All In The Language Family: The Altaic Languages

Are the Altaic languages all part of one big language family? It’s complicated.
The Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey, representing the Altaic languages

Like regular families, language families can be messy, confusing and convoluted. While some families are pretty neat and organized — the Romance and Germanic families are both well-researched and understood, for example — others are on much shakier grounding. The Altaic languages — a collection of about 65 languages spoken throughout parts of Asia and Eastern Europe — are, to be sure, part of a messy grouping. In fact, they don’t really fit into the linguistic category of a “language family.” Still, looking at them as a group can tell you a lot about their historic evolution.

What Are The Altaic Languages?

It’s generally agreed upon today that the Altaic languages don’t meet the definition of a language family. To be a “family,” all of the languages have to come from a single ancestor. Think of it as a strict royal bloodline where the only way to be an official member is to be a direct descendant of a single proto-language. While at one point Altaic languages were considered a family descended from a single proto-Altaic language, that is no longer the case. But we’ll get more into that later.

What are the Altaic languages if not a family? One possible term for it is a “sprachbund,” which is a German word meaning “language association.” The Altaic languages have also been called a language crossroads, area of linguistic convergence, diffusion area and, perhaps most simply, linguistic area. A sprachbund is a group of languages that share certain features. The main difference between a family and a sprachbund is whether or not the similarities come from a common ancestor. If a language family is a royal bloodline, a sprachbund is an extended family with intermarriage and lots of cousins.

Which Languages Are Altaic?

The Altaic languages comprise three language families: Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic. Therefore, we’ll break the languages down by family. It should be noted that even within more established language families, there can be debate over which languages are real members and which languages are even “languages,” and various sources disagree on these categorizations. We used Ethnologue for the following classifications and speaker populations.

Of the Altaic languages, Turkic is the largest language family, and it has languages spoken across Asia and into eastern Europe. Turkish is perhaps the best-known Turkic language, but there are 41 in total: Urum, Chuvash, Ainu, Chagatai, Ili Turki, Uyghur, Northern Uzbek, Southern Uzbek, West Yugur, Northern Altai, Southern Altai, Dolgan, Karagas, Khakas, Shor, Tuvan, Yakut, Crimean Tartar, Kashkay, Khalaj, Salar, North Azerbaijani, South Azerbaijani, Salchuq, Balkan Gagauz Turkish, Gagauz, Khorasani Turkish, Turkish, Turkmen, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Nogai, Karachay-Balkar, Karaim, Krimchak, Kumyk, Bashkort, Chulyum, Tatar and Siberian Tatar.

Next up is the Mongolic language family, which comprises languages in and around Mongolia. The primary language of this group is Mongolian, and there are 13 in total: Daur, Bonan, Dongxiang, Kangjia, Tu, East Yugur, China Buriat, Russia Buriat, Mongolia Buriat, Halh Mongolian, Peripheral Mongolian, Kalmyk-Oirat and Mogholi.

Lastly, there are the Tungusic languages, which are spoken in Manchuria and Siberia. The 11 Tungusic languages are Even, Evenki, Oroqen, Negidal, Nanai, Orok, Ulch, Oroch, Udihe, Manchu and Xibe.

There are two other language families that some linguists argue should be lumped in with the Altaic languages: Japonic and Koreanic. These are both very small language families; the only living Koreanic language is Korean, and the only Japonic languages are Japanese and Ryukyuan languages. While linguists acknowledge there are some similarities between these languages and other Altaic ones, its inclusion is tenuous at best, so we won’t cover them here.

How Many People Speak An Altaic Language?

It’s difficult to get accurate numbers for how many people speak an Altaic language. There is no perfect database for how many people speak which languages, and the raw information that does exist doesn’t show how much overlap there is between one language and another. A very rough estimate of the total number of speakers is just under 200 million, but it’s better to look at each language family individually to get an idea of how many speakers there are.

The Turkic languages have the most speakers of the three language families, and the number by language varies wildly. Some, like Salchuq and Chagatai, are likely entirely dead. The largest Turkic languages are Turkish (over 85 million speakers), Northern Uzbek (almost 27 million), Southern Azerbaijani (almost 14 million), Kazakh (about 13 million) and Uyghur (over 10 million). In total, there are 190 million speakers of Turkic languages, which accounts for about 95 percent of the total for all Altaic languages.

There are about 7.3 million speakers of Mongolic languages. The majority of them speak either Peripheral Mongolian (3.4 million) or Halh Mongolian (2.7 million) — often these two are combined and just called Mongolian, but Ethnologue separates them — along with a decent number of speakers of Kalmyk-Oirat (431,000), Russian Buriat (219,000) and Dongxiang (200,000).

Lastly, the Tungusic languages have only about 54,000 speakers. The largest is Xibe with 30,000, followed by Evenki with 15,800 and Even with 5,600. Several of the languages in this family are endangered, having only a few dozen speakers left.

How Similar Are The Altaic Languages?

No one doubts that there are similarities among the Altaic languages, but determining exactly how similar they are is a challenge unto itself. As mentioned earlier, there’s no perfect way to determine whether languages are related. Establishing language lineage is not a straightforward process.

The person credited with first linking the Altaic languages is Philip Johan von Strahlenberg. He was an 18th century geographer whose most notable accomplishment was mapping Russia. In addition to learning about the physical landscape of Russia and Asia, he interacted with the local peoples, and he published a book that linked the Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic languages. While Strahlenberg did find similarities between these languages, he didn’t go so far as to say they were all one family.

In the following centuries, some linguists lumped the languages into a single Altaic language family. Matthias Castrén, a Finnish linguist, claimed they were part of an even larger language family: the Ural-Altaic language family. This theory combined the Altaic languages with Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages. This theory is entirely discredited today, though.

In the 21st century, certain linguists still say the Altaic languages comprise one family. The argument is based on similarities across the three language families. One feature that brings together the Altaic languages is that they are all agglutinative languages, meaning that words are formed by stringing together “morphemes” (the smallest unit of language that has meaning). Most languages have some form of agglutination — English “agglutinates” suffixes like -less and -ful to make new words — but an agglutinative language does this to a much greater extent. Many Altaic languages also have vowel harmony, meaning vowels only appear in certain groupings.

The other major part of the argument for a single language family is more straightforward: shared lexicon. When languages have similar words that describe the same concept, it can be a sign that they’re related in some way. For example, the word “house” in German is Haus, in Dutch is huis, in Afrikaans is huis and in Frisian is hûs, which provides evidence that these languages are all part of one (Germanic) language family. Russian linguist Sergei Starostin, one of the leading proponents of the Altaic language family theory, took a list of common terms — words like “I,” “you,” “what,” “moon” and “dog” — and found that there are lexicon similarities between Altaic languages about 20 percent of the time.

The Altaic theory’s detractors argue that this evidence is not enough to prove anything. While it’s not insignificant that all the Altaic languages are agglutinative and have vowel harmony, it isn’t necessarily evidence that they’re historically related. Plus, a certain amount of shared lexicon doesn’t always show two languages are part of the same language family. It’s estimated that over 25 percent of English vocabulary comes from French, but that’s because of historical intermingling, not because they’re in the same family.

The only way to know where the commonalities come from is to look at the past. Asya Pereltsvaig, another modern-day linguist who has spent time studying these languages, found by looking through older texts that Turkic and Mongolic languages were less similar to each other centuries ago than they are now. This is the exact opposite of what you’d expect if the two languages had a common ancestor, which implies their commonalities arose out of language contact.

All that said, whether the Altaic languages are a legitimate family is still not a settled matter. We present here the most recent consensus by linguists of the Altaic languages, but years from now there could be more research done that changes everyone’s minds. The Altaic language grouping is a useful way to look at how these three language families interact, but for now it seems it’s more a convenient shorthand than a logical assortment of languages.

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