Piotr Gąsiorowski has produced the perfect rejoinder to the Pagel nonsense—in this Language Evolution post he proves, using the same allegedly rigorous techniques the proto-Eurasiatic crew rely on, that “the Quechua people are a lost Nostratic tribe. Note that the semantic matches are impeccable and the similarity of the words is quite obvious to any open-minded observer. Indeed, the matches are much better than many of those in the LWED.” This reductio ad absurdum should convince any sensible observer that the Pagel results are garbage, and Jacob Shelton in the comment thread says “You should totally turn this into a real paper”… but I fear that the kind of people (by which I mean credulous journalists) who swallowed the serious paper would take this as further confirmation rather than refutation.
Update. See now the entertaining and educational comment thread to Mark Liberman’s Log post about Gąsiorowski’s work.


  1. in the criticism from Moscow link in the comments of PG’s post i see two examples where mongolian words are listed, about head and about ashes,
    from 4 words for head, three means indeed head, but maybe not anatomically, *teriɣün ‘head; before, first’, – terguun, means really head but as if like honorifically, not anatomically, as front, top
    *heki ‘head; front’, – ekh, mother or beginning, as for river or anything, knowledge, state, humans, something like beginning, source and base, I think the commenter has mistaken this word for another one listed in the link about 4heads
    *tolugai ‘head’, – anatomical head
    *taraki ‘brain, mind; head’ – tarkhi, brain
    the commenter misses horgil – orgil, for top, indeed, head, of a mountain, for example
    for ashes
    “В алтайской базе обнаруживаются 6 корней с глоссой ‘ashes’:
    1) *č`ṓga ‘ashes; glowing coals’” – yes, indeed, there is a word tsog, means ashes, still burning
    2) *k`i̯āla ‘hot; ashes’ – there is a word, gal, means fire, if combined with tsog gal tsog, galtai tsog – would mean still burning ashes
    3) *k`i̯ŭ̀ru(mV) ‘ashes; soot’ kirbu-su -hyarvas, hinshuu means smoke, the smell of burning, the sight of smoke
    4) *pép`à ‘dust; ashes’ bayas – is excrements, nothing to do with ashes, if dust is will be toos
    5) *p`oĺńe ‘ashes; grey’ mong. hunesu – uns, ashes, cold and grey
    6) *ǯi̯àjnà ‘to burn; ashes; tar’ -?
    I think there are many more words, meaning ashes or burning, in our vocabulary but if to take really like the basic words, for head – tolgoi, for ashes – uns and compare those between the languages maybe the same conclusion could be reached, no?
    At least the database seems not that all like “garbage”, if all four words for head are indeed head, top in my language example, and all at least 5 words for ashes are ashes, meaning slightly different ashes in my language, and there must be all those corresponding words in other languages meaning the same meanings, if just ashes or head, then of course things will get a bit distorted, but if a commenter criticizing also can make mistakes just citing, 1:4, it’s I think remarkable how the original nostratic linguists compiled and brought together all the words

  2. Kindly look over my writig. Thank you
    Petr Jandacek 127 La Senda Rd. Los Alamos NM 87544 USA
    Please take a look at my paper: WORDS FOR ELEPHANT ARE SIMILAR IN MUCH OF EURASIA
    Chinese S ee AH N g
    Hakka (south China) S I O N g
    Tocharian A ON K A L A M
    Tocharian B ON K O L M O
    Latvian Z I L O N us
    Saami/Lapp S L O NN
    Tibetan G L A N
    Slavic (MANY languages!) S L O N
    Polish (Slavic variant) S “u” O N
    Vietnamese C O N VOI
    Mongol Z A A N
    Japanese Z O S A N (or ZO
    I’send a whole paper on request

  3. marie-lucie says

    using the same allegedly rigorous techniques the proto-Eurasiatic crew rely on
    In my experience, claims to be using “the most rigorous techniques of the comparative method” need to be taken with a large helping of salt. People who actually use the methods properly don’t usually need to boast about how rigorous they are.
    read: it’s I think remarkable how the original nostratic linguists compiled and brought together all the words
    This is what historical linguists do, and by observing the correspondences between languages which have been determined to be related, they try to reconstruct the common ancestor (proto-language) of the relevant family. The data you quote start with *forms, meaning reconstructed forms supposed to have been those of the proto-language (it is not clear to me which proto-language it is: Proto-Mongolic? Proto-Uralic? Nostratic? something else?). It is impossible to judge whether the forms are reconstructed plausibly without seeing the corresponding forms in the other languages considered.
    For instance, it is possible that the reconstruction in 5) is correct: *p`oĺńe ‘ashes; grey’, but without seeing the corresponding forms in other languages, it is certainly not obvious how the Mongolian words mong. hunesu – uns, ashes, cold and grey can fit in with the reconstructed word. Not only that, but one would have to look at other Mongolian words beginning with [h] to see whether they regularly correspond to those beginning with [p`] in other languages, and similarly with the other sounds. This is the type of things that makes other linguists skeptical about the validity of the “Nostratic” or “Eurasiatic” reconstructions: these reconstructions are based on yet other reconstructions of groups of families, such as Indo-European, which are included in both the proposed “Nostratic” and “Eurasiatic” supergroups. Reconstruction is not easy to do, even for closely related languages, and it becomes harder to do in languages which are more distantly related. If the first set of reconstructions, at the most basic level, is incorrectly done, then the second set is unlikely to be valid, let alone the third set.

  4. I think it’s important that Alexei Kassian, one of the contributors to the Nostratic database, and a fine historical linguist (I’m familiar with his work on the languages of ancient Anatolia), has published a well-considered refutation of the paper and its methodology. He’s very open abot the fact that the current version of the database is a hodge-podge of half-processed data, sometimes from outdates sources, and that it will take a few years to turn it into something usable. Coming from a Moscow School linguist, it’s a nail in the coffin of the PNAS study.

  5. “If the first set of reconstructions, at the most basic level, is incorrectly done”
    which i am saying too i guess, cz the words they say are mongolian are indeed mongolian, meaning what they imply, when those are recalled as examples of errors, so i presume other corresponding words from other languages must be correctly meaning close meanings, then the data put into must be are not all that “garbage”, if it’s not all ” garbage” then must be the results of the computation/analysis or whatever they used are not all that ‘nonsense” to be discarded from the beginning
    the authors say proto-world, no? so why if proto PIE then all is good and legitimate if anything else, then it’s all garbage and nonsense is what i can’t understand from all this discussions

  6. your well-considered refutation contains that error in citing an example too, so i am not sure, to err is human and all that of course, sure if the original dataset is incorrect there is nothing to talk about of course, but if it’s pretty closely matched words
    then that garbage in garbage out seems like not that very convincing argument is all i am saying

  7. Rodger C says

    I just read Gasiorowski’s “Eurasiatic: A Wild Pursuit (I)” and was pleased to see him comparing visually the Schiaparelli globe of Mars, with its neat canals, and a modern photograph. I’d already been thinking about that analogy: half a century ago in school I made a Mars globe essentially identical to Schiaparelli’s (except not as neat). I think I still have it somewhere, but the green magic-markered canals have faded over time, leaving their names floating mysteriously over nothing, like obsolete technical words passed into common language.

  8. read, as usual you don’t know what you’re talking about and seem to have no interest in learning anything. I honestly don’t understand why you participate in these discussions; all you add is noise. I’d ignore it except that you frequently waste marie-lucie’s time—she keeps trying to educate you in the futile hope that you’ll pay attention.

  9. yes, you can ignore me, all i say is the data seems not all that garbage, i cant tell for other languages, but what is cited from mongolian seem are correct, noise or what
    i seem to notice that when you have nothing to say concrete to refute me you just choose to accuse me of whatever
    dont analyze me, say what you have to say about the topic is all i say too

  10. What does “внешнеэтимологического” in Kassian’s article mean? Google Translate falls back to Google Transliterate on it.
    I conjecture “unetymological”, but I may be like Spiro conjecturing Ex-Lax.

  11. внешне ~~ superficially (literally “on the outside” or “by appearances”)

  12. Sorry John I opined too fast:) And tech issue of some sort blocks me now…

  13. Sorry John I opined too fast:)
    In Kassian’s excellent analysis, the word isn’t used for general critique; rather, “external etymology” is a specific methodological term describing one of several criteria used for semantic annotation of proto-languages (i.e. which particular meanings are associated with a particular reconstruction). (He describes it English in a paper on proto-Lezgian, pp. 5-6)

  14. Kassian lists “topological constraints” (minimizing the number of nodes with changed meanings on the phylogenetic tree), “external and internal etymological constraints” (external etymology maximizes fit with neighboring nodes on the phylogenetic tree, while internal etymology penalizes derived / figurative meanings emerging within the language itself, and favors only primary meanings), and “semantic shift directionality constraints” (where some meanings are only supposed to shift in one direction, but not backwards; in his example, from “to shine” one may get “moon”, but not the other way around).

  15. There is no doubt that in genetics, the equivalent of external etymology is its overarching principle, and ambiguity of semantic reconstruction is barely addressed, if at all. That’s because the most useful genetic “words” occur in the same contexts of longer, unambiguously identified “texts” (like variations in mitochondrial DNA). The equivalency of semantics is thus completely assured.

  16. Then there are genetic motifs which are repeatedly utilized for different related functions in the genome, and sometimes abandoned in non-functional state (roughly paralleling primary, derived, and archaic meanings in a language), but those “words” are typically excluded from phylogenetic analyses.

  17. Well, following Clarke 1877, iirc Quechua is a Khita-Peruvian language, like Etruscan and the then-undecyphered Hittite.

  18. Pagel et al. may be tempted to consider semantic ambiguities to be a random fluctuation, sort of averaged out in the statistical analysis. But Kassian suggests that selecting semantic reconstructions based solely on “external etymological constraints” introduces a non-random bias of ascertainment into the data (borrowed words, or derived meanings of later times, will be selected more often than by chance if they show external, and likely superficial, similarities).

  19. Language Hat, it’s crazy, I had to chop up my comment into a dozen pieces to get it posted, and one sentence had to omitted completely, and I can’t figure out why.

  20. Test: So the current toolkit of genetics is unprepared for *** of proto-language reconstruction.

  21. Aha, the offending words were
    sеmantic complеxity

  22. Dmitry, try spelling it “semantic complex*ty”. The string ex*t (replacing * with i) is foul word in proto-Hattic. To protect the innocence of younger readers of the blog, the software will not allow you to include that string in anything you post.

  23. marie-lucie says

    read, I don’t have any quarrel with the Mongolian words, since I don’t know the language and you are a native speaker. What I am saying is that I cannot take it for granted that the reconstructions (at whatever level) are valid, without knowing a lot more not just about Mongolian but about the various language families which are grouped together as “Nostratic”, “Euroasiatic” and a few others proposed groups (which cannot all be right).
    With PIE, it is not the case that that language was so special in itself, but that many, many scholars have been working on its reconstruction for at least 150 years, and they still don’t have all the answers although there is a lot of agreement on the basics. With the other, higher-level proposed groups (such as Nostratic and Eurasiatic) which include several large families (such as Indo-European and Uralic), far fewer people have been working on them, and for less time, therefore it is not surprising that that work cannot be taken for granted without having access to the words (in many languages) that the reconstructions are based on. I did not say that the reconstructions you quoted were wrong, only that I (or any other linguist with the same experience) had no way of checking how they were arrived at.

  24. yes, i understand what you are saying, i just say that the data are seem not all that “garbage” and if you, a professional historical linguist can’t say whether the reconstructions are correct or not how then others can judge whether they are correct or not, and the number of years one language family was studied or how many people were studying it is irrelevant imo, to reject new hypotheses based only on those criteria
    if the mongolian words in the database are correct, the other languages’ words must be are also compiled carefully enough was my point
    about your saying how “*p`oĺńe ‘ashes; grey’, but without seeing the corresponding forms in other languages, it is certainly not obvious how the Mongolian words mong. hunesu – corresponds to that” is exactly how i find it bewildering other words’, even less similarly looking ones’, etymologies are grouped together, the most famous one being of course around here the wheel example, so must be the rules you apply in those reconstructions must be can be used in this example too, no? and the list gives you other corresponding words in other languages there too if you would wish to reconstruct it yourself, so if one goes to the supplementary material and pulls out all those mistakes and argues, i have no problem with that at all, like the link from Moscow two examples, just saying it all nonsense and garbage will perhaps elicit the same reaction from me, of disbelief, how scientific discussions can be carried out at, i guess
    if your excuse is you dont know those languages, then the nostracists know those it seems like, they are qualified professional linguists not any that different than you, right? just of a different school of thought, so why their attempts of reconstructions should be treated as nonsense when PIE’s reconstructions are all scientifically proven, fair is fair etc.

  25. “еxit”! Oh, good to know. When properly spelled, yes, it gets a crazy sounding problem alright:
    You don’t have permission to access /mt/mt-comments.cgi on this server.
    Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

  26. A better approach is to insert “<b></b>” into the problematic word. It looks the same as the normal word, can be searched for as the normal word, but fools WordPress’s two-volt brain into not seeing the word as bad.

  27. Are there any other forbidden strings besides ex*t? Hat, since people have trouble with this from time to time, have you considered placing a link to a page with instructions regarding this and giving the best workarounds somewhere in the sidebar of the blog. It might be useful and cut down on frustration.
    Regarding Bill W’s joke about “ex*t” being an obscenity in proto-Hattic, I read that, and absently thought “ancient near-east language.” Um, no, that would be Hittite. Definitely too late for me to be up. I need to be in bed. Sleeping. Nice joke though.

  28. Bill Walderman says

    Actually, Hattic is (or was) a language, so far as we know an isolate, spoken in the same area of Anatolia as Hittite:
    But none other than Aleksei Kassian has apparently proposed links to “Sino-Caucasian.”

  29. Yeah, sorry about the forbidden-string thing; I’m hoping my stepson/administrator will have time to move LH to a different platform where I can keep out the spam now that school is out (he works for a college), but if he can’t do it in the near future I guess I’d better post a warning. Man, I hate spammers. (They’re also causing LH to run out of bandwidth earlier each month.)

  30. marie-lucie says

    read, if you read any of my comments, I have not used the terms “garbage” and “nonsense”. And no, I am not going to try to reconstruct alternate proto-forms for the ones you quoted above, or to prove them right, because I don’t know any of the languages they are based on, or how (and even whether) they are related. I have plenty of work to do with the languages of my own specialty. Reconstructions are not easy to do, even for closely related languages (for instance English, German, Dutch), and when presented with a few reconstructions based on languages I don’t know, I might at best be able to say whether they looked plausible or not given the data, not whether they were correct, because reconstruction of a proto-language needs to be based on more than a short group of words (I am not saying that Nostraticists, for instance, only use a short group of words, just that in the present case I have only seen a short group of reconstructed forms). As for linguists’ professional qualifications, at the present time many linguists are not qualified in the historical branch, which is not very popular (as opposed to theory). And even those who have taken exactly the same courses have not learned the same languages and had the same experiences after graduating.
    As an example of professional disagreements, historical linguistics could be compared with archeology. Faced with the same set of ruins found buried in the ground, different archeologists might interpret them differently at first sight, or disagree with the date, or with who had built them, etc, but by digging deeper and extending their digs further from the original site they might be confirmed in their opinions, or change their minds: they might end up both agreeing with one of the interpretations, or agreeing with an entirely different interpretation suggested by what they discovered in the ground, or with one of them quitting in disgust, etc. The average person or journalist (I mean someone not trained in archeology) might not even have noticed the ruins (under a mound of grass, say), and might like one interpretation more than another, but is not qualified to evaluate the archeologists’ work. Another archeologist whose specialty is a very different country and culture might notice if the first ones made gross errors or had overlooked something crucial, but without being able to evaluate all the results of their work or to choose between different interpretations which might both seem plausible.

  31. yes, i know, you dont use those demeaning words, and it’s how the discussions ideally should go of course
    i read always your comments carefully and learn i think a lot from them, not like others imply that i dont, just imagine the same things said at me if told to you and how would you feel when told that, that you shouldnt participate in whatever discussions for whatever reasons, hope you understand my reactions better then
    so a nostratic researcher also criticized the study and his examples of errors i just tried to analyze, within the limits of my knowledge of course, that is all

  32. There ought to be a prize for blog comments with outstandingly clear explanations and analogies. Hat, there is a lesson here for grumpy, impatient old men like me and some others I could mention. Look what the lady accomplishes with her patience.
    It couldn’t be called the Tarpent To-the-point Prize, because prizes named after a person are usually set up posthumously, yet she deserves one now. Perhaps “The Lifetime Tarpent Prize” ?

  33. Re: Hattic actually being an ancient near-eastern language; it’s nice to learn something new every day.
    Re: protecting the innocence of young readers 😉 ….Years ago, when my older children were young, I saw a picture book in our local public library. The basic story was how the narrarator’s ancestor had left Denmark and come to America (thus my interest and the reason that I took it down from the shelf to read). He travelled west in a wagon until one of the wagon-wheels became stuck in the mud (and perhaps broke?) So he built his house there. It was a nice book, but there was one thing. When the wagon broke, the man exclaimed, “For pokker!” I was shocked that I’d just read that in a children’s book, even if the book was in English. (The words mean “damn it!” in Danish.) Maybe one of the native speakers here can reassure me that the register of the word is not genuinely obscene or that they would not have the least hesitation or guilt in using the expression in the presence of a 5 year old?

  34. @Stu: Yes, marie-lucie certainly deserves at least one prize. I think I would give her two:
    One is for her crystal clear exposition, which somehow manages to be, every time, simultaneously thorough and to the point.
    The other is for her genuinely saintlike imperviousness to provocation. If she ever feels annoyance, she seems to set it aside without effort, knowing that to show it would only fan the flames and interfere with the educational process. I think that I once, _once_, witnessed a small outburst of annoyance on her part. Were it not for that, I might doubt that she is of this world.

  35. Hats off to m-l! She is a better (and more tolerant) person than I am!

  36. I join in the hat-doffing and praise! But I know that when she comes back to the thread she’s going to be embarrassed. You’ll just have to put up with our admiration, m-l.

  37. hoho, i must be annoy people that much, directly proportionally to the degree m-l is admired
    and i am okay with that too of course

  38. i must be annoy people that much, directly proportionally to the degree m-l is admired
    read can be amazingly perceptive. Actually, a lot of her comments are perceptive and interesting. My main objection is to comments like ‘I don’t like that so I’m not going to believe it’ or ‘I’m not going to change my mind whatever evidence you may produce’. That’s when the fireworks start. m-l is indeed a saint!

  39. read, my only regret about posting that comment was my fear that you would think I was calling you annoying. I wish I could have said it without offending you.

  40. no no Mr. E, i’m sure okay with the comments admiring m-l, i was not offended of course, cz i admire m-l too

  41. SFReader says

    —one would have to look at other Mongolian words beginning with [h] to see whether they regularly correspond to those beginning with [p`] in other languages
    Yes, it’s very common correspondence, especially between Mongolic and Tungusic.
    Proto-Altaic: *póńe ( ~ p`-)
    Meaning: smoke
    Proto-Mongolian: *huni-
    Meaning: 1 smoke 2 mist
    Written Mongolian: unijar, ünijer 2 (L 877, 1010)
    Middle Mongolian: xunin (HY 1, SH) 1, honi (IM) 1, hunin (MA) 1
    Khalkha: uniar 2
    Buriat: uńār 2
    Kalmuck: uńār, ünǟr 2
    Ordos: unār(i) 2
    Dongxian: funie 1
    Baoan: fǝnǝ 1
    Dagur: xoni (Тод. Даг. 177), xoń, xonētu 1; onir (Тод. Даг. 159) 2 ( Oroch puńa ‘smoky’, Ud. puŋkisi- ‘to smoke out’.
    Proto-Altaic: *p`ŭrVk`V
    Meaning: rope, lasso
    Turkic: *uruk
    Proto-Mongolian: *huraka
    Meaning: lasso, bird net
    Russian meaning: аркан, сеть для ловли птиц
    Written Mongolian: uriqa, uraqa(n) (L 880)
    Middle Mongolian: xuraqa (SH), uruqa (MA 367)
    Khalkha: urxi(n)
    Buriat: uŕxa
    Kalmuck: urxǝ
    Ordos: uraxa
    Dagur: xuarkǝ (urga Тод. Даг. 171 Manchu urgan ‘lasso’ (see Rozycki 219).
    Proto-Tungus-Manchu: *purka
    Meaning: lasso
    Evenki: hurka
    Even: hụrqъ̣
    Negidal: xojka
    Ulcha: puča
    Orok: pụta
    Nanai: pojqa
    Oroch: xukka
    Udighe: xuka
    Comments: ТМС 2, 352-353.

  42. SFR!
    i thought the North Koreans kidnapped you 🙂

  43. marie-lucie says

    Dear fellow Hatters (and Mr Hat of course), I am both delighted and embarrassed by your fulsome praise, but please don’t exaggerate: I may give clear explanations (I try, anyway), but I am no saint! Mellowed with age, perhaps, and instructed by painful experience. But thank you all!

  44. Ah, fulsome praise. Now when I were a lad, fulsome always had a bad sense: overdone, and therefore offensive. Now it can be good or bad and you have to figure out from context. Old farts today!
    (Historically, of course, this was always true.)

  45. marie-lucie says

    JC: fulsome praise : I intended it as ironic, but not in a bad way (not sarcastic, for instance).

  46. David Marjanović says

    Kassian’s livejournal post mentioned above (May 19, 2013 at 11:50 am and 5:17 pm) has recently become part of this paper in English.

  47. Lars (the original one) says

    @Isadora (May 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm): If you’re still reading, for pokker is pretty innocuous, neither scatological nor sacrilegious, but invoking the now obsolete name of some disease (pox or syphilis, at a time when the latter was not known to be sexually transmitted). If a five year old has learned to say Av for pokker when stubbing their toe, very few if any modern Danes will think it anything but cute.

  48. John Cowan says

    some disease (pox or syphilis […]

    Rather the symptoms (‘pocks, boils’) than the diseases. Pox is a variant spelling for pocks; syphilis was once known as the great pox, as distinct from the smallpox.

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