Author Topic: Is Burushaski, at its core, an Indo-European language?  (Read 2732 times)

Offline Voynichologist

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Is Burushaski, at its core, an Indo-European language?
« on: August 17, 2018, 05:50:27 AM »
So, guys, what do you think about the thesis that Burushaski is, at its core, an Indo-European language?

Offline Daniel

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Re: Is Burushaski, at its core, an Indo-European language?
« Reply #1 on: August 17, 2018, 09:06:33 AM »
That's a fringe argument. Similar ideas have been proposed for decades, and they just aren't conclusive, because if there is such a relationship, it's too distant to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm not particularly opposed to the idea of it, but just about any theory for Burushaski's relationship is as good as any other at this point, so all you get from papers like that is some limited evidence in favor of one argument, but it's really just "circumstantial" (in the legal sense) because it doesn't show the relationship beyond a reasonable doubt-- it just would be compatible with the explanation, and if the explanation is correct, then probably a remaining trace of the original relationship.

In the end, questions like this are interesting, but there's a reason they haven't been answered. Of course Burushaski is related to something-- that should surprise no one. But we haven't yet been able to show which living language(s) that would be.

There are three reasons to remain skeptical:
1. If this was shown beyond a reasonable doubt, it would be big news. The fact that linguists have not reached consensus is telling.
2. Indo-European is an easy and lazy possibility. Given the extreme time depth (something like 10,000 years or more?), there are many, many other viable possibilities, and the Indo-European-centrism is just an artifact of the sociology of the field. It's no more likely than any other family to be related to Burushaski, but there has been a huge amount of research trying to link those up, so in a sense this is almost evidence against that particular possibility. It might be right, but why not also look just as hard at a possible connection to Tungusic or whatever other families haven't gotten that much attention. In the end, if you look hard enough for patterns, you'll find something that looks like a pattern, but that doesn't mean it's really evidence, especially when it's weak.
3. Clear evidence of relationships comes from widespread, systematic correspondences in languages. Pointing out individual features (e.g., pronominal paradigms) that happen to look similar in two languages leaves open the very real possibility for coincidence, or even borrowing. When we see one similarity, but an absence of other corresponding similarities, we should be skeptical. There is a reasonable argument for an ancient relationship between Indo-European and Uralic based on some prominal forms, for example, and while I wouldn't completely reject the possibility, I'll remain skeptical until we know more.

It's good to think about these issues in terms of two subtly but importantly different questions:
1. What is our best guess at the moment?
2. Should we accept that guess as a probable fact?

There's a "why not" argument for thinking Burushaski might be related to Indo-European, and that's not entirely unreasonable. Maybe! But there is no reason to assume that why not or best guess argument should make us assume it is correct or a resolved issue.

The problem is that many people looking at these issues want answers, rather than more questions or just interesting discussions. And all we have most of the time is complicated details, not conclusions.

To frame this from a slightly different perspective, consider the macro-family theories such as Eurasiatic or Nostratic. On the one hand, the current iterations of those theories are probably wrong and do not have enough evidence to back them up. However, I personally like them in the sense of giving me a vague intuitive idea of what the past might have been like. So there's a way in which I think of something like that (I don't even mind calling it "Eurasiatic"), in a very vague sense (that is, plus or minus several language families, unknown at this point), is probably a reasonable understanding. But I am not saying in any sense that either (1) "Eurasiatic" as a narrow hypothesis is correct, nor (2) we have enough evidence to reject alternative explanations.

In short, the quality of explanation corresponds to the availability of data. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with having a working understanding of a problem as your current best guess, but there is something wrong with taking that to the next step. It's the difference between "maybe" or "I wonder", and "Scientists have discovered that Burushaski is Indo-European!"

It's fine to be interested in these questions, but it comes with the risk of never finding definite answers.

So, what do I think? I think I don't know. Actually, I know I don't know. And at this point for the case of Burushaski, the evidence is too weak to even be leaning one way or another as a working hypothesis. It's related to something, surely, and at some time depth (maybe very extreme, even undetectably so), but Indo-European is not really a better explanation, given available data, than anything else, at least not by much of a margin. The most likely alternative explanation, given even only the data in that paper, would be ancient contact between the families. So, at this point, we don't know. That explanation might turn out to eventually be correct, but I wouldn't bet on it yet.
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