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Paleolinguistics is a term used by some linguists for the study of the distant human past by linguistic means. For most historical linguists there is no separate field of paleolinguistics. Those who use the term are generally advocates of hypotheses not generally accepted by mainstream historical linguists, a group colloquially referred to as "long-rangers".

The controversial hypotheses in question fall into two categories. Some of them involve the application of standard historical linguistic methodology in ways that raise doubts as to the validity of the hypothesis. A good example of this sort is the Moscow school of Nostraticists, founded by Vladislav Illich-Svitych and including Aharon Dolgopolsky, Sergei Starostin, and Vitaly Shevoroshkin, who have argued for the existence of Nostratic, a language family including the Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Altaic, Dravidian, and Kartvelian language families and sometimes other languages. They have established regular phonological correspondences, observed morphological similarities, and reconstructed a proto-language in accordance with the accepted methodology. Nostratic is not generally accepted because critics have doubts about the specifics of the correspondances and reconstruction.

Other controversial hypotheses are controversial because the methods used to support them are considered by mainstream historical linguists to be invalid in principle. Into this category fall proposals based on mass lexical comparison, a technique in which relationships are considered to be established by the presentation of sets of words dubbed etymologies in which the forms are perceived as resembling each other in sound and meaning, without establishing phonological correspondances or carrying out a reconstruction. Prominent examples are the work of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. This method is generally regarded as unable to distinguish chance similarities from those that must be due to a historical connection and as unable to distinguish similarities due to common descent from those due to language contact.

Some others who may be considered paleolinguists due to their advocacy of controversial, deep hypotheses are: Karl Bouda, Karl-Heinrich Menges, Edward Sapir, Robert Shafer, Morris Swadesh, and Alfredo Trombetti.

See also


  • Blažek, V., et al. 2001. Paleolinguistics: The State of the Art and Science (Festschrift for Roger W. Wescott). Mother Tongue 6: 29-94.
  • Hegedűs, I., et al. (Ed.) 1997. Indo-European, Nostratic, and Beyond (Festschrift for Vitalij V. Shevoroshkin). Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man.
  • Hock, Hans Henrich & Joseph, Brian D. (1996). Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Kessler, Brett (2001). The Significance of Word Lists: Statistical Tests for Investigating Historical Connections Between Languages, 2nd. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications. 
  • Matisoff, James. (1990) On Megalocomparison. Language, 66. 109-20
  • Renfrew, Colin, and Daniel Nettle. (Ed.) 1999. Nostratic: Examining a Linguistic Macrofamily. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • Ringe, Donald. (1992). "On calculating the factor of chance in language comparison". American Philosophical Society, Transactions, 82 (1), 1-110.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994. The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Shevoroshkin, V. (Ed.) 1992. Nostratic, Dene-Caucasian, Austric and Amerind. Bochum: Brockmeyer.
  • Swadesh, Morris. 1971. The Origin and Diversification of Language. Ed. by Joel Sherzer. Chicago/New York: Aldine Atherton.

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