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Allan R. Bomhard: Nostratic linguistics is in full agreement with standard, recognized methodologies

This interview (2019 11 10-23) was one of those for which, it seems, I waited for all my conscious life. Some twenty five years ago I read about hypothesis of Nostratic macrofamily of languages (further - Nostratic hypothesis) for the first time. I remember this happened in one of great Vilnius' libraries where I spent a lot of time studying languages, reading various available dictionaries and grammars. There were plenty of them, in spite that the internet was only soon to come, and most of the grammars available, were written by Soviet/Russian scholars in Russian. Then, I had a dream to meet someone who is alive and knows about Nostratic hypothesis more than books. The dream had come true. Talking to Professor Allan R. Bomhard, who is investigating Nostratic hypothesis for about 50 years, is a tough thing: you have to know a lot to ask, it seems, simple things. God sees, I tried. Neither I am a harsh proponent of Nostratic hypothesis, nor I am a skeptic. But, after reading several books by A. R. Bomhard and his colleagues, I would rather say: this should no longer be called "pseudoscience" or "controversial".

Mindaugas Peleckis
2019 m. Lapkričio 23 d., 11:25
Skaityta: 260 k.
Allan R. Bomhard
Allan R. Bomhard

What is and what is not Nostratic hypothesis?

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (, Nostratic hypothesis is "proposed, but still controversial, language family of northern Eurasia. The term Nostratic was proposed in 1903 by the Danish linguist Holger Pedersen to encompass Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Afro-Asiatic, and possibly other language families under one broad category. Modern research on the Nostratic hypothesis began with the work of the Russian Vladislav M. Illich-Svitych, who made a detailed case in the mid-1960s for the relatedness of the four above-named groups, together with Kartvelian and Dravidian. He also offered a detailed but still incomplete reconstruction of Proto-Nostratic.

Important contributions to this theory were also made by the Russian-born Israeli linguist Aron Dolgopolsky.

A quite different reconstruction of many of the same languages was proposed by the American Allan Bomhard. After Illich-Svitych’s premature death in 1966, his incomplete work was published with a number of problems still unsolved, and Bomhard’s work raised additional unresolved issues. These are among the main reasons why Nostratic has not been well received thus far. More recently, rather than accept or reject the theory in toto, some researchers have focused on ways to correct its doubtful parts and build on the more promising aspects, e.g., revising parts of the proposed Nostratic sound system, adding to the lexical evidence for Nostratic, and resolving conflicts between Nostratic and existing work on the individual language families. This newer work, while also still controversial, is believed by many linguists to lend greater credibility to the Nostratic theory. Illich-Svitych’s work was based on a number of major advances achieved by the 1960s in the understanding of the prehistory of the various language families involved, so that he was comparing the reconstructed proto-forms of each branch of Nostratic rather than the more divergent later attested forms. He proposed systematic phonological correspondences among the various languages, accounting for these and hundreds of other forms; for example, Proto-Indo-European *t, *d, *dh correspond to Proto-Kartvelian *t’, *t, *d, respectively. (An asterisk [*] indicates an unattested, reconstructed form.) In addition, Illich-Svitych proceeded by comparing all six protolanguages at once rather than two at a time, since parallels found across all or most of the language families being compared have a greater likelihood of being cognate (and thus representing a common genetic origin) than forms shared by only two or three of the families.

Holger Pedersen

Vladislav M. Illich-Svitych (Владисла́в Ма́ркович И́ллич-Сви́тыч)

Aharon Dolgopolsky (אהרון דולגופולסקי‎, Арон Борисович Долгопольский)

One of the most difficult problems in language comparison is to distinguish systematically between those words likely to be derived from a common protolanguage and the many words that are shared as a result of borrowing (and hence are not evidence of the languages themselves being related). Forms such as those listed above, including personal pronouns, some body parts, and natural phenomena, are known to be particularly resistant to borrowing, so parallels in these areas offer a strong diagnostic indicator of genetic relatedness.

The Nostratic theory remains highly controversial, in part because much of it was published posthumously, with many problems still unresolved. For a number of years after Illich-Svitych’s death, there was little further research in Nostratic.

But in recent years, interest in the classification of the world’s languages has been reawakened. In the 1990s, new research eliminated or refined many doubtful parts of Illich-Svitych’s work and discovered significant new evidence for the validity of the theory. For example, a number of Nostratic words have been found to be more widely attested (especially in Kartvelian and Afro-Asiatic) than was suspected. One interesting new etymology would offer an explanation for the hitherto troublesome connection between the Indo-European prototypes of the English words five, finger, and fist, all of which appear to come from a newly reconstructed Nostratic word, *p’ayngV (with V representing a vowel whose exact features cannot be determined), denoting the hand, or perhaps a way of holding the hand with the fingers bent (as for counting), based on a comparison of Indo-European, Uralic, and Altaic forms.

The study of Nostratic is still in its early stages and, even if its basic validity is accepted, many issues of reconstruction remain problematic. In addition, the inclusion in Nostratic of some of the six families, notably Afro-Asiatic and Dravidian, has been questioned, while at the same time some further language families are good candidates for inclusion (especially Yukaghir, Eskimo-Aleut, and Chukchi-Kamchatkan [Luorawetlan]).

The Nostratic theory is among the most promising of the many currently controversial theories of linguistic classification. It remains the best-argued of all the solutions hitherto presented for the affiliations of the languages of northern Eurasia, a problem that goes back to the German Franz Bopp and the Dane Rasmus Rask, two of the founders of Indo-European studies."

Wikipedia adds ( The hypothetical ancestral language of the Nostratic family is called Proto-Nostratic. Proto-Nostratic would have been spoken between 15,000 and 12,000 BCE, in the Epipaleolithic period, close to the end of the last glacial period. The Nostratic hypothesis originates with Holger Pedersen in the early 20th century. The name "Nostratic" is due to Pedersen (1903), derived from the Latin nostrates "fellow countrymen". The hypothesis was significantly expanded in the 1960s by Soviet linguists, notably Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky, termed the "Moscovite school" by Allan Bomhard (2008, 2011, and 2014), and it has received renewed attention in English-speaking academia since the 1990s.

The hypothesis is controversial and has varying degrees of acceptance amongst linguists worldwide with most rejecting Nostratic and other macrofamily hypotheses. In Russia, it is endorsed by a minority of linguists, such as Vladimir Dybo, but is not a generally accepted hypothesis. Allan Bomhard is a supporter, Lyle Campbell a critic.

Sergei Starostin was a Russian historical linguist and philologist, perhaps best known for his reconstructions of hypothetical proto-languages, including his work on the controversial Altaic theory, the formulation of the Dené–Caucasian hypothesis, and the proposal of a Borean language of still earlier date. He was also the author of a widely respected reconstruction of Old Chinese. In 1986, Starostin and Igor M. Diakonoff suggested that the Hurro-Urartian languages belong to the Northeast Caucasian language family. Starostin was also instrumental in the reconstruction of Proto-Kiranti, Proto-Tibeto-Burman, Proto-Yeniseian, Proto-North-Caucasian, and Proto-Altaic. He developed the theory, originated by Abu al-Ghazi Bahadur Khan in the 17th century, but really revived by Gustaf John Ramstedt in the early 20th century, that Japanese is an Altaic language. The Dené–Caucasian hypothesis proposes that Northwest Caucasian, Northeast Caucasian, Yeniseian, Sino-Tibetan, and Na-Dené form a single, higher-order language family. According to Starostin, the Dené–Caucasian and Austric macrofamilies, together with the Nostratic macrofamily (as envisaged by Vladislav Illich-Svitych, with some modifications), can further be linked at an earlier stage, which Starostin called the Borean (i.e. 'Northern') languages.

Since 1985, Starostin had been developing STARLING ( a linguist's workplace software. He was assisted in his work by Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Some linguists take an agnostic view.

Eurasiatic, a similar grouping, was proposed by Joseph Greenberg (2000) and endorsed by Merritt Ruhlen: it is taken as a subfamily of Nostratic by Bomhard (2008).

Vladimir Dybo (Владимир Антонович Дыбо)

Lyle Campbell

Joseph Harold Greenberg

Sergei Starostin (Серге́й Анато́льевич Ста́ростин)

The chief events in Nostratic studies in 2008 were the posting online of the latest version of Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary and the publication of Allan Bomhard's comprehensive treatment of the subject, Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic, in 2 volumes. 2008 also saw the opening of a website, Nostratica, devoted to providing important texts in Nostratic studies online, which is now offline. Also significant was Bomhard's partly critical review of Dolgopolsky's dictionary, in which he argued that only those Nostratic etymologies that are strongest should be included, in contrast to Dolgopolsky's more expansive approach, which includes many etymologies that are possible but not secure.

In early 2014, Allan Bomhard published his latest monograph on Nostratic, A Comprehensive Introduction to Nostratic Comparative Linguistics ("

Reading the newest investigations by A. R. Bomhard, which are available gratis in, we can see that these are very serious ones. Wikipedia's biography of A. R. Bomhard is a short one, but, despite of constatly repeated words "controversial hypotheses", it gives us a bibliography of books (full bibliography of the Professor with all his articles is possible to find here: which shows that we have to deal with a professional linguist, not a self-made guru:

    Toward Proto-Nostratic: a new approach to the comparison of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Afroasiatic. — Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984. — 356 pp. — ISBN 90-272-3519-8.
    The Nostratic macrofamily: a study in distant linguistic relationship. — Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994. — 932 pp. — ISBN 3-11-013900-6. (with John C. Kerns)
    Indo-European and the Nostratic hypothesis. — Charleston, S.C., 1996. — 265 pp. — ISBN 0-9652294-0-8.
    Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic: comparative phonology, morphology, and vocabulary. — Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008. — 2 volumes; Vol. 1: xxiv, 878 pp.; Vol. 2: xviii, 942 pp. — ISBN 9789004168534.
    The Indo-European elements in Hurrian. — La Garenne Colombes / Charleston, 2010 / Published on-line. — 166 pp. (with Arnaud Fournet)
    The Nostratic hypothesis in 2011: trends and issues. — Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2011. — 341 pp. — ISBN 9780984538317.
    An introductory grammar of the Pāḷi language / prepared by Allan R. Bomhard. — Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Buddhist Fellowship, 2012. — 131 pp.
    Afrasian comparative phonology and vocabulary. — Charleston, S.C., 2014 / Published on-line under a Creative Commons
License. — 385 pp.
    A comprehensive introduction to Nostratic comparative linguistics (3rd edition). — Florence, S.C., 2018 / Published on-line under a Creative Commons
License. — 4 volumes; Vol. 1: 725 pp.; Volumes 2 and 3: 1191 pp.; Volume 4: 745 pp.

It's for you to decide whether to support Nostratic hypothesis, or not. As a journalist and a wannabe-linguist I just tried to ask Professor Allan R. Bomhard about the main things that I found very interesting and needful for answers.

Interview with Professor Allan R. Bomhard

The concept of Nostratic macrofamily of languages is often criticized as non-scientific. Could You please explain the very essence of it and why do You consider it is scientific. Personally, I would think that there was one language on Earth some thousands or even millions years ago, as this sounds logical. But, what proof do we have to say that, firstly, Nostratic theory is scientific, secondly, we can trace to the very beginning of many languages which at first seem not related, like Indo-European and, say, Altaic, Uralic, Sumerian etc.

Most of the criticism of Nostratic is aimed at the work of Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky. I have posted reviews of my work on, and you can download those reviews. When someone reviews my work, I usually do not respond. I assess the review. If there are legitimate criticisms, I simply make the changes and give credit where credit is due. If, on the other hand, the criticisms are not valid, I usually (though not always) ignore them. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to engage with people and deal directly with critical comments, especially when they appear to be based upon either misunderstandings or misrepresentations.

Nostratic linguistics is in full agreement with standard, recognized methodologies such as the Comparative Method and Internal Reconstruction. How could it be otherwise?  It could not -- these are the methodologies that have served us well for the past 200 years, and they are virtually the only tools available to us.  In the first chapter of my Nostratic book (available for free download from, as well as here and there throughout my book, I discuss the relevant methodologies. I do not deviate in any way from those methodologies -- it would be reckless and foolish to do so.  On my site, I have posted the main reviews by others of my work.  Some praise my work, while others do not.  All of these reviews must be read with care, however.  I have a rule, every time someone makes a criticism, I evaluate that criticism.  I do not like to argue or get into meaningless debates or discussions.  If the criticism is valid, I simply make the required changes and give credit where credit is due.  If the criticism is valid, I ignore it and move on.  As a result, my own work has matured and improved considerably over the past 50 years that I have investigated the subject.

When and how did You get acknowledged about Nostratics and why did You decide to investigate it?

This is a difficult question to answer.  So far as I can remember, I became interested in Nostratics when I learned of the work of Illich-Svitych.  However, I did not actually see his work until many years later, inasmuch as his work was difficult to obtain.  I was given copies of his Nostratic dictionary by Aharon Dolgopolsky on 22 August 1983, who visited my home when I was living in Boston.  By then, I had already developed (and published) an alternative theory.

You've published many books about Nostratic languages, also You edit magazines Diachronica and Mother Tongue. What discoveries that You made You could call the most important?

The two most important aspects of my work are (1) the large comparative vocabulary of the Nostratic languages and (2) gathering, analyzing, and presenting comparative Nostatic morphology.

Are there many linguists who support Nostratic theory? Is it gaining more support these days?

When I first began investigating Nostratic, the theory had few supporters.  Since then, support has grown.  Had there not been this growing support and had my work not been of high quality, I would not have been published.  And, not only published, but published by some of the biggest names in linguistics publishers -- John Benjamins, de Gruyter, and Brill.  ALL of my books and articles have gone through rigorous peer reviews.  Moreover, others have organized several international conferences on Nostratic.  I typically get invited to these conferences.

I guess, You are a polyglot. What languages do You understand?

English is my native language.  When I was in the U.S. Army (1964-1966), I was a French and Spanish linguist.  I also have a reading knowledge of German.  I speak enough Mandarin Chinese to get by fairly well (though I cannot read or write), and I am now learning Hindi.

Allan R. Bomhard in the U.S. Army (this and other photos of A. R. Bomhard are from his personal archive)

As I've read You are also a great specialist of Pali and Buddhism. Are You also a practicing Buddhist?

Yes, I have been a Theravadin Buddhist for a little over 36 years.

Talking about my mother tongue, Lithuanian, there have been a lot of mysteries around it: as You know, it is one of the oldest IE languages, nevertheless, it became a written one only 500 years ago. Could that have been that it also was written in Runes, as many languages around it (Scandinavian languages, Hungarian, Turkic all had Runes)?

To my knowledge, Lithuanian was not written in runes.

Skeptics tend to see Nostratic theory almost as a conspiracy theory. What would You say to them concerning it?

I have never heard of Nostratic studies being referred to as a "conspiracy theory".  In terms of what is being studied, the term "conspiracy theory" does not even make sense.

Allan R. Bomhard, Great Wall of China, 1985

What would You recommend to read thoroughly to a person who is interested in Nostratic theory?

Of course, I would recommend my big book (2,801 pages) to anyone who is seriously interested in Nostratic theory.

What are the latest discoveries concerning relations of languages within Nostratic macrofamily?

I think the latest discovery in Nostratics is the recognition that several of the branches (such as Uralic and Indo-European) were changed by prehistoric language contact.

Concerning languages that are not within Nostratic macrofamily, what other language families there could be?

That is an open question.  No doubt, there were other Nostratic daughter languages which have disappeared without a trace.  The task ahead, I think, may be to try to ascertain even deeper connections.

What newest inventions in science could help us to know more about languages?

By inventions, I assume you mean new "methodologies".  The only one that I can think of is Bayesian Computational Phylogenetics, which is showing promise, though the methodology still needs improvement.

Thank You, Professor, for Your interesting thoughts.

KelHä wetei aKun kähla
kaλai palhA-kA na wetä
śa da a-kA eja älä
ja-ko pele tuba wete

Language is a ford through the river of time,
It leads us to the dwelling of those gone ahead
But he does not arrive there
Who is afraid of deep water.