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Review of Burushaski as an Indo-European ‘kentum’ language

posted November 22nd, 2011

Burushaski as an Indo-European ‘kentum’ language. (Languages of the world 38.) By Ilija Čašule. Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2010. Pp. 109. ISBN 9783895865947. $91.66.

Reviewed by Edward Vajda, Western Washington University

Burushaski is a language spoken in three closely related dialectal forms in the valleys of Northern Pakistan. It is generally regarded as an isolate, despite many attempts to link it with other Eurasian language families. The present monograph, unfortunately, does not evaluate these earlier hypotheses. It analyzes 150 Burushaski lexical items and their derivatives to argue that the velar consonants in these words show systematic sound correspondences with the reflexes of proto–Indo-European (PIE) velars, labiovelars, and palatovelars found in non-satem Indo-European languages. Burushaski vocabulary items with obvious Indo-Aryan parallels that likely arose through borrowing are omitted from the investigation. The conclusion argued for is that Burushaski shows a genealogical relationship with kentum Indo-European languages such as Albanian, ancient Thracian, and Phrygian, as well as Balto-Slavic. Because the book focuses on a single group of putative sound correspondences (the dorsal plosives), its claims should be evaluated together with the author’s previous investigations of Burushaski/Indo-European lexical relations (particularly, Basic Burushaski etymologies, 1998), where a total of nearly 600 cognates are proposed involving proposed sound correspondences in vowels as well as non-guttural consonants (69).

While the book represents a conscientious attempt to apply the traditional comparative method to a language whose position among the world’s language families remains without consensus, the data assembled do not support the conclusion that Burushaski belongs within a sub-branch of Indo-European. The core thesis is summarized in a chart (64), illustrating how PIE plain velars, labiovelars, and palatovelars have fallen together to yield plain velars in Burushaski. While the 150 stems investigated here would appear to support this correlation, most of these items also contain exceptions to other aspects of the broader system of sound correspondences argued for. Comparanda show unique segment deletions or additions of various kinds. One example is PIE *dṇĝhuha ‘tongue’, which is compared to Yasin Burushaski -yúṅus ‘tongue’ (58), though only the nasal segment appears to be shared. Another is PIE *h1ogʷis- ‘snake’ and Burushaski -ġusánus ‘snake’ (39), where only the PIE second syllable gʷis and the Burushaski initial syllable ġus appear directly comparable. Most of the 150 lexical correspondences have been supplied with copious additional commentary to explain significant phonological, morphological, or semantic incongruities.

This study is, nevertheless, valuable for its careful consideration of Burushaski-internal phonological variation and morphological processes, based on the author’s familiarity with earlier sources, notably Hermann Berger’s three-volume Die Burushaski-Sprache von Hunza und Nager (1998). Certain lexical parallels, notably those dealing with Neolithic farming or herding, should be reexamined in light of potential language contact, a possibility the author himself seriously considered in his earlier work (Basic Burushaski etymologies, 1998) but has now abandoned in favor of a genealogical explanation. Future investigations of Burushaski historical linguistics might benefit most from an etymological dictionary that more fundamentally treats the divergences between Yasin (Werchikwar) Burushaski and the more closely related Hunza and Nager dialects.