In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Altaic Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Periodicals
  • Database
  • Collective Volumes
  • Foundational Works
  • Landmark Publications
  • Altaic Phonology
  • Altaic Morphology
  • Altaic Lexicology and Etymology
  • Lexicostatistics and Altaic
  • Ural-Altaic and Nostratic
  • Altaic as a Convergence Area
  • Defense of Altaic
  • Neutral Assessments of Altaic

Linguistics Altaic Languages
George Starostin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0177


The term “Altaic” is commonly applied by linguists to a number of language families, spread across Central Asia and the Far East, that share a significant number of structural and morphemic similarities. Depending on whether these similarities are explained by a common genetic origin or prolonged periods of convergent development, one might speak of either an “Altaic language family” (or “macrofamily”) or an “Altaic Sprachbund” (diffusion area). Linguistic units that make up the bulk of “Altaic” include the uncontroversial Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic (Manchu-Tungus) language families. In addition, Japanese (Japonic) and Korean are also frequently seen as potential members, sometimes within the larger framework of a “Macro-Altaic” phylum. The issue of genetic relationship between the various hypothetical sub-branches of Altaic has remained an ongoing controversy for almost two hundred years: supporters of “Proto-Altaic,” commonly known as “pro-Altaicists,” claim that only divergence from an original common ancestor can account for the observed regular phonetic correspondences and other structural homologies, whereas “anti-Altaicists,” while generally admitting the existence of such homologies, hold the opinion that they are better explained as the results of lexical borrowing and other forms of areal linguistic contact. As a result of the “Altaic controversy,” a large amount of critical literature on the subject has been published over the past century, much of it having broad implications for historical linguistic comparison in general.

Branches of Altaic

Since most of the individual branches of Altaic include languages with large numbers of speakers, many of which have played important roles in the overall cultural history of Eurasia (e.g., Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, Korean, Japanese, etc.), the total amount of published literature in the field is enormous. Therefore, in the subsections on Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japonic, emphasis will be placed exclusively on state-of-the-art overviews or on those works that are of particular significance for the modern Altaic theory (such as comparative/etymological dictionaries).

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