COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the family tree of languages, no one is quite sure whether Nostratic is a real branch or a just a shadow that has fooled some linguistic researchers. Nostratic is the name given to a language hypothesized to be the common ancestor of a number of families of languages, including Indo-European (which includes English), Uralic, and Afroasiatic.
But the question of whether Nostratic really existed has created a storm of controversy in the linguistic field. Now two scholars from Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin have put together an edited book that includes some of the strongest arguments for and against Nostratic.
Nostratic: Sifting the Evidence (John Benjamins, 1998) is unlikely to put the controversy to rest. But it may be the most comprehensive attempt yet to provide all sides of the issue, said Brian Joseph, a professor of linguistics at Ohio State who co-edited the volume with Joseph Salmons, a professor of German at the University of Wisconsin.
As a result of their work editing the book, both Joseph and Salmons said they are skeptical of the Nostratic hypothesis, but do not dismiss it out of hand. "In my mind, the evidence for Nostratic is not strong enough to make it likely, but there is enough merit to make the hypothesis plausible," said Joseph. "It's in an in-between area, and I think that's one reason the hypothesis has been ripe for controversy."
The book resulted from a conference Joseph and Salmons helped to organize on Nostratic in 1993 at Eastern Michigan University. The editors invited many of the conference participants to submit chapters for the book, and also sought submissions from other Nostratic researchers who didn't take part in the proceedings. The result is a book that includes both strong defenses of the Nostratic hypothesis and equally passionate rejections -- as well as researchers who conclude there is not enough evidence either way.
Joseph said the attention given to Nostratic has resulted largely from interest in the search for the root of all languages. There are approximately 8,000 languages in the world, and linguists have been able to group them into some 250 or so well-accepted language families. "There's a real desire to see how much further we can go into the past," he said. "Humans are fascinated by origins and Nostratic is an attempt to find the origins of some of today's language families."
Nostratic believers argue that they have found similarities between some language families, such as Indo-European and Afroasiatic, that suggest they originate from a common language. For example, a Indo-European word that means "to fly or flee" is "per" while the Afroasiatic word is "par."
Skeptics are not so sure that these similarities indicate a true relationship.
"A lot of the controversy really boils down to methodology, and whether the methods that Nostratic supporters have used really prove a relationship between these language families," Joseph said.
Linguists have used a number of different tools to investigate Nostratic, including complex statistical formulas to determine whether similarities between language families are the result of true relationships or just chance.
But there are still arguments about whether the methods are being used correctly, Joseph said, or even whether the methodological tools and present data are adequate to pass judgment on Nostratic.
"It would be great if we could prove that Nostratic is true or not," Joseph said. "But we may have to admit there are some things we can't know given our present tools and data."