Historical Linguistics and Alphabets

This very interesting Washington Post story discusses some linguists’ controversial claim that they have identified a 15,000-year-old “proto-Eurasiatic” language superfamily (thanks to Paul Milligan for the pointer); I can’t speak to the merits of the claim, of course, but here’s one passage from the newspaper article that struck me (italics added):

In addition to Indo-European, the language families [within proto-Eurasiatic] included Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchi-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages) and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).

They make up a diverse group. Some don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the untrained ear. Their speakers live thousands of miles apart. In short, they seem unlikely candidates to share cognates.

Well, if they don’t use the Roman alphabet, imagine how different from Indo-European languages — or from each other — they must be!

UPDATE: Prof. Sally Thomason (Language Log) has a substantive response to the “proto-Eurasiatic” theory.

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