Dené–Caucasian languages

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(probably spurious)
scattered in Eurasia and North America
Linguistic classificationHypothetical language family

Dené–Caucasian is a proposed language family that includes widely-separated language groups spoken in the Northern Hemisphere: Sino-Tibetan languages, Yeniseian languages, Burushaski and North Caucasian languages in Asia; Na-Dené languages in North America; and the Vasconic languages from Europe (including Basque).

A narrower connection specifically between North American Na-Dené and Siberian Yeniseian (the Dené–Yeniseian languages hypothesis) was proposed by Edward Vajda in 2008, and has met with some acceptance within the community of professional linguists. The validity of the rest of the family, however, is viewed as doubtful or rejected by nearly all historical linguists.[1][2][3][4][5]

History of the hypothesis[edit]

Classifications similar to Dené–Caucasian were put forward in the 20th century by Alfredo Trombetti, Edward Sapir, Robert Bleichsteiner, Karl Bouda, E. J. Furnée, René Lafon, Robert Shafer, Olivier Guy Tailleur, Morris Swadesh, Vladimir N. Toporov, and other scholars.

Morris Swadesh included all of the members of Dené–Caucasian in a family that he called "Basque-Dennean" (when writing in English, 2006/1971: 223) or "vascodene" (when writing in Spanish, 1959: 114). It was named for Basque and Navajo, the languages at its geographic extremes. According to Swadesh (1959: 114), it included "Basque, the Caucasian languages, Ural-Altaic, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, Chinese, Austronesian, Japanese, Chukchi (Siberia), Eskimo-Aleut, Wakash, and Na-Dene", and possibly "Sumerian".[6] Swadesh's Basque-Dennean thus differed from Dené–Caucasian in including (1) Uralic, Altaic, Japanese, Chukotian, and Eskimo-Aleut (languages which are classed as Eurasiatic by the followers of Sergei Starostin and those of Joseph Greenberg), (2) Dravidian, which is classed as Nostratic by Starostin's school, and (3) Austronesian (which according to Starostin is indeed related to Dené–Caucasian, but only at the next stage up, which he termed Dené–Daic, and only via Austric (see Starostin's Borean macrofamily)). Swadesh's colleague Mary Haas[citation needed] attributes the origin of the Basque-Dennean hypothesis to Edward Sapir.

In the 1980s, Sergei Starostin, using strict linguistic methods (proposing regular phonological correspondences, reconstructions, glottochronology, etc.), became the first[citation needed] to put the idea that the Caucasian, Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan languages are related on firmer ground.[7][citation needed] In 1991, Sergei L. Nikolaev added the Na-Dené languages to Starostin's classification.[8]

The inclusion of the Na-Dené languages has been somewhat complicated by the ongoing dispute over whether Haida belongs to the family. The proponents of the Dené–Caucasian hypothesis incline towards supporters of Haida's membership in Na-Dené, such as Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow[9] or, most recently, John Enrico.[10] 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.[11] 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[12] or Merritt Ruhlen.[13] DNA analyses have not shown any special connection between the modern Ket population and the modern speakers of the Na-Dené languages.[14]

In 1996, John D. Bengtson added the Vasconic languages (including Basque, its extinct relative or ancestor Aquitanian, and possibly Iberian), and in 1997 he proposed the inclusion of Burushaski. The same year, in his article for Mother Tongue, Bengtson concluded that Sumerian might have been a remnant of a distinct subgroup of the Dené–Caucasian languages.[15] However, 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.[16]

In 1998, Vitaly V. Shevoroshkin rejected the Amerind affinity of the Almosan (Algonquian-Wakashan) languages, suggesting instead that they had a relationship with Dené–Caucasian. Several years later, he offered a number of lexical and phonological correspondences between the North Caucasian, Salishan, and Wakashan languages, concluding that Salishan and Wakashan may represent a distinct branch of North Caucasian and that their separation from it must postdate the dissolution of the Northeast Caucasian unity (Avar-Andi-Tsezian), which took place around the 2nd or 3rd millennium BC.[17]

Evidence for Dené–Caucasian[edit]

The existence of Dené–Caucasian is supported by:[citation needed]

  • Many words that correspond between some or all of the families referred to Dené–Caucasian.
  • 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 macrofamily'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.[18] 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,[19] parts of which have been criticized on various grounds,[20] although Starostin himself has proposed a few revisions.[18] 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-Yeniseian[citation needed] rather than the competing one by Vajda[citation needed] or that by Werner.[12]
  • The use of Bengtson's reconstruction of Proto-/Pre-Basque rather than Trask's.
  • The slow progress in the reconstruction of Proto-Na-Dené, so that Haida and Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit have so far mostly been considered separately.

Shared pronominal morphemes[edit]

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,[21] Salishan, Wakashan,[17] 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).[22]

Meaning Proto-Dené–Caucasian Proto-
Na-Dené Proto-
1st sg. /ŋV/ /ni/, /n/- /nɨ/[1] /a/- /ŋaː/- /ŋ/ /nV/ /nˀV/- /ŋa(e)/[2]
/d͡zV/ -/da/-, -/t/ /zoː/ /d͡ʑa/ /ʔad͡z/ [3] -/t͡s(a)/-, -/s/[4]
/KV/ /gu/[5], /g/- (pl.) /ka/- [6]
2nd sg. /KwV/ /hi/, /h/-, -/ga/-[7] /ʁwVː/ /gu/-~/go/- /Kwa/- /(V)k(V)/ [8] /ʔaxʷ/ /k̕V/-
/u̯Vn/ -/na/-[9] /u̯oː-n/ /u-n/ /na-(ŋ)/ /ʔaw/ [10] /wV/
3rd sg. /w/- or /m/- /be-ra/ /mV/ /mu/-[11] /m/- /wV/ [12]
2nd pl. /Su/ /su/, /s/- /ʑwe/ /t͡sa(e)/[13]

Footnotes: 1 On Caucasian evidence alone, this word cannot be reconstructed for Proto-Caucasian or even Proto-East Caucasian; it is only found in Lak and Dargwa (Bengtson 2008:94). 2 The final /e/ found in Sumerian pronouns is the ergative ending. The Emesal dialect has /ma(e)/. 3 Proto-Athabaskan */ʃ/, Haida dii /dìː/. 4 Also in Proto-Southern Wakashan. 5 1st pl.. 6 Tlingit xa /χà/, Eyak /x/-, /xʷ/. 7 Masculine verb prefix. 8 Proto-Athabaskan */χʷ/-, Tlingit ÿi /ɰi/ > yi /ji/ = 2nd pl.; Tlingit i /ʔì/, Eyak /ʔi/ "thou". 9 Feminine verb prefix. 10 Proto-Athabaskan */ŋ̰ən/-, Haida dang /dàŋ/, Tlingit wa.é /waʔɛ́/, where the hypothesis of a connection between the Proto-Athabaskan and Haida forms on the one hand and the rest on the other hand requires ad hoc assumptions of assimilation and dissimilation (Bengtson 2008: 94). 11 Feminine. 12 Proto-Athabaskan */wə/-, Eyak /wa/-, Tlingit /wɛ́/, Haida 'wa /wˀà/. 13 2nd sg.

Shared noun class pre- and infixes[edit]

Noun classification occurs in the North Caucasian languages, Burushaski, Yeniseian, and the Na-Dené languages. In Basque and Sino-Tibetan, only fossilized vestiges of the prefixes remain. One of the prefixes, */s/-, seems to be abundant in Haida, though again fossilized.

The following table with its footnotes, except for Burushaski, is taken from Bengtson (2008).[22]

Proto-Dené–Caucasian Proto-Basque [a] Proto-Caucasian [b] Burushaski [c] Proto-Sino-Tibetan [d] Ket [e]
/u̯/- /o/-, /u/- I /u̯/- /u/- /a/, /o/
/j/ /e/-, /i/- II /j/- /i/- /g/- (?) /i/, /id/
/w/ /be/-, /bi/- III /w/-, /b/- (/m/-) /b/-, /m/- /b/
/r/ IV /r/-, /d/- /r/-, /d/-
/s/ -/s/- (-/s/-) /s/-

Footnotes: a In Basque, the class prefixes became fossilized. b In many Caucasian languages (28), systems of this type more or less persist to this day, especially in the East Caucasian languages, whereas in West Caucasian, only Abkhaz and Abaza preserve a distinction human-nonhuman.[23] The Roman numbers are those conventionally used for the East Caucasian noun classes. The forms in parentheses are very rare. c Burushaski seems to have reversed the first two animate classes,[24] which may have parallels in some East Caucasian languages, namely Rutul, Tsakhur, or Kryz. d As with Basque, the class system was already obsolete by the time the languages were recorded.[25] e Objective verb prefixes; /a/ and /i/ are used in the present tense, /o/ and /id/ in the past.

Verb morphology[edit]

In general, many Dené–Caucasian languages (and Sumerian) have polysynthetic verbs with several prefixes in front of the verb stem, but usually few or no suffixes. (The big exceptions are East Caucasian, where there is usually only one prefix and many suffixes, the similarly suffixing Haida, and Sino-Tibetan, for which little morphology can so far be reconstructed at all; Classical Tibetan with its comparatively rich morphology has at most two prefixes and one suffix. In Burushaski, the number of suffixes can surpass the rather large number of prefixes.)

The following is an example of a Kabardian (West Caucasian) verb from Bengtson (2008:98):[22]

Kabardian orthography уадыхэзгъэхьамэ
IPA /waːdəçɐzʁɐħaːmɐ/
Analysis /w/- -/aː/- -/də/- -/ха/- -/z/- -/ʁɐ/- -/ħ/- -/aː/- -/ma/
Position −6 −5 −4 −3 −2 −1 0 +1 +2
direct object indirect object comitative locative subject causative verb stem tense conditional
in this case: 2nd singular 3rd plural "with" "in" 1st singular "make" "enter" past "if"
Translation if I made you go in together with them

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-Dené, 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[edit]

Starostin's theory[edit]

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:[26]

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

Bengtson's theory[edit]

John D. Bengtson groups Basque, Caucasian and Burushaski together in a Macro-Caucasian (earlier Vasco-Caucasian) family (see the section on Macro-Caucasian below).[27] 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:[28]

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[edit]


John Bengtson (2008)[22] proposes 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 *-/rV/ of nouns, which is preserved in many modern Caucasian languages, as well as sometimes fossilized in singular nouns with collective meaning; one of the many Burushaski plural endings for class I and II (masculine and feminine) nouns is -/aro/.
  • 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:
Likely cognates of case endings
Basque Case Basque Burushaski Caucasian Comments
Absolutive -0 -0 -0 The absolutive form is generally used for the subjects of intransitive verbs and the direct object of transitive verbs. Special ergative forms are used for the subject of transitive verbs.
Ergative -k -k/-ak(1) -k'ə(2) (1) instrumental, occurs only with certain nouns and with verbs meaning "strike" or "shoot"; (2) West Caucasian only: Kabardian ergative, Adyghe instrumental
Dative -i -e(1) *-Hi(2) (1) used as both ergative and genitive, except for feminine nouns which have a different genitive ending; (2) East Caucasian only; manifests as Avar -e (dative), Hunzib -i (dative) etc., shifted to instrumental in Lak, Dargwa, genitive in Khinalug, or ergative in the Tsezian languages, Dargwa and Khinalug; */H/ is any glottal or epiglottal consonant
Instrumental -z /s/ -as/-áas(1) *--(2) (1) cf. parallel infinitive -s in some Lezghian languages; (2) instrumental animate; general attributive, shifted to closely related functions in most modern languages, e.g. ergative animate in Chechen, adjectival and participial attributive suffix in Lak, dative and infinitive in Lezgi, transformative/adverbial case in Abkhaz, etc.
Genitive -en(1)   *-nV(2) (1) possibly also the locative/inessive ending -n; (2) attested as genitive in Lezghi, Chechen (also infinitive, adj. and particip. suff.), possessive in Ubykh etc.; in some languages the function has shifted to ablative (Avar), ergative (Udi, Ubykh)
Allative -ra(1) -r/-ar(2), -al-(3) *-ɫV(4) (1) some northern Basque dialects have the form -rat and/or -la(t); (2) dative/allative; (3) locative; (4) Chechen -l, -lla (translative), Tsez -r (dative, lative), Khinalug -li (general locative) etc.
Comitative -ekin   *KV(1) (1) possible cognates among mutually incompatible suffixes, cf. Avar -gu-n, -gi-n (comitative), Andi -lo-gu, Karata -qi-l, Tindi -ka, Akhwakh -qe-na.

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 -/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 a small number of similarities in grammar and lexicon. The Karasuk theory as proposed by van Driem does not address other language families that are hypothesized to belong to Dené–Caucasian,[29] so whether the Karasuk hypothesis is compatible or not with the Macro-Caucasian hypothesis remains to be investigated.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sanchez-Mazas, Alicia; Blench, Roger; Ross, Malcolm D.; Peiros, Ilia; Lin, Marie (2008-07-25). Past Human Migrations in East Asia: Matching Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. ISBN 9781134149629.
  2. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 286-288
  3. ^ Goddard, Ives (1996). "The Classification of the Native Languages of North America". In Ives Goddard, ed., "Languages". Vol. 17 of William Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. pg. 318
  4. ^ Trask, R. L. (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pg. 85
  5. ^ Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of Languages. New York: Columbia University Press. pg. 434
  6. ^ Swadesh, Mauricio (1987). Tras la huella lingüística de la prehistoria. ISBN 9789683603685.
  7. ^ See Starostin 1984, Starostin 1991
  8. ^ See Nikola(y)ev 1991
  9. ^ See Pinnow 1985a, Pinnow 1985b, Pinnow 1986a, Pinnow 1986b, Pinnow 1988, Pinnow 1990a, Pinnow 1990b
  10. ^ See Enrico 2004
  11. ^ See Vajda 2000a, Vajda 2000b, Vajda 2000c, Vajda 2000d, Vajda 2000e, Vajda 2001a, Vajda 2001b, Vajda 2002, Vajda 2004
  12. ^ a b See Werner 2004
  13. ^ See Ruhlen 1998c
  14. ^ See Rubicz et al. 2002
  15. ^ See Bengtson 1996, Bengtson 1997, Bengtson 1997
  16. ^ See Bomhard 1997, Diakonoff 1997
  17. ^ a b See Shevoroshkin 1998, Shevoroshkin 2003, and Shevoroshkin 2004
  18. ^ a b See Starostin 1994
  19. ^ See Peiros & Starostin 1996
  20. ^ See Handel 1998
  21. ^ See Ruhlen 2001b
  22. ^ a b c d See Bengtson 2008
  23. ^ See Catford 1977, Schulze-Fürhoff 1992, and Schmidt 1994
  24. ^ See Berger 1974 and Berger 1998
  25. ^ See Benedict 1972
  26. ^ See The preliminary phylogenetic tree according to the Tower of Babel Project
  27. ^ See Bengtson 1997a
  28. ^ See Bengtson 1997b
  29. ^ See Van Driem 2001


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External links[edit]