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Altaic Language Family 

Altaic

The Altaic language family derives its name from the Altai Mountain region where it is believed that these languages may have originated. It includes 66 languages spoken by about 250 million people (Ethnologue). Speakers of Altaic languages live over a vast territory that stretches from northeastern Siberia to the Persian Gulf, and from the Baltic Sea to China, with most of them clustering around Central Asia. There is little written data on the historical development of Altaic languages. For instance, the earliest Mongolian written records date back to the 13th century AD, while those for Manchu go back only as far as the 17th century AD.

There are two schools of thought about the Altaic language family.

  • The Altaic school of thought argues that the MongolianTungusic and Turkic groups, together with Korean and Japanese, have descended from a common ancestral *Proto-Altaic language. Proponents of this theory point to typological similarities among these languages.
  • The Anti-Altaic school contends that typological similarities among the member languages are due not to their common ancestry, but rather to intensive borrowing and long contacts among them. It must be noted that the status of Korean and Japanese as members of the Altaic language family is particularly debatable.

 

Altaic languages are usually divided into three major groups. The major languages of each group are listed below.

(1) Mongolian
China
Mongolia, China, Russia
Mongolia
Mongolia, China
Russia
(2) Tungusic
Inner Mongolia, China, Russia, Mongolia
China
Russia
Russia
Oroqen China
Russia
China, Russia
(3) Turkic
Russia
China
Uzbekistan
Afghanistan
Russia
Yakut Russia
Iran
Azerbaijan
Iran
Uzbekistan
Turkey
Turkey
Moldova
Iran
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan
Kazakhstan
Kyrgyzstan
Russia
Russia
Russia
Russia
Divergent
Japanese Japan
Korean Korean Peninsula

 

Click here to see interactive maps of Altaic languages.

Status

Nine Altaic languages, including Korean and Japanese, have official status in their respective countries.

Japanese Japan
Korean Korean Peninsula
Mongolian Halh Mongolia
Uzbek Uzbekistan
Azerbaijani Azerbaijan
Turkmen Turkmenistan
Kazakh Kazakhstan
Kyrgyz Kyrgyzstan
Turkish Turkey

 

All languages in the Tungusic group and some languages in the Mongolian and Turkic groups are endangered or facing extinction.

Dialects

The languages in this family, particularly those spoken in more than one country, have a number of dialects, some of them not mutually comprehensible. Note that the dialects listed below may be further subdivided into smaller regional varieties within one country.

 

Structure

Sound system

The sound systems of the Altaic languages are relatively simple.

  • Syllables in Altaic languages usually consist of Consonant + Vowel.
  • They all share one common feature, namely vowel harmony, a type of phonological process that imposes constraints on which vowels may be found near each other in a word. There are two kinds of vowels. Front vowels, which are produced at the front of the mouth, e.g., /i/, /e/, and back vowels which are produced at the back of the mouth, e.g., /a/, /u/, /o/. For instance, native Turkic words can contain only all front or all back vowels, and all suffixes and affixes must conform to the vowel of the syllable preceding them in the word. A vowel at the beginning of a word can trigger assimilation of the rest of the vowels in that word, e.g., in Turkish, ev– ‘house’ + -ler ‘plural’ is evler ‘houses’; çocuk– ‘child’ + –ler ‘plural’ is çocuklar ‘children’. In the first example, all vowels in evler are front vowels. In the second example, all vowels in çocuklar are back vowels.
  • For the most part, Altaic languages allow few consonant clusters. For instance, Turkish allows a few consonant clusters in word-final position but no clusters are allowed in initial position. Exceptions occur in words borrowed from other languages.
Grammar

Altaic languages are agglutinative. An agglutinative language is one in which each affix typically represents one grammatical function, e.g.,’past tense,’ ‘plural,’ or ‘masculine.’ These affixes do not become fused with each other and do not change their form, like they do in European languages (e.g., in English, for example, –s in sings represents 2nd person + singular). They are simply added to each other in a string. This may occasionally result in long words that correspond to phrases and even whole sentences in European languages, e.g., Mongolian eke-yin-iyen ‘of one’s own mother’ (Britannica).

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns
Altaic nouns are highly inflected,

  • Quantifying words do not agree with nouns in number, and adjectives do not agree with nouns in gender, case, or number.
  • Nouns are optionally marked for number, e.g., in Turkish, atlar ‘horses’ (at ‘horse’ + lar ‘plural).
  • Numerals and other quantifying words are used with singular nouns.
  • Gender is mostly not marked grammatically.
  • Nouns are marked for case. The number of cases varies from language to language. For instance, Turkish has six cases, Manchu has five, while Evenki has as many as fourteen. In addition, Mongolian languages allow double cases, e.g.,eke-yin-dür ‘to/at mother’s,’ literally mother + genitive + dative + locative’ (Britannica).
  • Adjectives are not inflected and do not agree with the nouns they modify.
  • There is a distinction between inclusive we (including the hearer) and exclusive we (excluding the hearer).
  • Demonstratives are used in place of third person pronouns, i.e., ‘these’ or ‘those’ instead of ‘they.’
  • There is no definite article but the possessive form of a pronoun may be used in its place.

Verbs
Altaic verbs are extremely complex.

  • Verbs in most Altaic languages are not marked for agreement in person and number with their subjects.
  • Turkic languages have several verb stems, such as present, future, aorist, conditional, subjunctive, and two past tenses. Tense and mood are marked by affixes that are added to these stems.
  • Turkic languages have two past tenses. The evidential past tense is used when the event is common knowledge or when the speaker has witnessed an event. By contrast, the inferential past is used when the event has been reported to or is inferred by the speaker.
  • There are many auxiliary verbs which can be added to each other in a string. Auxiliary verbs follow the main verb.
  • Adverbs follow the verb.
Word order

Word order in Altaic languages is typically Subject-Object-VerbNumerals and quantifying words follow the noun modified, whereas adjectives precede it. Auxiliary verbs typically follow the main verb. Questions are formed by using a question particle or a question word without modifying word order. For pragmatic purposes, constituents of a sentence that carry old information precede constituents with new information.

Vocabulary


The three branches of the Altaic family have relatively few cognate words, i.e., words of common origin. Their core vocabulary is essentially native, even though they have borrowed extensively from other languages. For the most part, their vocabulary has been influenced by the neighboring languages and by the languages of the colonial powers that dominated them. For instance, Central Asian and Siberian languages spoken on territories formerly dominated by Imperial Russia and later by the USSR, such as Yakut and Even, have many borrowings from Russian, while Turkic languages spoken on the territory of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Kazakh, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz, have a large number of Arabic and Persian loanwords. Languages in contact with Chinese, such as Manchu, adopted many Chinese administrative, political, cultural, and scientific terms. Altaic languages have also borrowed from each other, e.g., Manchu from Mongolian.

In general, the core vocabulary of Altaic languages tends to be more similar across languages that belong to one branch, than across the entire Altaic family, as you can see from the names of the numerals 1-10.

 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Mongolian
Khalh
nig
xoyor
gurab
döröb
tab
dzorghaa
doloo
naym
yös
arab
Buryat
negen
xoyor
gurban
dyrben
taban
zurgaan
doloon
nayman
yuhen
arban
Tungusic
Even
ömen
jöör
ilen
dighen
tunngen
ñungen
naden
janqen
uyun
m’an
Xibe
ymkyn
ju
ilan
duyin
sunja
nüngun
nadyn
jaqun
uyin
juan
Turkic
Turkish
bir
iki
üç
dört
beş
ulti
yedi
sekiz
doduz
on
Kazakh
bir
yeki
ush
tort
bes
alti
zhetti
segiz
toghiz
on
Divergent
Korean
hana
dul
saet
naet
daseot
yeoseot
ilgop
yeodeol
ahop
yeol
Japanese
hitotsu
futatsu
mittsu
yottsu
itsutsu
muttsu
nanatsu
yattsu
kokonotsu
too

Writing

Altaic languages are written in a variety of scripts, some of them in more than one. Many remain largely unwritten to this day. Below is a summary of the writing systems and a list of Altaic languages that use them.

Latin
Cyrillic
Arabic
Mongolian
Manchu script
Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin
Latin and Cyrillic
Hangul Korean
Characters and syllabaries Japanese

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Altaic languages?
AzerbaijaniMongolian,Turkish and Uzbek are Category III languages in terms of difficulty for speakers of English. Mongolian is more difficult than the other languages in this category. No data is available for the rest of the Altaic languages.

10 Responses to Altaic Language Family

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    Extremely well written; love your website.
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  4. J A F Hopkins (PhD, linguistics, Tôkyô)

    Interesting that you put a Japanese castle at the top of your website! On difficulty for English speakers, let me add that Japanese is very simple, both in terms of phonology and grammar. 6 months’ fairly intensive study are all that is necessary for fluency in everyday language. The writing system, however, is another story. However, Japanese can in fact be written quite successfully in the alphabet, as far as the language of the daily newspapers, popular novels, and regular e-mails is concerned.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      What kind of actual data are you relying on in claiming that “Japanese is very simple, both in terms of phonology and grammar”? Please let us know if this is just your opinion or fact-based? If it is an opinion, you should say so.

       
  5. Abdulkadir Askar

    Hello,

    I coincidentally found your site and it looks wonderful with full of interesting knowledge. If you need any help with anything related to Turkish language, you can always contact me.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you. You can go over our current page and make editorial and other suggestions and/or additions.We would welcome any help.

       
  6. Catherina March Georgiana

    What a big mistake to put georgian language in Altaic languages group and then never mention it in whole article. Rather don’t put it in any groups of u don’t know. Just because it’s a neighbor to Azerbaijan, Turkey or Russia georgian language ( Kartvelian language family) has nothing in common with above mentioned languages. Will be glad if u will make some research and clarify this info please. Respects. Catherina March Georgiana

     
    • Irene Thompson

      There is no mention of Georgian in the Altaic Language Family. You can, however, check out our Georgian page where it clearly states that it belongs to the Kartvelian language group.See aboutworldlanguages/com.georgian.

       

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