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debunking of the Altaic family

From the nineteenth century up to the 1960s, it was believed that the Altaic sprachbund was actually an Altaic language family, based on shared vocabulary and grammatical features. There were two competing theories:

  • Micro-Altaic: the theory that the Turkic languages, Mongolian languages and Tungusic languages formed the Altaic family
  • Macro-Altaic: the theory that not only these but also the Japonic and Koreanic languages formed the Altaic family

The Micro-Altaic conception had more support, as it was believed to have more evidence behind it. However, linguistic research beginning in the 1960s started to cast doubt on this theory. Altaic proponents could neither produce consistent sound correspondences between the different member families, nor derive a proposed Proto-Altaic vocabulary based on them, as should have been possible if the languages were truly related. Instead, it is now believed that the similarities between the various “Altaic” languages are the result of language contact: of speakers of unrelated languages borrowing words from one another extensively, and converging their grammars as they spent centuries living side by side.