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In historical linguistics, the homeland or Urheimat (//, from German ur- "original" and Heimat, home) of a proto-language is the region in which it was spoken before splitting into different daughter languages. A proto-language is the reconstructed or historically-attested parent language of a group of languages that are genetically related.
Depending on the age of the language family under consideration, its homeland may be known with near-certainty (in the case of historical or near-historical migrations) or it may be very uncertain (in the case of deep prehistory). Next to internal linguistic evidence, the reconstruction of a prehistoric homeland makes use of a variety of disciplines, including archaeology and archaeogenetics.
There are several methods to determine the homeland of a given language family. One method is based on the vocabulary that can be reconstructed for the proto-language. This vocabulary – especially terms for flora and fauna – can provide clues for the geographical and ecological environment in which the proto-language was spoken. An estimate for the time-depth of the proto-language is necessary in order to account for prehistorical changes in climate and the distribution of flora and fauna.
Another method is based on the linguistic migration theory (first proposed by Edward Sapir), which states that the most likely candidate for the last homeland of a language family can be located in the area of its highest linguistic diversity. This presupposes an established view about the internal subgrouping of the language family. Different assumptions about high-order subgrouping can thus lead to very divergent proposals for a linguistic homeland (e.g. Isidore Dyen's proposal for New Guinea as the center of dispersal of the Austronesian languages). The linguistic migration theory has its limits because it only works when linguistic diversity evolves continuously without major disruptions. Its results can be distorted e.g. when this diversity is wiped out by more recent migrations.
Limitations of the concept
The concept of a (single, identifiable) "homeland" of a given language family implies a purely genealogical view of the development of languages. This assumption is often reasonable and useful, but it is by no means a logical necessity, as languages are well known to be susceptible to areal change such as substrate or superstrate influence.
Over a sufficient period of time, in the absence of evidence of intermediary steps in the process, it may be impossible to observe linkages between languages that have a shared Urheimat: given enough time, natural language change will obliterate any meaningful linguistic evidence of a common genetic source. This general concern is a manifestation of the larger issue of "time depth" in historical linguistics.
For example, the languages of the New World are believed to be descended from a relatively "rapid" peopling of the Americas (relative to the duration of the Upper Paleolithic) within a few millennia (roughly between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago), but their genetic relationship has become completely obscured over the more than ten millennia which have passed between their separation and their first written record in the early modern period. Similarly, the Australian Aboriginal languages are divided into some 28 families and isolates for which no genetic relationship can be shown.
The Urheimaten reconstructed using the methods of comparative linguistics typically estimate separation times dating to the Neolithic or later. It is undisputed that fully developed languages were present throughout the Upper Paleolithic, and possibly into the deep Middle Paleolithic (see origin of language, behavioral modernity). These languages would have spread with the early human migrations of the first "peopling of the world", but they are no longer amenable to linguistic reconstruction. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) has imposed linguistic separation lasting several millennia on many Upper Paleolithic populations in Eurasia, as they were forced to retreat into "refugia" before the advancing ice sheets. After the end of the LGM, Mesolithic populations of the Holocene again became more mobile, and most of the prehistoric spread of the world's major linguistic families seem to reflect the expansion of population cores during the Mesolithic followed by the Neolithic Revolution.
The Nostratic theory is the best-known attempt to expand the deep prehistory of the main language families of Eurasia (excepting Sino-Tibetan and the languages of Southeast Asia) to the beginning of the Holocene. First proposed in the early 20th century, the Nostratic theory still receives serious consideration, but it is by no means generally accepted. The more recent and more speculative ""Borean" hypothesis attempts to unite Nostratic with Dené–Caucasian and Austric, in a "mega-phylum" that would unite most languages of Eurasia, with a time depth going back to the Last Glacial Maximum.
The argument surrounding the "Proto-Human language", finally, is almost completely detached from linguistic reconstruction, instead surrounding questions of phonology and the origin of speech. Time depths involved in the deep prehistory of all the world's extant languages are of the order of at least 100,000 years.
Language contact and creolization
The concept of an Urheimat only applies to populations speaking a proto-language defined by the tree model. This is not always the case.
For example, in places where language families meet, the relationship between a group that speaks a language and the Urheimat for that language is complicated by "processes of migration, language shift and group absorption are documented by linguists and ethnographers" in groups that are themselves "transient and plastic." Thus, in the contact area in western Ethiopia between languages belonging to the Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic families, the Nilo-Saharan-speaking Nyangatom and the Afroasiatic-speaking Daasanach have been observed to be closely related to each other but genetically distinct from neighboring Afroasiatic-speaking populations. This is a reflection of the fact that the Daasanach, like the Nyangatom, originally spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, with the ancestral Daasanach later adopting an Afroasiatic language around the 19th century.
Creole languages are hybrids of languages that are sometimes unrelated. Similarities arise from the creole formation process, rather than from genetic descent. For example, a creole language may lack significant inflectional morphology, lack tone on monosyllabic words, or lack semantically opaque word formation, even if these features are found in all of the parent languages of the languages from which the creole was formed.
Some languages are language isolates. That is to say, they have no well accepted language family connection, no nodes in a family tree, and therefore no known Urheimat. An example is the Basque language of Northern Spain and south west France. Nevertheless, it is a scientific fact that all languages evolve. An unknown Urheimat may still be hypothesized, such as that for a Proto-Basque, and may be supported by archaeological and historical evidence.
Sometimes relatives are found for a language originally believed to be an isolate. An example is the Etruscan language, which, even though only partially understood, is believed to be related to the Rhaetic language and to the Lemnian language. A single family may be an isolate. In the case of the non-Austronesian indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea and the indigenous languages of Australia, there is no published linguistic hypothesis supported by any evidence that these languages have links to any other families. Nevertheless, an unknown Urheimat is implied. The entire Indo-European family itself is a language isolate: no further connections are known. This lack of information does not prevent some professional linguists from formulating additional hypothetical nodes (Nostratic) and additional homelands for the speakers.
Homelands of major language families
- Nilo-Saharan – although the validity of the Nilo-Saharan family remains controversial, the border area between Chad, Sudan, and the Central African Republic is seen as a likely candidate for its homeland prior to its dispersal around 10,000–8,000 BP.
- Indo-European – the identification of the Proto-Indo-European homeland has been debated for centuries, but the steppe hypothesis is now widely accepted, placing it in the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 4000 BCE.
- Hmong–Mien – the most likely homeland of the Hmong–Mien languages is in Southern China between the Yangtze and Mekong rivers, but speakers of these languages may have migrated from Central China as a result of the expansion of the Han Chinese.
- Kra–Dai – most scholars locate the homeland of the Kra–Dai languages in Southern China, possibly coastal Fujian or Guangdong.
- Austronesian – the homeland of the Austronesian languages is widely accepted by linguists to be the island of Taiwan.
- Eskimo–Aleut – the Eskimo–Aleut languages originated in the region of the Bering Strait or Southwest Alaska.
- Na-Dené and Yeniseian – the Dené–Yeniseian hypothesis proposes that the Na-Dené languages of North America and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia share a common ancestor. It was originally suggested that this hypothesis would point to a homeland in Central or West Asia. More recent research indicates that it is more likely that both language families originated in Beringia, with Yeniseian representing a "back-migration" of Native American populations to Asia.
- Uto-Aztecan – some authorities on the history of the Uto-Aztecan language group place the Proto-Uto-Aztecan homeland in the border region between the USA and Mexico, namely the upland regions of Arizona and New Mexico and the adjacent areas of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, shown on the map (below left) roughly corresponding to the Sonoran Desert. The proto-language would have been spoken by foragers, about 5,000 years ago. Hill (2001) proposes instead a homeland further south, making the assumed speakers of Proto-Uto-Aztecan maize cultivators in Mesoamerica, who were gradually pushed north, bringing maize cultivation with them, during the period of roughly 4,500 to 3,000 years ago, the geographic diffusion of speakers corresponding to the breakup of linguistic unity.
- Tupian – Proto-Tupian, the reconstructed common ancestor of the Tupian languages of South America, was probably spoken in the region between the Guaporé and Aripuanã rivers, around 5,000 years ago.
The Dravidian languages have been found mainly in South India since at least the second century BCE, but Dravidian speakers may have been more widespread throughout India, including the northwest region, before the arrival of Indo-European speakers.
Kolipakam et al. (2018) estimate the Dravidian language family to be approximately 4,500 years old. According to Krishnamurti, linguistic evidence suggests that the South Dravidian language group had separated from a Proto-Dravidian language around 1100 BCE. Russian linguist M.S. Andronov puts the split between Tamil (a written Southern Dravidian language) and Telugu (a written Central Dravidian language) between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE.
Hypotheses regarding the original homeland have centered on the Indus Valley Civilization. According to Asko Parpola, the Indus sign system represented an ancient Dravidian language. In the 1970s David McAlpin proposed the Elamo-Dravidian hypothesis, suggesting an origin in Elam, whose Elamite language was spoken in the hills to the east of the ancient Sumerian civilization with whom the Indus Valley Civilization traded and shared domesticated species. This theory is mostly rejected.
There is considerable dispute over the time and place of origin of the Turkic languages, with candidates for their ancient homeland ranging from the Transcaspian steppe to Manchuria in Northeast Asia and South-Central-Siberia. The lack of written records prior to the earliest Chinese accounts, and the fact that the early Turkic peoples were nomadic pastoralists, and hence mobile, makes localizing and dating the earliest homeland of the Turkic language difficult. Attempts to localize the proto-Turkic Urheimat are usually connected with the early archaeological horizon of west and central Siberia and in the region south of it.
The Turkic peoples lived in the Eurasian Steppe including North China, especially Xinjiang Province, Inner Mongolia, Mongolia and West Siberian Plain possibly as far west as Lake Baikal and the Altai Mountains, by the 6th century CE. After Turkic migration, by the 10th century CE, most of Central Asia, formerly dominated by Iranian peoples, was settled by Turkic tribes. Then, the Seljuk Turks from the 11th century invaded Anatolia, ultimately resulting in permanent Turkic settlement there and the establishment of the Turkish nation. The Turkic languages are now spoken in Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Siberia.
The inferred population genetic contributions of Turkic populations show a cline from a high point in the East to the a low point in the West. In Turkey, the Central Asian contribution to the local population genetic mix is about 9%
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The Korean language is spoken in Korea and among emigrants from Korea. Conservative historical linguists tend to classify the Korean language as a language isolate, although other suggest a relationship to the proposed Altaic language family or to Japonic languages.
Old Korean is attested in Chinese histories, in the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (ca. 0 to 900 CE), when the Silla Kingdom (in Eastern Korea), Baekje Kingdom (in Southwestern Korea), and Goguryeo Kingdom (in Northern Korea) were simultaneously present on the Korean peninsula, although Korean was not a literary language until later; the hangul script of Korean was invented in the 15th century CE (the earlier Idu script dates to the 6th century CE).
There was a group of similar languages called the Koguryoic languages in the northern Korean Peninsula and southern Manchuria, which included, according to Chinese records, the languages of Buyeo, Goguryeo, Baekje, Dongye, Okjeo—and possibly Gojoseon, but was different from ancient Tungusic languages like Mohe. Gojoseon was a kingdom in Northern Korea that is said by tradition to have been founded in 2333 BC (archaeological evidence and Chinese histories support a cultural civilization from around 1500 BCE and a kingdom fused from a federation of smaller states around the 7th century BCE), that was conquered by Han Dynasty China in 108 BC, and re-emerged from Chinese rule as the Kingdom Buyeo. The Three Kingdoms era kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje were successors to the Kingdom of Buyeo. Dongye was a vassal state of Goguryeo in Northeast Korea founded in the 3rd-century BCE that was eventually absorbed by Goguryeo around the 5th century CE. Okjeo was a minor state in Northern Korea to the North of Dongye that was a subordinate unit of Gojoseon from the 3rd century BCE to 108 BCE, then came under Han rule, and then was a subordinate state of Goguryeo. None of these Buyeo language family kingdoms ever included the Kingdom of Silla, which was just a small kingdom on the Southern coast of Korea until the Three Kingdoms period during which it expanded and conquered the other two kingdoms.
Linguists including Christopher Beckwith argue for Japanese as a descendant of Goguryeo, and for Korean as a descendant of the Silla language, based on lexical similarities between Goguryeo and Japanese, and based upon Silla's ultimate triumph in the quest for political control of Korea. Other linguists, including Kim Banghan, Alexander Vovin, and J. Marshall Unger argue that Japanese is related to the pre-Goguryeo language of the central and southern part of Korean peninsula, including what would become the Kingdom of Silla, and that Old Korean is Goguryeo with a pre-Goguryeo Japonic substrate, in part, because Japanese-like toponyms found in the historical homeland of Silla were also distributed in southern part of Korean peninsula, and are not found in the northern part of Korean peninsula or south-western Manchuria. None of the extinct languages is attested in writing well enough to reach definitive conclusions resolving the debate.
The Japonic languages are spoken in Japan and among emigrants from Japan and is attested in Japanese language writing from the 8th century CE, and in imperfect Chinese transcriptions from the late 5th century CE. Conservative historical linguists tend to classify a small number of Japanese languages as a language family of their own. The Ainu languages are a barely surviving family of languages or dialects that are spoken by indigenous populations on the island of Hokkaidō in what is now northern Japan.
There are similarities between the Japanese language and the Korean language in lexicon and grammatical features, but there is dispute over whether these denote a common origin, or mere linguistic borrowing due to a sprachbund of neighboring languages that are adjacent to each other. Samuel E. Martin, Roy Andrew Miller, and Sergei Starostin are linguists who have argued that they have common origins. In contrast, Alexander Vovin has argued for a regional borrowing model to explain the linguistic similarities.
One hypothesis proposes that Japanese is a relative of the extinct languages spoken by the Buyeo-Goguryeo cultures of Korea, southern Manchuria, and Liaodong of which the best attested is the extinct language Goguryeo. This proposal is attributed to Shinmura Izuru, who proposed it in 1916. Modern Korean, in contrast, according to proponents of this hypothesis, appears to have stronger connections to the Silla language, spoken in the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, whose similarity to the Goguryeo language is not clearly established.
The earliest Chinese historical records concerning the "Wa" in Japan indicate that they were fractured into many warring states. But, modern Japanese dialects show a common origin, rather than a "bushy" one. So, it is possible that there were many Yayoi dialects in the period before Old Japanese emerged, of which the dialect of the warring states that ended up prevailing politically as the Japanese state was unified superseded other early Yayoi languages or dialects.
After a new wave of immigration, probably from the Korean Peninsula some 2,300 years ago, of the Yayoi people, the Jōmon were pushed into northern Japan. Genetic data suggest that modern Japanese are descended from both the Yayoi and the Jōmon. Tradition, as documented by the Nihon Shoki, a legendary account of Japan's history, puts the date of the Yayoi arrival in Japan at 660 BCE. Chinese historical records mention the existence of the Yayoi (called "Wa") starting in 57 BCE. The existing Japanese language has its origins at approximately this point in time, if not earlier (to the extent that Japanese derives primarily from either the language of the Bronze Age Yayoi people, as it existed prior to their arrival in Japan, or derives primarily from a language of the Jōmon at that point in time, rather than being a creole of some sort). Skeletal remains suggests that the two cultures had fused into a group with a homogeneous physical appearance in Southern Japan by 250 CE. It is possible that the Japanese language has roots related to the Ainu language, the historical language of the Yayoi, whatever that may have been, or could have been a creole of both. It is also possible the Japanese language has roots in a language spoken in Southern Japan that is lost and now unknown.
The Ainu people are genetic descendants of the Jōmon, with some contribution from the Okhotsk people. The Ainu languages that are now spoken by Ainu minorities in Hokkaidō; and were formerly spoken in southern and central Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands (an area also known as Ezo), and perhaps northern Honshū island by the Emishi people (until approximately 1000 CE), are associated with the founding Jōmon people of Japan from than 14,000 years ago or earlier, and the Satsumon culture of Hokkaidō, although the Ainu also had contact with the Paleo-Siberian Okhotsk culture whose modern descendants include the Nivkh people (whose original homeland was mostly occupied by the Tungusic peoples), which could have linguistically influenced the Ainu language. Thus, as a result of this important outside cultural influence, it is impossible to know with certainty how similar the language of the original language of the Jōmon people was to that spoken by the Ainu people today. Some linguists have suggested other language family connections for the Ainu language: Shafer has suggested a distant connection to the Austroasiatic languages. Vovin, had viewed that suggestion as merely preliminary. Japanese linguist Shichirō Murayama tried to link Ainu to the Austronesian languages, which include the languages of the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia through both vocabulary and cultural comparisons. There is no consensus, however, that the Ainu languages have sources in any other known language, and the unique population genetics of the Ainu people support the hypothesis that they were largely isolated from the rest of the world for many thousands of years.
The Yayoi people had strong physical, genetic and cultural similarities to the Chinese during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE- 9 CE) in the Jiangsu province on China's Eastern Coast. The Yayoi also have strong cultural similarities to the Koreans of that time period.
Some linguists, such as Turchin, see a connection between Japanese and Korean and an Altaic language family or similar larger grouping of languages, with those speakers coming from an area North of Korea, based in part upon similarities in lexical roots. The statistical method used by Turchin, however, would not discriminate between Jōmon and Yayoi sources for any Altaic linguistic affinities. Turchin's analysis also did not look at the various proposed ancient predecessors of the Korean language in Korea or the relationship of those languages to any of the proto-Altaic languages, despite the fact that the hypothesis would require one of those ancient Korean peninsular languages to be intermediate between Japanese and one of the proto-Altaic languages. Old Japanese when first attested had eight vowels, rather than the current five (which were lost within a century of the oldest preserved writings) which was close to the vowel system seen in Uralic and Altaic languages. Old Japanese also had more grammatical similarity to Altaic languages than modern Japanese.
These classifications of the origins of Japanese language origins ignore significant borrowing from other languages in recent times. Current estimates are that "wago" (i.e. words attributable to the original Yayoi language) make up 33.8% of the Japanese lexicon, that "kango" (i.e. words with roots borrowed from Chinese since the 5th century CE) make up 49.1% of Japanese words (and in addition, the Chinese ideograms used in the Japanese written language), that foreign words called gairaigo make up 8.8% of Japanese words, and that 8.3% of Japanese words are konshugo that draw upon multiple languages. This account attributes only a small number of words in modern Japanese to Ainu roots.
The six Ryukyuan languages spoken in the islands to the South of Japan, are descended from Proto-Japonic but are not mutually intelligible with Japanese with which they share about 72% of their words (or each other) and started to diverge from Japanese around the 7th century CE. These islands were united in a Ryukyuan kingdom from 1429 CE (prior to that there were multiple divided kingdoms which were tributary states of China after 1372 CE); the kingdom was a tributary state of China until 1609 when it became a vassal state of Japan, until it was annexed by Japan in 1879. These languages were then suppressed and while they have about a million native speakers, there are relatively few native speakers under the age of twenty. They are effectively minority languages at this point due to the government's recognition of them as dialects.
The Uralic homeland is unknown. A possible focus is the Comb Ceramic Culture of ca 4200 – ca 2000 BCE (shown on the map to the right). This is suggested by the high language diversity around the middle Volga River, where three highly distinct branches of the Uralic family, Mordvinic, Mari, and Permic, are located. Reconstructed plant and animal names (including spruce, Siberian pine, Siberian Fir, Siberian larch, brittle willow, elm, and hedgehog) are consistent with this location. This is adjacent to the proposed homeland for Proto-Indo-European under the Kurgan hypothesis.
As noted below, many notable linguists have proposed that the Eskimo-Aleut languages and Uralic languages have a common origin, although there is no consensus that this connection is genuine. A genetic relationship between Uralic and the Indo-European languages has also been proposed (see Indo-Uralic languages).
The Afro-Asiatic languages include Arabic, Hebrew, Berber, and a variety of other languages now found mostly in Northeast Africa, although the exact boundaries of this language family are disputed in the case of a small number of languages spoken by small numbers of individuals in a few localized areas of Sudan and East Africa.
The limited area of the Afro-Asiatic Sprachraum (prior to its expansion to new areas in the historic era) has limited the potential areas where that family's Urheimat could be. Generally speaking, two proposals have been developed: that Afro-Asiatic arose in a Semitic Urheimat in the Middle East aka Southwest Asia, or that Afro-Asiatic languages arose in northeast Africa (generally, either between Darfur and Tibesti or in Ethiopia and the other countries of the Horn of Africa). The African hypothesis is considered to be rather more likely at the present time, because of the greater diversity of languages with more distant relationships to each other there.
There have been serious linguistic proponents of almost every conceivable possible set of relationships of the Afro-Asiatic language subfamilies to each other, although there is reasonably great consensus concerning the subfamily classification of all but a few of the Afro-Asiatic languages. Some of this difficulty in resolving the Afro-Asiatic family tree flows from the time depth of these languages. The Afro-Asiatic Egyptian language of ancient Egypt (whose latest stage is known as Coptic) is one of the two oldest written languages on Earth (the other being the Sumerian language, a language isolate) dating in written form to approximately 3000 BCE, and the Semitic Akkadian language was also attested in writing from a very early date (ca. 2000 BCE). A common Afro-Asiatic proto-language is necessarily older than these very old written languages which belonged to language families that had already diverged from each other considerably by that point. There is also no one genetic profile that is uniform among Afro-Asiatic language speakers that clearly unites them. There are also competing theories on whether the Afro-Asiatic language family owes its expansion to the Neolithic revolution that originated in an area that includes the range of the Afro-Asiatic language, or was already widespread in the Upper Paleolithic era.
There has been speculation regarding the specific Semitic subfamily of Afro-Asiatic languages, again with the Horn of Africa and Southwest Asia—specifically the Levant—being the most common proposals. The large number of Semitic languages present in the Horn of Africa seems at first glance to support the hypothesis that the Semitic homeland lies there. However, the Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa all belong to the South Semitic subfamily and appear to all have relatively recent common origins in a single Ethio-Semitic proto-language, while the East and Central Semitic languages are native solely to Asia. These features, and the presence of certain common Semitic lexical items in all Ethio-Semitic languages referring to items that arrived in Africa from the Levant at a time after Semitic languages were known to have been spoken in the Levant, have lent weight to the Levantine proposal.
Hebrew is relatively closely related to the Arabic language even within the Semitic language family, being part of the same Central Semitic group.
The Maltese language, the only other Semitic language of Europe, is a derivative of the Arabic language as it was spoken in Sicily starting sometime after the rise of the Islamic empire in North Africa.
The homeland of the Niger–Congo languages, which has as its subfamily the Benue–Congo languages, which in turn includes the Bantu languages, is not known in time or place, beyond the fact that it probably originated in or near the area where these languages were spoken prior to Bantu expansion (i.e. West Africa or Central Africa) and probably predated the Bantu expansion of ca. 3000 BCE through 500 CE by many thousands of years. Its expansion may have been associated with the expansion of Sahel agriculture in the African Neolithic period.
According to linguist Roger Blench, as of 2004, all specialists in Niger–Congo languages believe the languages to have a common origin, rather than merely constituting a typological classification, for reasons including their shared noun-class system, their shared verbal extensions and their shared basic lexicon. Similar classifications have been made ever since Diedrich Westermann in 1922. Joseph Greenberg continued that tradition making it the starting point for modern linguistic classification in Africa, with some of his most notable publications going to press starting in the 1960s. But, there has been active debate for many decades over the appropriate subclassifications of the languages in that language family, which is a key tool used in localizing a language's place of origin. No definitive "Proto-Niger–Congo" lexicon or grammar has been developed for the language family as a whole.
An important unresolved issue in determining the time and place where the Niger–Congo languages originated and their range prior to recorded history is this language family's relationship to the Kordofanian languages now spoken in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, which is not contiguous with the remainder of the Niger–Congo language speaking region and is at the northeasternmost extent of the current Niger–Congo linguistic region. The current prevailing linguistic view is that Kordofanian languages are part of the Niger–Congo language family, and that among the many languages still surviving in that region these may be the oldest. The evidence is insufficient to determine if this outlier group of Niger–Congo language speakers represent a prehistoric range of a Niger–Congo linguistic region that has since contracted as other languages have intruded, or if instead, this represents a group of Niger–Congo language speakers who migrated to the area at some point in prehistory where they were an isolated linguistic community from the beginning.
The prehistoric range for the Niger–Congo languages has implications, not just for the history of the Niger–Congo languages, but for the origins of the Afro-Asiatic languages and Nilo-Saharan languages whose homelands have been hypothesized by some to overlap with the Niger–Congo linguistic range prior to recorded history. If the consensus view regarding the origins of the Nilo-Saharan languages which came to East Africa is adopted, and a North African or Southwest Asian origin for Afro-Asiatic languages is assumed, the linguistic affiliation of East Africa prior to the arrival of Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic languages is left open. The overlap between the potential areas of origin for these languages in East Africa is particularly notable because includes the regions from which the Proto-Eurasians who brought anatomically modern humans Out of Africa, and presumably their original proto-language or languages originated.
However, there is more agreement regarding the place of origin of the Benue–Congo subfamily of languages, which is the largest subfamily of the group, and the place of origin of the Bantu languages and the time at which it started to expand is known with great specificity.
The classification of the relatively divergent family of Ubangian languages which are centered in the Central African Republic, as part of the Niger–Congo language family where Greenberg classified them in 1963 and subsequently scholars concurred, was called into question, by linguist Gerrit Dimmendaal in a 2008 article.
Roger Blench, relying particularly on prior work by Professor Kay Williamson of the University of Port Harcourt, and the linguist P. De Wolf, who each took the same position, has argued that a Benue–Congo linguistic subfamily of the Niger–Congo language family, which includes the Bantu languages and other related languages and would be the largest branch of Niger–Congo, is an empirically supported grouping which probably originated at the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers in Central Nigeria. These estimates of the place of origin of the Benue-Congo language family do not fix a date for the start of that expansion other than that it must have been sufficiently prior to the Bantu expansion to allow for the diversification of the languages within this language family that includes Bantu.
There is a widespread consensus among linguistic scholars that Bantu languages of the Niger–Congo family have a homeland near the coastal boundary of Nigeria and Cameroon, prior to a rapid expansion from that homeland starting about 3000 BCE.
The Sino-Tibetan Urheimat has been long debated with various scholars supporting an origin in North China, or in West China, or in the Himalayas. Population genetic evidence, favors an origin for Proto-Sino-Tibetan languages in the upper and middle Yellow River basin, with part of that source population branching off to settle in the Himalayas, with the split of the population that would provide the genesis of the Chinese language from the population that would provide the genesis of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family in the East Asian Neolithic era:
"[T]he closest relatives of the Tibetans are the Yi people, who live in the Hengduan Mountains and were originally formed through fusion with natives along their migration routes into the mountains. The Tibetan and Yi languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group and their ancestries can be traced back to an ancient tribe, the Di-Qiang . . . After the ancestors of Sino-Tibetans reached the upper and middle Yellow River basin, they divided into two subgroups: Proto-Tibeto-Burman and Proto-Chinese. . . . The ancestral component which was dominant in Tibetan and Yi arose from the Proto-Tibeto-Burman subgroup, which marched on to south-west China and later, through one of its branches, became the ancestor of modern Tibetans. Proto-Tibeto-Burmans also spread over the Hengduan Mountains where the Yi have lived for hundreds of generations. Taking the optimal living condition and the easiest migration route into account, we favor the single-route hypothesis; it is more likely that their migration into the Tibetan Plateau through the Hengduan Mountain valleys occurred after Tibetan ancestors separated from the other Proto-Tibeto-Burman groups and diverged to form the modern Tibetan population."
According to the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus project of the University of California at Berkeley (2011), the Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) homeland may have been in the general area in the east of the Tibetan Plateau. Regarding the time depth of Sino-Tibetan separation, they estimate an age of at least 6,000 years, comparable to the age of Proto-Indo-European. Some scholars place the Tibeto-Burman homeland in the area encompassing western Sichuan, northern Yunnan and eastern Tibet.
Additional studies also suggest the homeland of Sino-Tibetan in northern China near the Yellow River basin. One of the earliest Neolithic cultures of China in the upper to middle Yellow River basin was the Peiligang culture of 7000 BCE to 5000 BCE, so the population genetic reference in the quoted material is to a date on or after this time period. The Neolithic era concluded in the Yellow River around 1500 BCE. This is not inconsistent with the linguistically based estimate from the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus project. By the early and middle Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE–256 BCE), the language spoken in the Zhou court had become the standardized dialect for that kingdom.
In contrast, four of the other main language families of East Asia and Southeast Asia outside the Sino-Tibetan language family, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Hmong–Mien and Kra-Dai, are generally believed to have at origins at some stage of their development in South China.
The homeland of the Austroasiatic languages (e.g. Vietnamese, Cambodian) which are found from Southeast Asia to India is hypothesized to be located in "the hills of southern Yunnan in China," between 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE, with influences from Aryan and Dravidian languages at the Western edge of its expanse in India, and influence from Chinese at the Eastern edge of the regions where it is found. The disjoint distribution of Austroasiatic languages suggests that they were once spoken in most of the areas where the Kra–Dai languages (e.g. Thai, Lao) are now dominant.
- Abstand and ausbau languages
- Genetic relationship (linguistics)
- Nationalist historiography
- Pluricentric language
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