Are Japanese and Korean Altaic?

Rifleman45 asks:

What is the basis for Japanese and Korean for being part of the Altaic Language family? And as of this time, is the evidence for the existence of an Altaic language family stronger than the evidence against it?

It’s pretty clear if you ask me, but there is better evidence for:


As Narrow Altaic.

Adding in:


Makes it Macro-Altaic, which is a a much harder sell.

But even Narrow Altaic is a hard sell these days. For some reason, they have a hard time getting regular sound correspondences going even with Narrow Altaic. I am not sure why that is.

If you go to the Wikipedia article on Altaic, there should be good working links to a lot of the better known papers on the topic. Basically this is a war being waged by two small camps, and everyone else is sitting on the sidelines. The folks on the sidelines have all sided with the “no such thing as Altaic” crowd because that is the default in Linguistics. Personally, I think that the Pro-Altaic folks have already proven their case, and they already have extensive etymologies and I believe even regular sound correspondences going on.

The people supporting it are mostly out of Russia. George Starostin is doing this work after his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Starostin has an extensive Altaic etymological dictionary up on the Internet, and you can go look it over. There appear to be some regular sound correspondences going on, and I was surprised to see Japonic and Korean listed in many of the etymologies. Not only that, but shockingly there appeared to be some regular sound correspondences going on between Japonic/Korean and the rest of Altaic. A woman named Anna Dybo, also out of Russia works with Starostin.

On the other side is a group centered around a fellow named Alexander Vovin out of Paris, who is a bit of a fanatic and is a case of convert fanaticism. He supported Altaic for a long time, but then he turned on it 10 years ago and decided it was all nonsense and became an anti-Altaicist. Vovin is for the most part and expert on the Japanese language. It makes sense that he would turn on Altaic as the evidence for Altaic is pretty funky. Vovin is a very smart guy. A lot of the fighting revolves around Vovin, etc. and Starostin, etc. arguing back and forth at each other. It gets a bit heated at times for academic discourse.

A man named Stefan Georg out of Germany works closely with Vovin. Georg is even more hardline than Vovin.

One of the problems is numerals – the numbers. The Altaic numbers (1-10) are a complete mess, and unfortunately that is not what we would expect from a language family of that depth – the numerals should line up a lot better. Personally, I do not think that that kills the case. Afro-Asiatic numerals are a disaster too, but everyone agrees that Afro-Asiatic is a real family. One suggestion is that the numerals are actually cognate but they underwent some extremely strange sound changes that made them look a lot different.

All theories must be judged against their competitors. Obviously there is a lot of shared vocabulary between Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic. This is either genetic material derived from some common source, or it is a case of mass borrowing. The truth is that the world has never before seen borrowing on such a scale as has been postulated by the anti-Altaicists. Another theory is convergence or Sprachbund, which is more or less the same as mass borrowing.

Some of the anti-Altaic people argue that there is no such thing as Altaic, but that some combination of two of its three subfamilies are related:


For instance, these folks might say that there is no such thing as Altaic, but Tungusic and Mongolic are related, or Mongolic and Turkic are related, or Turkic and Tungusic are related, etc. Get the picture?

I definitely believe in Altaic, and Broad Altaic, not just Narrow Altaic. I have been studying this issue for a very long time. However, if you say that Altaic exists in Linguistic circles, you will get widely bashed for “supporting an unproven theory” (sort of like Bigfooters who believe Rick Dyer has a Bigfoot body). The standard line in Linguistics is that Altaic is not proven, and therefore there is no such thing as Altaic, and that is that. It’s true that it’s not proven, but the splitters have set up such wild demands for proof that it may never be proven even by the most scientific of lumpers. And anyway, the splitters’ alternative theory is probably impossible.

At any rate, it is a fun controversy at least for me, but if Linguistics is not your bag, you may well be bored out of your head. And all of the folks listed above – Starostin, Dybo, Georg, and Vovin are incredibly smart people. Georg and Vovin are acquaintances, but I do not know Starostin or Dybo very well.

Here are some links to get you started:

Starostin review
of an anti-Altaicist book on Korean-Japonic by Vovin.

Starostin destroys Vovin once and for all (article titled The End of the Vovin Controversy).

Anna Dybo, Starostin, and Oleg Mudrak: Altaic Etymological Dictionary.

Georg Review of the book above.

Dybo on Systematic Reconstruction in Altaic.

Why Korean is not Tungusic by Vovin.

Vovin on why 1st and 2nd person pronouns do not prove Altaic (the 1st and 2nd person pronouns line up superbly, and these forms are almost never borrowed).

Vovin on why Japonic is related to neither Korean nor Altaic.

Vovin on The End of the Altaic controversy, Parts One, Two and Three (the pieces do not end the controversy).

Stefan Georg – Telling General Linguistics about Altaic.

Georg review of Martine Robeets’ book on Japanese relations to Korean and Altaic.

Georg on The Poverty of Altaicism.

Georg on Japanese, Altaic and the Limits of Language Classification.

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Filed under Altaic, Japanese, Japonic, Korean language, Language Families, Linguistics

9 responses to “Are Japanese and Korean Altaic?

  1. what language is the mv? korean like gangnam style? chinese or japanese? also why did u post it? isnt gangnam style most famous korean?

    • guerrer0

      The languages are indicated as abbreviated in the last part of the title sentence( JPN,KRN, CHNN) you could tell is not the same hearing it, I have a little knowlodge of all 3, at first sight I wonder If I would be confused like you, I already knew they were 3 different languages because in google news Philippines I read about the song realeased in the 3 languages and then I went to the Youtube channel to see them, I visit the google news entertainment of many countries to see what other countries pop culture is most influential, in my research I indeed saw that all the world talk about American pop culture, they are still very dominant, but some countries also talk something about British pop culture ( Harry Potter) and also some talk about Korean! so those 3 countries are among the most popular

  2. guerrer0

    Because the mv’s languages are related to the topic of the post, you could compare how the 2 sound to see if there are similarities, also the song was an interesting project because the same song was released in the 3 most important Asian languages, plus is a quite good song. This is the Chinese Mandarin version. I think I like it the most.

  3. Xibalba


    Its not true that the ‘splitters’ have set up such high demands that nothing can ever get done. The most recent language family to get widespread support, the Dene-Yeniseian language family, has been proven, with vocabulary, regular sound correspondences, and all, and this proof has gotten widespread support, despite the putative language family being more than 10, 000 years old, which shows just how powerful the comparative method is. Furthermore, Starostin’s work is absolutely chock-full of problems, as he has a shallow knowledge of every single one of the languages he is working with, and so many of the ‘cognates’ in the Altaic dictionary don’t even exist (!) , while many others are full of basic problems, e.g. trying to analyse what is obviously a recent compound as a ‘proto-altaic’ cognate.

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