of the roots are often affixes (such as verb prefixes or possessive noun prefixes) instead of independent pronouns.

The Algic, [See Ruhlen 2001] Salishan, Wakashan, and Sumerian comparisons should be regarded as especially tentative because regular sound correspondences between these families and the more often accepted Dené-Caucasian families have not yet been reconstructed. To a lesser degree this also holds for the Na-Dené comparisons where only a few sound correspondences have yet been published.

/V/ means that the vowel in this position has not been successfully reconstructed, /K/ could have been "any velar or uvular plosive?", /S/ could have been "any sibilant or assibilate?".

All except Algic, Salishan and Wakashan are taken from Bengtson (2008).See Bengtson 2008]

Bengtson (2008) suggests correspondences between some of these prefixes (sometimes suffixes) and between their positions.

For example, a preverb /t/- occurs in Yeniseian languages and appears in position –3 (Ket) or –4 (Kott) in the verb template (where the verb stem is in position 0, suffix positions get positive numbers, and prefix positions negative numbers). In Burushaski, a fossilized preverb /d/- appears in position –3. In Basque, an element "d-" appears in position –3 of auxiliary verbs in the present tense unless a first or second person absolutive agreement marker occupies that position instead. The Na-Dené languages have a "classifier" /d/- (Haida, Tlingit, Eyak) or */də/- (Proto-Athabaskan) that is either fossilized or has a vaguely transitive function (reflexive in Tlingit) and appears in position –3 in Haida. In Sino-Tibetan, Classical Tibetan has a "directive" prefix /d/-, and Nung has a causative prefix /d/- (positions do not apply because Sino-Tibetan verbs have at most two prefixes depending on the language).

A past tense marker /n/ is found in Basque, Caucasian, Burushaski, Yeniseian, and Na-Dené (Haida, Tlingit and Athabaskan); in all of these except Yeniseian, it is a suffix or circumfix, which is noteworthy in these (with the exception of East Caucasian and Haida) suffix-poor language families.

Another prefix /b/ is found in some Sino-Tibetan languages; in Classical Tibetan it marks the past tense and precedes other prefixes (if any). It may correspond to the Tlingit perfect prefix "wu-/woo-" /wʊ, wu/, which occurs in position –2, and the fossilized Haida "wu-/w-" /wu, w/ which occurs in verbs with "resultative/perfect" meanings.

"There are also some commonalities in the sequential ordering of verbal affixes: typically the transitive/causative "*s-" is directly before the verb stem (–1), a pronominal agent or patient in the next position (–2). If both subject/agent and object/patient are referenced in the same verbal chain, the object typically precedes the subject (OSV or OVS [where V is the verb stem] : cf. Basque, West Caucasian [see table above] , Burushaski, Yeniseian, Na-Dene, Sumerian templates […] . [Footnote: "Alone in N [a] -D [ene] Eyak allows for subjects and objects in a suffix position."] In Yeniseian (position –5) [...] and Na-Dene (position –5) [...] noun stems or (secondary) verb stems can be incorporated into the verbal chain." (Bengtson 2008:108)

The mentioned "transitive/causative" */s/- is found in Haida, Tlingit, Sino-Tibetan, Burushaski, possibly Yeniseian ("an 'empty' morpheme occupying the position of object in intransitive verbs with an animate subject"; Bengtson 2008:107) and maybe in Basque. A causative suffix *-/s/ is found in many Nostratic languages, too, but its occurrence as a prefix and its position in the prefix chain may nevertheless be innovations of Dené-Caucasian.

Family tree proposals

tarostin's view

The Dené-Caucasian family tree and approximate divergence dates (estimated by modified glottochronology) proposed by S. A. Starostin and his colleagues from the Tower of Babel project: [See The preliminary phylogenetic tree according to the Tower of Babel Project]

:1. Dené-Caucasian languages [8,700BCE] ::1.1. Na-Dené languages (Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit)::1.2. Sino-Vasconic languages [7,900BCE] :::1.2.1. Vasconic (see below):::1.2.2. Sino-Caucasian languages [6,200BCE] :::: Burushaski:::: Caucaso-Sino-Yenisseian [5,900BCE] ::::: North Caucasian languages::::: Sino-Yeniseian [5,100BCE] :::::: Yeniseian languages:::::: Sino-Tibetan languages

Bengtson's view

John D. Bengtson groups Basque, Caucasian and Burushaski together in a Macro-Caucasian (earlier Vasco-Caucasian) family (see the section on Macro-Caucasian below). [See Bengtson 1997a] According to him, it is as yet premature to propose other nodes or subgroupings, but he notes that Sumerian seems to share the same number of isoglosses with the (geographically) western branches as with the eastern ones: [See Bengtson 1997b]

:1. Dené-Caucasian::1.1. The Macro-Caucasian family:::1.1.1. Basque:::1.1.2. North Caucasian:::1.1.3. Burushaski::1.2............................................ (Sumerian?)::1.3. Sino-Tibetan::1.4. Yeniseian::1.5. Na-Dené

Proposed subbranches


John Bengtson (2008) thinks that, within Dené-Caucasian, the Caucasian languages form a branch together with Basque and Burushaski, based on many shared word roots as well as shared grammar such as:

* the Caucasian plural/collective ending *IPA|-/rV/ of nouns, which is preserved in many modern Caucasian languages, as well as sometimes fossilized in singular nouns with collective meaning; many Basque nouns with a collective meaning end in IPA|-/rː/, and one of the many Burushaski plural endings for class I and II (masculine and feminine) nouns is IPA|-/aro/. However, such a plural ending is also widespread in the Nostratic languages.
* the consonant -/t/, which is inserted between the components of some Basque compound nouns and can be compared to the East Caucasian element *-/du/ which is inserted between the noun stem and the endings of cases other than the ergative.
* the presence of compound case endings (agglutinated from the suffixes of two different cases) in all three branches.
* the case endings themselves:

As Bengtson (2008) himself notes, an ergative ending -/s/, which may be compared to the ending that has instrumental function in Basque, occurs in some Sino-Tibetan languages, and the Yeniseian language Ket has an instrumental/comitative in IPA|-/s/, -/as/, -/aɕ/. This suffix may therefore be shared among a larger group, possibly Dené-Caucasian as a whole. On the other hand, comparison of noun morphology among Dené-Caucasian families other than Basque, Burushaski and Caucasian is usually not possible: little morphology can so far be reconstructed for Proto-Sino-Tibetan at all; "Yeniseian has case marking, but it seems to have little in common with the western DC families" except for the abovementioned suffix (Bengtson 2008:footnote 182, emphasis added); and Na-Dené languages usually express case relations as prefixes on the polysynthetic verb. It can therefore not be excluded that some or all of the noun morphology presented here was present in Proto-Dené-Caucasian and lost in Sino-Tibetan, Yeniseian and Na-Dené; in this case it cannot be considered evidence for the Macro-Caucasian hypothesis. That said, as mentioned above, Basque, Caucasian and Burushaski also share words that do not occur in other families.

A genitive suffix -/nV/ is also widespread among Nostratic languages.


George van Driem has proposed that the Yeniseian languages are the closest known relatives of Burushaski, based on less than a handful of lookalike elements in grammar and lexicon. He does not seem to have considered the other language families that are hypothesized to belong to Dené-Caucasian, [See Van Driem 2001] so whether the Karasuk hypothesis is really incompatible with the Macro-Caucasian hypothesis remains to be investigated.



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*VOVIN, Alexander, 2002. "Building a 'bum-pa for Sino-Caucasian." Journal of Chinese Linguistics 30.1: 154–171.
*VOVIN, Alexander, 1997. "The Comparative Method and Ventures Beyond Sino-Tibetan." Journal of Chinese Linguistics 25.2: 308–336.

*WERNER, Heinrich K. (2004): Zur jenissejisch-indianischen Urverwandtschaft [On the Yeniseian- [American] Indian primordial relationship] . Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz

External links

* [ Dene-Caucasian ethno-linguistic map]
* [ The Tower of Babel] (Site in English and Russian including [ proposed family tree] & [ Word-final Resonants in Sino-Caucasian] )
* [ A Final (?) Response to the Basque Debate in Mother Tongue 1]

ee also

*Language families and languages
*Borean languagesThe individual Dené-Caucasian phyla::*Basque:*Burushaski:*Caucasian::*West Caucasian::*East Caucasian:*Sino-Tibetan:*Yeniseian:*Na-Dené

See also

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