Typology of Northern Eurasia: Vocalism

Even among scholars who don’t consider ‘Altaic languages’ to be a valid cladistic grouping it is common to think of these languages as at least typologically similar. Thus, it would be useful to sketch out what these common traits are, to what extent are they found in other (vaguely) neighbouring languages, and more importantly, what differences are found between them. A good starting point would be comparing the vowel systems.

Turkic

The system usually considered most representative in naive approaches is that of Turkic, which contains in its most minimal form a perfect cube of 8 vowels distinguished by [+/-high][+/-front] and [+/-rounded]: /*a *ä *o *ö *u *ü *i *ï/.

However there are further complications, first of which being that there was also a closed *e with reflexes different from *ä in some languages, being written as i in Old Turkic and merging with i in Chuvash for example. Yet, some researchers have proposed that this phoneme is produced by an early soundlaw *ä: > *e:, however others claim that both pairs of *ä *ä: and *e *e: are distinguished.

Another proposed phoneme is *ë, a mid-back unrounded vowel, meant to explain the correspondence of Chuvash ï ~ Yakut ï ~ Other languages a, as well  as cases of a appearing in some Old Turkic inscriptions, Chuvash, Yakut, Khalaj or Mongolian where other languages have ï. Nonetheless, these correspondences are imperfect and this phoneme is not accepted by all (or even most?) Turkologists.

And the third proposed addition is *ia which is introduced to explain cases of Chuvash Ću ~ Common Turkic *Ca ~ Mongolic *Cï where Ć symbolizes  palatalization of the preceding consonant and u being the normal reflex of Turkic *a in Chuvash. [1] There is a theory that seeks to explain this phenomenon through regular breaking of *a: > *ia in Oghur, however sifting through Turkic comparative materials it is easy to find many exceptions to this rule.

Mongolic

Similar to Turkic, Proto-Mongolic vowel system is commonly denoted as /*a *e *o *ö *u *ü *i *ï/, however in most Mongolic languages ‘front’ and ‘back’ vowels are in fact distinguished by vowel height/pharyngealization/tongue root position. For example, the vowel system of Chakhar Mongolian is /ɑ ə ɔ o ʊ u i ɪ/, this is traditionally called ‘rotation’ with the idea that previously front vowels backed to their current position.

However as this backing is less phonetically plausible than the reverse direction, it is increasingly popular to posit that Proto-Mongolic was based on tongue root harmony. Yet this is difficult to reconcile with Middle Mongolian, where the spelling of *ü implies palatality in Uighur script (ui), ‘Phags-pa (eeu) and Sino-Mongolian (using characters with /y/ and /ju/ medials although plain /u/ is also attested).  Another important bit of data here is Khitan, which predates Proto-Mongolic as commonly reconstructed, that has both tongue root and (secondary) palatality contrasts according to Ōtake Masami.

And another smaller question is whether *ï is a phoneme or merely an allophone of *i occuring in ‘back’ vowel words. Even though no language preserves the distinction as phonemic, it seems more convenient to reconstruct due to cases like *čïkïn ‘ear’ and *čïkï- ‘to squeeze’ appearing with uvulars in Middle Mongol and *čïsun ‘blood’ and *(s)isün ‘soot’ having the same suffix but belonging to different classes.

Diphthongoids, including double vowels, are in Mongolic in some cases contractions of earlier *-VCV- sequences as I’ve explained earlier, currently I know of no reason to presume there were any such sequences of different origin. (I may cover supersegmentals in another post)

In a sense, Mongolic vocalism stands between Turkic and Tungusic, which should not be surprising.

Tungusic

Unlike Mongolic, I have no doubt at all that Tungusic vocalism is based on tongue root position rather than palatality. As a maximal reconstruction I would propose:/*a *ə *o *ȯ *ụ *u *ü *ị *i/, where dots below and above represent retracted and advanced tongue root respectively (caveat: some sources use the dots with the exact opposite meaning) and *ü is an actual [y] or at least [ʉ].

Here we have a similar situation as with Mongolic *ï, retracted high vowels *ụ and  *ị are likely merely allophones of *u and *i, recessively taking on retraction of other vowels in the word. In cases where there are only high vowels, they are advanced in monosyllabics and retracted otherwise, at least this is how the theory goes.

*ȯ is also not accepted by all sources, but there’s a number of fairly solid correspondence sets Evenki u ~ Even ө ~ Orok o ~ Nanai u that seem most elegantly explained through such a reconstruction.

The only diphthong accepted by all sources is *ia which has a unique reflex in all branches. Some reconstructions also have *iə, *ua, *uə, *ui and perhaps *ai. These are usually best preserved in Nanaic.

Korean

Late Middle Korean vowel system is often transcribed as /a e o wo u wu i/ supposedly representing [a ə ʌ o ɨ u i], with vowel harmony grouping low(er) a o and wo against higher e u wu and i[a ə ʌ o ɨ u i being neutral as also suggested by some analysis of Mongolic and Tungusic. However some scholars have suggested that Korean vowel harmony is a Middle Korean innovation.

Korean also features many diphthongs with on- and offglides y and w. Alexander Francis Ratte in his dissertation on Proto-Korean-Japanese seems to consider all of these secondary (deriving from consonants and contractions of multiple syllables) except for ye which he derives from Proto-Korean *e. [2]

Japanese

It seems well accepted that Proto-Japanese vowels are /*a *e *ə *o *u *i/ , and that the more complex system of Old Japanese vowels arose through contraction of earlier diphthongs (see for example Proto-Japonic *e and *o in Eastern Old Japanese).

Old Japanese also features a limitation on vowels co-occuring in roots that is sometimes compared with vowel harmony. According to Ratte, it amounts to *ə never co-occuring with *a, *o and *u, indeed this doesn’t seem to have much in common with other cases of Eurasic vowel harmony and he explains it through an earlier assimilation of *ə around these vowels, which does appear to be a priori likelier.

Uralic

The Uralic system consists of /*a *ä *e *ë *o *u *ü *i/, frontness being the distinguishing feature between umlauted pairs and with *ï sometimes added or *ë sometimes denied.

Despite incompleteness, this seems most similar to Turkic vocalism among neighboring languages (excluding traditional reconstructions of Mongolic). Perhaps it could be speculated that Turkic vocalism is itself a product of Uralic (or specifically Samoyedic) influence.

Indo-European

Proto-Indo-European possesses a minimalist inventory of /e *o *ē *ō/, marginally and controversially  *a ā, and *i *u as syllabic glides. Considering ablaut alternations, it is probable that it previously had even fewer vowels (and if glides don’t derive from breaking of some sort).

If Indo-European is related to some of the Eastern languages (Indo-Uralic being a popular hypothesis), clearly it would have to had gone through a complete collapse of its vowel system, perhaps under the influence of Caucasian languages (although Chirikba reconstructs pre-West Caucasian with *ö and *ü).

Even though early Turks partly derive genetically from Andronovo culture populations, who presumably spoke Indo-Iranian, their reduced vowel system hasn’t left a recognizable trace.

Yeniseian

I haven’t read the literature on comparative Yeniseian phonology, but from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, it seem that Proto-Yeniseian is taken to have the same inventory as Ket: /a *e *ə *o *ɨ *u *i/ with /ə ɨ/ possibly being /ɤ *ɯ/. [3]

I am hoping that investigation of the Dene-Yeniseian connection will offer further glimpses into the past of Yeniseian itself, and hopefully into the deep prehistory of Siberia.

Yukaghir

For Proto-Yukaghir Nikolaeva reconstructs /*a *e *o *ö *u *ü *i *ï (her *y)/, a full cubic system based on frontness. However this doesn’t describe the situation as found in neither Tundra nor Kolyma Yukaghir.

This back vocalic *ï surfaces as normal i, broken ya or a as well as lowered e, which is to say, in every way except as back vocalic. Nikolaeva also mentions that “In the modern languages u is  harmonically back in only a few words, mostly from Tundra Yukaghir. Such words are normally fairly recent borrowings from Tungus”, which necessitates reconstructing *ü, which reflected as a back vowel in both languages but belongs to the harmonically “front” class.

Unlike *ü, *e and *ö are found as actual front vowels in both Tundra and Kolyma, yet Nikolaeva mentions that *e was written with a or o in the earliest attestation, and while she interprets this as indicating a lower /æ/, it suggests a central /ə/  to me.

Chukotko-Kamchatkan

Fortescue gives /*a *æ *e *ə *o *u *i/ for Proto-Chukotko-Kamchatkan with recessive vowel harmony (umlaut?) based on ‘dominant’ *a *e *o against ‘recessive’ *æ *i *u and *ə being a reduced vowel acting different from full vowels.

Eskimo-Aleut

Proto-Eskimo-Aleut had /*a *ə *u *i/, the simplest (outside of Proto-Indo-European) of the vowel systems discussed here. Perhaps this is a result of a collapse of a Chukotkan-like system as happened in Kerek and Alutor, but this is baseless speculation.

Nivkh

Nivkh possesses an ideal height harmony system: /*a *ə *o *u *e *i/ which is reflected basically as such in all dialects, although actual harmonic alternations themselves have been lost in most cases.

Ainu

Most Ainu dialects apparently have simple vocalism, /*a *e *o *u *i/, but in a 1992 paper Vovin reconstructs a more complicated system with four height levels, front rounded vowels, a back unrounded *ï and two low vowels. I do not know how accepted these ideas are among other scholars.

Sino-Tibetan

Old Chinese is reconstructed with /a ə o u e i/. Marc Miyake presents an interesting idea that Old Chinese had an opposition between high and low vowels and that pharyngealization in late Old Chinese was caused by low vowels in presyllables which were lost.

Tangut also had a tense/lax distinction which might also be related to the Chinese situation, but Tangut materials are too opaque for me to grok.

Conclusion

By now, everyone interested in this type of stuff heard of the idea of advanced tongue root harmony for Proto-Mongolic [4]. Yet, it’s acceptance hasn’t been universal. In a relatively recent paper Janhunen defends original palatal harmony not only in Mongolic but Tungusic, Korean and Nivkh by noting

There are, indeed, good arguments, both internal and external, for assuming that vowel rotation was a process that was active in Northeast Asia, and that started relatively late, reaching different languages and language families in different times..

To me, it seems more inherently more plausible that a rotation happened in reverse direction, and quite unacceptable to overrule the testimony of attested language by what I suspect to be a projection archetypal Ural-Altaic languages based on familiarity. There must be something beyond that, but I am yet to hear these arguments.

Footnotes

[1] Some sources would reconstruct other *iV diphthongs such as *io or *iu, but if diagnostic palatalization in Chuvash appears in these positions as well, perhaps we would be better off reconstructing palatalized consonants.

[2] Even if Japanese and Korean may not form a valid genetic grouping, Ratte’s work seems to grasp at something real, presumably due to shared history between Korean and Japanese, just as comparisons of Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic offer insights into their prehistory that would be impossible otherwise.

[3] This is Vajda’s analysis. There are alternative takes, covered by Vajda here, but his appears most convincing.

[4] One of the earliest appearances of this theory is this paper, written by an author with a primary focus on phonology.

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Turkic genetics

(disclamer: Just as I am not a linguist, I am also not a geneticist, the following is merely speculation)

Recently a paper was published in Nature: “137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes” that for the first time (to my knowledge) explores the autosomal genetics of early Turks.

Among the featured populations are Iron age Sakas from several regions, Hunnic (Xiongnu) groups from the early first millenium, the Kangju (Sogdians), the Wusun (also Iranic), the Karluk, Karakhanid, Turk (probably Göktürk), Kipchak, Kimak (which is identified as Tungusic, probably due to confusion with Yemaek that may have started on Wikipedia) and a sample that is labeled “Golden Horde” from the steppes of Kazakhstan that apparently dates to 400 AD (?). Unfortunately there are no samples from the Tarim basin and samples from Mongolia are scarce, the best covered regions are north Kazakhstan, Sogdiana and the slopes of Tian Shan.

The most striking thing for me was how similar these early Turks (presuming their ethnolinguistic identification is correct) are to earlier Scythians (Saka) of Central Asia.

Bridging these two (meta-)populations are the “Western Xiongnu” and Hunnic groups that followed after them. These Western Xiongnu (two samples) are in a very stark contrast with the Eastern Xiongnu (three samples), the latter are practically of exclusively East Asian heritage while the former show up with only less than 50% of this component on the admixture graphs.

Later this East Asian component gradually increases, but ancestry ultimately deriving from Indo-Iranian peoples remains significant for early (and presumably modern) Turks. To explain how the Turks started speaking Turkic, the authors posit that the originally Iranian-speaking Western Xiongnu adopted it as the language of the Eastern Xiongnu elite.

While there’s no doubt that the Iranic world was always connected with Inner Asia, I’d like to propose a different hypothesis: that the Siberian Scythians (Sakas) were already speaking a language ancestral to Proto-Turkic. Going by the graphs given in the paper, there’s a much bigger jump in East Asian ancestry from Andronovo to Eastern Sakas than from Western Xiongnu to early Turks.

Thus, the Eastern Xiongnu would not be the original Turks, but rather the Xianbei (pre-Mongols) and other similar tribes and the Hunnic period would represent the first period of intensive Turco-Mongolic influence, possibly bidirectional. As for their potential genetic relatedness, it would have to date to the expansion of Trans-Baikalian hunter-gatherers to the west.

Another recent paper that might be of interest but that I won’t cover right now is “The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia“. Apropos Turks, comparing these two papers, it seems unlikely that populations mentioned therein (Botai, Okunev) had a significant contribution to their formation since I imagine it would show up as heightened Eastern Hunter Gatherer related ancestry in relevant populations.

 

Mongolic *x and *g

In comparative Mongolic phonology, two sounds are usually distinguished, one, which I will write *x, disappears between vowels (presuming it existed, Nugteren reconstructs these sequences as vowel hiatuses) forming diphthongs and long vowels, while the other, which I will write *g, is preserved in all languages as an unaspirated or voiced stop or fricative.

Diachronically there are three possible sources of *x:

  1. Earlier *p, which is otherwise missing in Mongolic, evidenced by internal alternations between *b and *x (Proto-Mongolic *dexel vs. Kalmyk devl) and external comparison with Turkic and Tungusic words.
  2. Earlier *ŋ, which is not otherwise found intervocally. In internal alternations (*möxersün ~ *möŋgersün, *noxasun ~ *nuŋgasun) and perhaps some Turkic loans (cognates?), but most show *ŋg.
  3. Turkic *in loans, which was probably already a continuant at the time of loaning.
  4. Earlier plosive *g.

The fourth source is most recognized, but also the most problematic, as there is no clear conditioning environment in which *g would lenite into *x. Intervocally *g is not as common as it could be expected by comparing distributions of other plosives, but it is hardly marginal, and the distinction between *-VgV– and *-VxV– is firmly phonemic.

One explanation (due to Poppe, IIRC, but I can’t find the original paper) is that lenition operated before primary long vowels which were shortened in Mongolic, but preserved in Tungusic. This theory was later abandoned, but it seems to have been implicitly revived in Tumurtogoo’s collection of Pre-classical Uighur-script monuments.

A more promising direction sometimes taken is the idea that *g derives from earlier *k by a lenition process while earlier **g regularly turns to *x , but again the conditioning factor is unknown.

Another piece of evidence are Mongolic loans into Evenki which reflect *x as *k, with an unexpected strength mismatch, which I interpret as Evenki *g being already fricative and/or voiced while Mongolic **g > *x was still a plosive. Alternatively, maybe there is a strength switch phenomenon behind this that is also responsible for the mismatch found in the ‘stone’ word (Tungusic *ǯolo ~ Mongolic *čïlaxun ~ Turkic *diāl’ ~ Korean dol).

Despite all of this, I want to reiterate that *g and *x (and *k) are different phonemes in Proto-Mongolic and in the language of earliest Uighur monuments too (sometimes called pre-Proto-Mongolic, an abuse of terminology I disagree with). The fact that both are represented with the same pair of glyphs can be chalked to widespread homography of the Mongol script, distinguishing between *g and *x is as natural as distinguishing between *o/ö and *u/ü or *k and *g, or even more, but for historical reasons they are too often treated as the same sound.

 

Classification of Tungusic

There is a nice overview of previous attempts at classifying Tungusic languages in Robeets’ review of Recent advances in Tungusic linguistics (Turcologica 89), available at ResearchGate. Most of the schemes (other than Vovin 1993) work with four subgroups: 1) Evenki-Even (with Negidal and Solon), 2) Udege-Oroch, 3) Nanaic (Nanai, Ulcha and Orok) and 4) Manchu; and disagree on their genetic relations, the most common question being whether Manchu is the first group to diverge or if it belongs with Nanaic, and whether Udege-Oroch belongs with Northern or Southern languages.

There are many details of Tungusic comparative phonology which may be discussed when attempting a categorization. However, if we’re researching genetic relatedness, only those correspondences which can plausibly represent earliest branch-defining innovations are of direct importance.

From the sound laws usually mentioned (lenition/debuccalization of *p-, contraction of *-VgV- sequences, …)  the one I found most informative, is the correspondence of /i/ ~ /i/ ~ /u/ ~ /u/, reconstructed as original *ü. This is because the backing of a front rounded vowel seems less common cross-linguistical than other isoglosses offered.  By emphasizing this law I commit to a North-South model which splits the family into two equal halves, so let’s see how this might work out chronologically.

The Southern group

The Southern group couldn’t have stayed together for too long as there aren’t that many clear common innovations after the backing, here are some I can think of:

The fortition of intervocalic nasals

Correspondance of Southern /-ŋg-/ to Northern /-ŋ-/ seems very clear cut as a Southern innovation, but it is also quite common and thus a possible parallel innovation.

However there are also plenty of cases of /-nd-/ corresponding to /-n-/ which is more meaningful and likely related to the velar analogue, but pretty problematic as both /n/ and /nd/ between vowels appear to be phonotactically permitted in all Tungusic languages. For what it’s worth, EDAL reconstructs words such as *ŋin(d)a-(kün) “dog” with an *-nd-. There are also some cases of variation between /-m-/ and /-mb-/, but they are too chaotic for me to make sense of.

Presumably someone wrote about all this already and collected the relevant data, but I haven’t read it, Tsintsius doesn’t go into much detail in her Comparative phonetics, and I also didn’t find it in my cursory readings of Doerfer’s Mongolo-Tungusica.

Contraction of  *-VgV

This one is sometimes mentioned as an argument for grouping the Udege-Oroch group together with the Southern, as it also found there, however this change is quite common, especially if assume that *g was medially a [ɣ] already in Proto-Tungusic as it is in Evenki and Even (but not in Negidal), so I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in all three branches independently.

Palatalization of *-rK

All languages except Even and Evenki have something going on with these clusters, so perhaps this concerns an earlier or a later period.

Nanai at least has a very clear change of *-rK– into –jK– (there are similar phenomena in some Northern languages, but they have a general iotation of *r) and Manchu has complete affrication. Ulcha and Orok  show Č and T respectively, however they feature a more general change of *-RK– > –-/-RT-,  although resonants other than *r do not disappear in this position.

Then it could perhaps be possible to reconstruct *rK > *jK for Common South Tungusic, however the fact that Udege, Oroch and Negidal iotated *r probably indicates that this is an areal feature or that Proto-Tungusic *r was already somehow close to [j] by articulation and changed in several languages independently.

The Northern group

In the north:

  1. *ü became *i and *ui became*
  2. *p– became *h
  3. *x– disappeared
  4. Intervocallically *p and *b became *w
  5. Possibly *ua became *
  6. Perhaps *-nd- became *n as discussed above

None of these changes are unique, but they are more numerous than common Southern Tungusic innovations, so this appears unproblematic. However, we glossed  something important over merely by using the term “North Tungusic”, geographically Udege and Oroch are spoken to the south of Nanaic languages, this can be clearly seen on this Ethnologue map which sadly doesn’t display China, but if it did it would be clear that Nanai continues down Sungari (Songhua) river. There are some theories that the Udege could have come from the north, but historically, during the Jurchen empire, they were found even further to the south and later migrated north to their current position. (See Nikolaeva’s A Grammar of Udihe for more details)

Where then was “North Tungusic” spoken? We could probably do worse than look at major waterways (or a more detailed map in Russian) when considering expansions of ancient populations. Due to diversity found in the Amur region, I would prefer to place Proto-Tungusic here rather than near Baikal or in Manchuria as it has been suggested previously.

If we start from the Amur, it seems clear that the Evenki group could have followed Amur upstream to Siberia with Negidals looping back to Amur via Amgun river and Solons entering Manchuria by following the Argun. The Manchu group must have followed Songhua all the way to Yalu river on the Sino-Korean border where Jurchens are first mentioned, and deep into Manchuria by Nen river. Nanaic languages expanded down the Amur with the Oroks finally reaching Sakhalin. The situation with Udege-Oroch is less clear, and if don’t accept their hypothetical migration from the north, “Common North Tungusic” as such would be impossible.

How then did these isoglosses come to be? I believe the key lies in Nanai dialects of China and the Kur-Urmi region. Here is a recent presentation discussing these languages by Andreas Hölzl, even if they are traditionally considered dialects of Nanai, a lot (I previously had the impression that it was the most although it appears to be more complicated) of their vocabulary has features common to “North Tungusic”.

Hölzl considers these languages as mixed and he cites Kazama’s opinion (which he disagrees with) that one of these languages, Kilen is a “a “missing link” between Ewenic and Udegheic”.  Under the Amuric hypothesis, it is exactly this view that appears most elucidating.Basically this is the plot as I’d have it:

The original Proto-Tungusic speakers spread across the Amur basin, most importantly splitting at the Songhua river delta. After this a subdialect develops on Songhua and down the Amur which will develop into “South Tungusic”, with the ancestors of Evenks and Evens to the north of  it, and the Proto-Udeges to the south. But before long, a backflow from the north or the south or both enters the Songhua delta territory again along with the Kur-Urmi region, splitting the Proto-Manchu group from Proto-Nanaic and creating something like a Common “North Tungusic” area that linguistic innovations could be transmitted through. Not only between Evenki and Udege groups, but possibly also to Nanaic.

Meanwhile Manchu-Jurchen drifted away from the rest of Tungusic, but that is a story for another post.

Hüis Tolgoi

Lately there has been some news about the Hüis Tolgoi inscription. In particular that it was interpreted as Mongolic.
For some background, Hüis Tolgoi inscription is a stele discovered in Mongolia (here is the is the exact location at Google maps) in 1975 featuring vertical Brahmi writing. Lately it was a subject of an expedition which produced the following four draft papers (available at academia.edu):
The Khüis Tolgoi inscription – signs and sounds  – by Dieter Maue
Khüis Tolgoi inscription – On the discovery, the whereabouts, condition of the stones, and our expedition – by Mehmet Ölmez
The Historical context to the Hüis Tolgoi inscription – by Etienne de la Vaissière
Interpretation of the Hüis Tolgoi Inscription – by Alexander Vovin

 

The authors are likely to be familiar to readers that keep up with “Altaic” and Asian linguistics in general. Despite great work they did here and elsewhere, I’d like to express my doubts regarding the interpretation of the language as (para)-Mongolic. These considerations are probably nothing new for the authors, but I’d like to publicize them anyways.

The first objection I have is to the idea that velars and uvulars are distinguished in writing and designate vowel harmonic class of the word. This would seem like a good idea because qağan, darqan and digīn (my transcription), recognizable Central Asian titles found in the inscription, exhibit three different guttural sounds. However, in the whole text ğ is found only in qağan, which I’d say makes it likely to be a foreign sound in the language of HT, perhaps a voiced velar fricative. The other problem is that no (front-vowel) k is found in the text. It appears to me a simpler solution to presume that we’re dealing with a single pair of velars that don’t correspond to any vowel harmonic distinction.

Yet my proposition is not without problems either. Why is q written with a special glyph instead of Brahmi k, and why does it correspond to Uighur Brahmi back q? My solution is that /k/ was spirantized in the language of HT, which would also explain why qağan and darqan are written in Karakhanid with Arabic   /x/. Of course this would mean that the glyph transcribed as x cannot be /x/, but I have no better suggestions, perhaps it is another fricative or consonant vowel combination like /ku/, which would square well with Vovin’s idea that -x could be the Mongolic nomen futuri.

As I find the idea of the text possessing an “Altaic” typology doubtful, I also have to question the decision to read all ambiguous initial (r)u- signs as /u-/, although this particular constraint does seem to have a wider distribution, so it might as well turn out to apply to the language of HT as well. Another unexpected typological feature is initial consonant clusters found in two words (kranyaguń and dro) which are strictly prohibited in both Mongolic and Turkic, perhaps they could be results of a syncope, as suggested, or maybe graphical devices to signify some vowel or consonant distinction, however I’d say they surely decrease the likelihood of the inscription being Mongolic.

As to Vovin’s idea that the language of HT is closer to Middle Mongolian than Khitan or Xianbei, it seems somewhat peculiar to me, because I’d expect from a much older language (HT precedes MM by around 600 years) to be closer to the common ancestor of the family and thus other older varieties. Instead, the reconstruction presented here is more phonologically innovative than MM, it features apocope, syncope, metathesis and contraction of (some) MM *-VxV- sequences into monopthongs. Of course this isn’t impossible, Khitan appears to be more innovative than MM on some points, yet it does again significantly reduce the likelihood of this reconstruction.

An overarching problem with Vovin’s glosses is that most convincing ones have cognates that are first attested in Turkic, this includes töre- ‘be born’, uka- ‘understand’, te– ‘say’ (not even attested in Mongolian!), katun (likely Sogdian), dörö ‘law’, tayi (from Turkic tap-) and jula ‘torch’. Others may have dubious ad hoc sound changes such as metathesis of vowels or random changes in vowel quality.

Morphology seems to be the strong point of this reconstruction. Seeing -ba, -ju, -n, -x, -un and -d, one really can’t help but think of Mongolic, but with liberties taken on every level of the reconstruction, incidental matches can happen. Even if the text looks somewhat plausible, I certainly wouldn’t put the matter “beyond reasonable doubt”.

All in all, I’m feeling kinda pessimistic if this is the best that top researchers in the field can get from this inscription, although I understand that this is merely a draft and that there are more Brahmi inscriptions to decypher. Presumably the language won’t turn out to be Turkic or Indo-European, or researchers would have identified it as such already, but I am certain that further investigation will illuminate the history of languages of the region.