There’s something romantic about language isolates. The most famous is Basque (subject of much crackpottery); others are Ainu and the Siberian languages Ket and Nivkh (also known as Gilyak). In and around the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, almost 90,000 people speak a language called Burushaski; I’ve known about it for over 30 years, ever since I read W.B. Lockwood’s A Panorama of Indo-European Languages in grad school and found a paragraph on it full of wonderfully exotic names:
In the western part of the Karakorum an isolated language, Burushaski, survives in two enclaves: an eastern form found in Hunza and Nagar, a western form in Yasin, where it is termed Werchikwar. To the north there is contact with Wakhi, in Yasin also with Khowar, otherwise with Shina, a language which has advanced in the Gilgit area at the expense of Burushaski… Dumaki forms a diminutive Indo-European enclave within the Burushaski of Hunza and Nagar. To all intents and purposes, Burushaski is a purely oral medium.
Well, in a comment to this post, David Marjanović linked to an online version of a book containing a compact grammatical description of the language, Dick Grune‘s Burushaski − An Extraordinary Language in the Karakoram Mountains (pdf, HTML cache), whose very first words told me I’d been pronouncing the name wrong all these years: “Burúshaski (stress on the second syllable)…” The book is very clearly and enjoyably written, an unusual pleasure in this kind of text (“The bad news is that Burushaski has perhaps as many paradigms as Latin, but the good news is that they are much more regular”). Grune discusses the possible relationships of the language:
Although Burushaski has been compared to almost any language on earth, no fully convincing relationships have yet been established. Modern taxonomic methods are, however, beginning to yield results. Ruhlen (1989) [lit.ref. 7] still classified Burushaski as a language isolate: ‘its genetic affiliation remains a complete mystery’ (p. 126), but Ruhlen (1992) [lit.ref. 7] reports on a possible classification of Burushaski as a separate branch of a newly proposed Dené-Caucasian superstock. More recently, Blažek and Bengtson (1995) [lit.ref. 8] list tens of etymologies relating Burushaski to the Yeniseian languages, spoken by a hundred people along the Yenisei river in Siberia. Where appropriate, we have included these etymolgies in this survey.
(I’m not sure what the “lit.ref.” numbers refer to; the list of references at the end is not numbered and has only one entry for Ruhlen, his Guide to the World’s Languages: Volume 1 [1987; 1991].) He begins his description of the language with this summary:
For all its romantic and exotic associations, Burushaski is not much weirder than Latin, Turkish or Finnish; of these three it is most reminiscent of Turkish in its structure. It has two or three cases for the nouns (see below) and a small number of locative suffixes; it has essentially one conjugation for the verb, plus a number of composite conjugations; and its sentence structure is similar to that of Turkish but much simpler. Its most remarkable features are that it has four genders for the nouns and that the indications of the object of the verb are the same as those for possession on the noun: ‘I hit him’ is expressed roughly as ‘I do his hitting’, as in many Amerind languages.
The four genders (I know you’re wondering) are human males (which he abbreviates hm), human females (hf), animals and countable objects (x), and materials and abstracta (y). Another interesting feature is the consecutive, “which has no counterpart in English. It has the meaning of ‘after having done so and so’ or ‘when such and such state had arisen’; it is a kind of adverbial past participle and it is used very, very frequently in Burushaski.” The higher numbers are vigesimal: 20 is áltar, 30 áltar tórum ‘twenty ten,’ 40 altó-áltar ‘two-twenty,’ 50 altó-áltar tórum, and so on. I greatly enjoy this kind of compendious description; it gives me the sense of getting a handle on a language without having to do any real work. Thanks, David!