A far-flung Nostratic colony in the Andes

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In "The Inca Connection: A Quechua Word Game", 5/18/2013, Piotr Gąsiorowski compares "a 200-word Swadesh list for Southern Quechua and the Tower of Babel 'Eurasiatic' etymologies", and finds 22 clear matches. He notes that "There are only twenty-two matches because I got bored too soon, but it’s an easy game", and concludes

I think I have already demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Quechua people are a lost Nostratic tribe. Note that the semantic matches are impeccable and the similarity of the words is quite obvious to any open-minded observer. Indeed, the matches are much better than many of those in the LWED. The quality of examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9, in particular, is guaranteed by the fact that they represent statistically certified ultraconserved Eurasiatic vocabulary (Pagel et al. 2013). The famous items ‘mother’, ‘bark’, and ‘worm’ are among them. […]

But there is more to Quechua than just its Eurasiatic affinities. It seems to be particularly close to Proto-Indo-European. Compare the Quechua numerals pichqa ‘5’ and suqta ‘6’ = PIE *penkʷe, *sweḱs, clearly a common Indo-Quechuan innovation not shared with any other Eurasiatic group. I can’t reveal too much at present, but mark my words: you’ll read about it in Nature one day – or Science, perhaps, or PNAS.

Certainly the current reviewing standards at Nature, Science, and PNAS (at least for speech- and language-related papers) will allow and even encourage this future bombshell, if only Piotr can be persuaded to hold his nose and write the paper.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to integrate the Quechua data into the statistical analysis of Pagel et al. 2013. While you're at it, you could incorporate the Quechua/Sinitic correspondences revealed in Mark Rosenfelder's prescient 1996 work "Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home". A quote from that source worth repeating:

When I first posted this stuff to the Net, one gentleman wondered aloud (wondered anet?) if I might have proved that Chinese and Quechua are related. Some days it's not worth getting out of bed.

Similar words with similar meanings do not prove that languages are related. They might point to a relationship– but they might also be due to borrowing ('gung ho' really is from Chinese); they might be due to universal processes like babytalk or onomatopoeia; and above all they may just be chance.

This seems to be hard for some people to accept. Just look at ren and runa, or gaijin and goyim, they seem to think– how could that possibly be due to chance?

These people should be treated with respect. They are the people who made Las Vegas what it is today.

What are the chances of finding maliq'a-style pseudo-cognates? Well, empirically, based on my experiences finding the above Quechua/Chinese list, the answer is "One half." That is, with a little ingenuity, and given languages with reasonably compatible phonologies, you can find a 'cognate' between two unrelated languages about once out of every two words you try.

[h/t to Ben Zimmer and Languagehat. See "Ultraconserved words? Really??", 5/8/2013, and "Scrabble tips for time travelers", 2/26/2009, for background.]


  1. Howard Oakley said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    RMW Dixon, in his extended essay "The Rise and Fall of Languages" cites a paper by Callaghan and Miller (SW J Anthropol 1962; 18:278-285) that demonstrated that English is 'Macro Mixtecan' on the basis of Swadesh lists.
    And in case you tried to miss it, Taraka Rama has just published a rewarming of Swadesh and glottochronology – now 'ASJP' – in PLOS One, at doi:10.1371/

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    I took through a course with, let's say a noted scholar, who argued at length, with "etymologies" based on very… abstract correspondences, that all New World languages were related to Nostratic. He compared Illytch-Svitych's Nostratic reconstructions with "proto-Hokan," "proto-Penutian," etc. Quechua, being proto-Penutian, I think, was right in there. Lots of etyma like *pV-, "breath," which could have just about any word with a labial consonant in it and plausible sounding just-so story semantics as a proposed reflex. Which is to say that, although a post like this sounds like a reductio ad absurdum for large-scale relationship claims, to many people they're not absurdities at all, but profound discoveries. (And, thinking about it, I believe I've heard at least one Quechua-Zuni-Basque-Etruscan-Sumerian comparison floated.)

  3. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    Another essay of Rosenfelder's, How likely are chance resemblances between languages? is also, I think, quite relevant.

    [(myl) Indeed. Or Don Ringe, "On Calculating the Factor of Chance in Language Comparison", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1992.]

  4. Ken Brown said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    Assuming that the first modern humans to leave Africa already had language, Chinese and Quecha must be related genetically. And as the first settlers of America came from north-eastern Asia, they are probably share more ancestry with each other than either does to English.

    But does any serious linguist these days really think we could reconstruct that ancestry by comparing modern vocabulary?

    [(myl) That depends on what you mean by "serious", "linguist", and "these days".]

  5. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Assuming that the first modern humans to leave Africa already had language, Chinese and Quecha must be related genetically.

    This rests on two assumptions which are not quite obvious: (1) that the humans leaving Africa spoke one language (or that their languages were related, or that all but one of the out-of-Africa linguistic lineages became pruned later), and (2) that the family tree model and the notion of "genetic relatedness" defined with its help make sense at a time scale of 60,000 years or so.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

    I'm surprised no one has brought up Kon-Tiki yet! Also, Piotr, given the level of cognates you found, you should be able to derive a glottochronological basis for the date of divergence between Quechua and Eurasiatic, right?

  7. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    No, Rod. First of all, comparing an actual language (Quechua) with a reconstruction (Proto-Eurasiatic) is like comparing apples and oranges. Secondly, dating methods based on rates of decay always have an inherent age limit (when the residue of the decaying signal drops below the level of background noise). Glottochronological dating is made additionally difficult by the fact that different lexical areas have very unequal "rates of decay", unlike radiocarbon, for example.

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

    Sorry, I intended that satirically, in the spirit of taking the absurdity further, not as a serious suggestion. An orthodox glottochronologist, if such persons be, would have no trouble taking a 10% hit rate on the Swadesh list and assigning a divergence date based on that. I thought the patent absurdity of that, as you note, in the language vs. reconstruction case needed no comment.

  9. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    Sorry, Rod, but Poe's Law aplies in this in this area:

    Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing


  10. Rod Johnson said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

    That's funny, I almost posted about Poe's Law myself!

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    Assuming that the first modern humans to leave Africa already had language, Chinese and Quecha must be related genetically.

    Unless human languages were altered by a catastrophic event at a tower in Mesopotamia.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

    The revisionist historian Gavin Menzies (whose book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World was I believe nigh-universally derided by knowledgeable specialists but caught the attention of many non-specialists/suckers) claims to have evidence of Chinese contacts with Peru for centuries if not millenia before the Spanish got there. http://www.gavinmenzies.net/?evidence=27-the-1418-map-%E2%80%93-zheng-he%E2%80%99s-fleets-visits-to-peru has some – I don't have the heart to read far enough to learn if he has linguistic "evidence" mixed in with all of his other stuff.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    "Catastrophic" is a rather judgmental and unscientific characterization of the historical account given by wrathful dispersionists. If we are going to mix moral judgments with scientific inquiry, the key source text for the Mesopotamian-tower-incident provides good grounds for thinking the dispersion of tongues to have to the contrary been a providential development. (That said, I do love the judgmental subtitle of Geoffrey Lewis' fine book "The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success.")

  14. JR said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    I was reading a book on the history of Indian food, and the author compared Quechua with Sanskrit, "suggesting a link between the Aryan and American Indian cultures in bygone times." He then went on to make comparisons with "African" words and he compares old Dravidian with "Sumerian/Akkadian lauguages of about 3000BC." From the Oxford University Press in Dehli.

  15. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    The first scholar to suggest a Quechua/IE connection was, I think, no other than Sir William Jones, in the very same "Anniversary Discourse on the Hindus" which marks the beginning of Indo-European studies. No kidding, here's the relevant quote (emphasis added):

    We have, therefore, determined another interesting epoch, by fixing the age of Crishna near the three thousandth year from the present time; and, as the three first Avatàrs, or descents of Vishnu, relate no less clearly to an Universal Deluge, in which eight persons only were saved, than the fourth and the fifth do to the punishment of impiety and the humiliation of the proud, we may for the present assume, that the second, or silver, age of the Hindus was subsequent to the dispersion from Babel; so that we have only a dark interval of about a thousand years, which were employed in the settlement of nations, the foundation of states or empires, and the cultivation of civil society. The great incarnate Gods of this intermediate age are both named Ráma but with different epithets; one of whom bears a wonderful resemblance to the Indian Bacchus, and his wars are the subject of several heroic poems. He is represented as a descendent from Súrya, or the Sun, as the husband of Sítá, and the son of a princess named Caúselyá: it is very remarkable, that the Peruvians, whose Incas boasted of the same descent, styled their greatest festival Ramasitoa; whence we may suppose, that South America was peopled by the same race, who imported into the farthest parts of Asia the rites and fabulous history of Ráma.

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    It is quite common for languages to be compared to Quechua, for some reason. I've seen Tamil, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Egyptian and Japanese comparisons. I guess Quechua is the emblematic American language for distant comparisons, and has that "romance of the ancient Inca" thing going for it (see a really remarkable compendium here, including the claim that "languages like Magyar, the Pelasgo, the Vedico and the Etruscan" derive from Quechua). (It also seems some timecubey semblance of the comparative method is often pressed into service to show that Sanskrit, Tamil and Hebrew (and probably others) are the original language of humanity.)

  17. GeorgeW said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

    @ Piotr Gąsiorowski: I have read a number of times about the statistical probability of there being a number of phonetic/semantic correspondences between any unrelated languages. But, I think this is the first time I have seen it demonstrated. It is difficult for our human mind, programed to find patterns, to not presume a relationship.

    I am curious how you selected Quechua for your satirical analysis. Do you think you find a similar rate of apparent correspondences with any unrelated languages like Bantu, Korean, Arabic, or whatever?

  18. marie-lucie said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    Howard O: a paper by Callaghan and Miller (SW J Anthropol 1962; 18:278-285) that demonstrated that English is 'Macro Mixtecan' on the basis of Swadesh lists.

    I think you mean "Miwokan" rather than "Mixtecan". Callaghan is *the* recognized expert on Miwokan languages, which have nothing to do with the Mixtecan ones. The paper was tongue-in-cheek, like Rosenfelder's and Gąsiorowski's.

    Rod J: a noted scholar, … compared Illytch-Svitych's Nostratic reconstructions with "proto-Hokan," "proto-Penutian," etc. Quechua, being proto-Penutian, I think, was right in there.

    I am amazed that some years ago someone was able to quote "proto-Penutian", since "Penutian" is not generally accepted. I think that it was Swadesh, or perhaps Whorf, who included Quechua in "Macro-Penutian", but on what basis was anyone reconstructing "Proto-Penutian"?

  19. JR said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    @Rod: Yeah… Reminds me of all the amateur archaeology theories out there. As if languages or sober archaeology aren't amazing and wondrous all on their own. Make me sad.

  20. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 1:04 am

    @George — I chose Quechua (1) 'cos everybody loves Quechua, (2) because Quechua orthography is simple and I was already sick of the sophisticated Nostratic transcription, (3) South America is far away from Eurasia. But it can be done with any language. Once upon a time Isidore Dyen did something similar with Malay and IE, and Larry Trask with Dolgopolsky's Nostratic and Basque, finding easily Basque comparanda that "leap out of the page at you" for 15 out of the 124 items on Dolgopolsky's list. Christopher Ehret successfully compared Nostratic with Guthrie's Proto-Bantu and his own (rather controversial) Proto-Nilo-Saharan reconstruction (in the same volume as Trask). But unlike Dyen and Trask, he did it in earnest. I think it's clear that if you compare RECONSTRUCTIONS WITH RECONSTRUCTIONS, an amazing degree of spectacular success is not only expected but practically guaranteed.

    Needless to say, my exercise is more scientific because I deliberately restricted my search to the Swadesh list ;). But with one hand thus tied behind my back I still did quite well without trying too hard (11% of matches, with perfect semantic correspondences and pretty regular phonology).

  21. maidhc said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 2:32 am

    Wouldn't pretty much everybody be a member of a lost Nostratic tribe?

    I could get used to the concept. I may have business cards printed up.

  22. Rod Johnson said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 10:30 am

    Marie-Lucie: yes, thus my skeptical use of quotation marks. It's hard to emphasize enough how shoddy this enterprise was. The "proto-Penutian" forms were often derived on the fly, on the black board, in class: "Consider Sierra Miwok gok, 'funeral,' which is clearly related to Maidu guh-, 'sadness.' From here we can see there must have been proto-Penutian *gUG…" etc. (All forms and glosses here are entirely made up by me, of course.) The process here can include the acceptance of any previous claim of relationship (thus Quechua as Penutian), any somewhat plausible sense of semantic relationship, and the use of abstract segments to represent phonetic similarity (thus obviating the need for systematic correspondences and sound changes). Under such relaxed methodological conditions, it's pretty easy to build up an impressive-looking set of relationships. What was for me the desideratum of a demonstrated relationship–an internally consistent set of actual etymologies–was more or less dismissed as something that could be worked out later, a simple matter of detail. What was important was the big claim of relatedness.

    I should emphasize that this was a serious scholar who believed very deeply in this work and knew previous work on PIE and Nostratic. He was just biased towards acceptance of relationships rather than skepticism–a lumper rather than a splitter–in the tradition of Illich-Svitych, Dolgopolsky and Starostin. And once you've accepted that there is a proto-Altaic and a proto-Kartvelian and a proto-Afroasiatic and a proto-Hokan, etc. the next steps seem obvious. I think you could draw a parallel with some types of syntactic argumentation, where (the appearance of) large-scale progress is achieved by choosing to ignore or postpone consideration of inconvenient details.

  23. Howard Oakley said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    Marie-Lucie – I regret that I have not read Callaghan's paper, but can assure you of the accuracy of my quotation from Dixon. And Dixon's point is exactly that of Piotr Gąsiorowski, that with a little time and effort, you can 'prove' a relationship between almost any language and a suitably presented hypothetical proto-language.
    If you have not read them, Dixon's arguments against glottochronology and its ilk are well worth it: it is only an extended essay.

  24. Howard Oakley said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    (I have just read the title of Callaghan's paper: "Swadesh's Macro Mixtecan Hypothesis and English". It's available in JSTOR if you want to read it.)

  25. marie-lucie said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    Well, I read it a long time ago, and obviously I remembered wrong, sorry. The paper is quite funny.

  26. Jess Tauber said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    Every once in a while, though, a relationship that was unexpected shines through the dark forest of wannabe cognate forms. However, I'd guess all the lower hanging fruit has already been plucked with regard to well-known families and isolates, when considering deep genetic connections.

    But borrowings have probably not been so well explored. I've seen what looks like a relatively fresh input of Salishan (and what became Central Coast Salish at that) into Yahgan, rendering the latter looking like a creole. This includes normal Salish lexemes, lexical suffixes, voice affixes and more. What didn't get transferred was glottalization, reduplication, V-initial order, head-marking beyond subject, numerical classifiers.

    If this DID happen it must have been some time back, while Central Coast was just starting to differentiate, but nowhere near to Proto-Salishan.

  27. Chris C. said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

    [(myl) That depends on what you mean by "serious", "linguist", and "these days".]

    And, for that matter, "reconstruct".


    he compares old Dravidian with "Sumerian/Akkadian lauguages of about 3000BC."

    That, at least, isn't implausible, given the likelihood that the Indus Valley Civilization were Dravidian speakers. Whether the IVC was known to the Sumerians as Dilmun (As Kramer thought) or Meluhha (the current hypothesis) there would have been contact extensive enough to, if nothing else, plant a nice assortment of deceptive loanwords in one direction or the other.

  28. Rubrick said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

    This discovery is particularly intriguing in light of the strong resemblance between Quechan earthworks and thos of the ancient Martian canal-builders.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 20, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

    Fascinating. The only Martian word I know is "grok". If we can find a cognate to it in a human language, we'll have 100%!

    I wonder whether conlangs tend to have either an especially high number of obvious correspondences with real languages (Esperanto, Zemblan, the language of Lawrence Watt-Evans's delightful tetralogy The Lords of Dûs, etc.) or an especially low number (Sindarin, Klingon, etc., when the author wanted to make them seem non-human).

  30. Faldone said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    Esperanto wouldn't really be a good example. It was designed to have obvious correspondences with real languages. Languages like Loglan or Lojban would be even less applicable to this sort of analysis since their data base for roots is even broader than Esperanto.

  31. skel said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Has anyone any comments on the 'khene': pan pipes played vertically in Laos, and 'kena': pan pipes played horizontally in S America (Peru?) – not onomatopoeic in either case.

  32. Rod Johnson said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    Yes: no reason to think it's anything but chance.

  33. Rodger C said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    Speaking of panpipes and relationships, I'm bemused by how some anthropologists find evidence of transpacific diffusion in the fact that panpipes in Borneo and Peru have exactly the same proportions among the pipes, as if there weren't only one pentatonic scale in the human brain and only one way to produce it with closed pipes.

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