Anuario del Seminario de Filología Vasca "Julio de Urquijo" (Jul 2011)

Etymological notes on Aleut (III). With methodological notes on (Eskimo-Aleut) historical linguistics

  • José Andrés Alonso

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 45, no. 2


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The goal of this contribution is twofold: on the one hand, to review two relatively recent contributions in the field of Eskimo-Aleut historical linguistics in which it is proposed that Eskimo-Aleut languages are related genealogically to Wakashan (Holst 2004) and?/or Nostratic (Krougly-Enke 2008). These contributions can be characterized by saying that their authors have taken little care to be diligent and responsible in the application of the comparative method, and that their familiarity with the languages involved is insufficient. Eskimo-Aleut languages belong to a very exclusive group of language families that have been (and still are) used, sometimes compulsively, in the business of so-called "long-range comparisons". Those carrying out such studies are very often unaware of the most basic facts regarding the philological and linguistic traditions of those languages, as a result of what mountains of very low quality works with almost no-relevancy for the specialist grow every year to the desperation of the scientific community, whose attitude toward them ranges from the most profound indifference to the toughest (and most explicit) critical tone. Since Basque also belongs to this group of "compare-with-everything-you-come-across" languages, it is my intention to provide the Basque readership with a sort of "pedagogical case" to show that little known languages, far from underrepresented in the field, already have a very long tradition in historical and comparative linguistics, i.e. nobody can approach them without previous acquaintance with the acquaintance with the materials. Studies dealing with the methodological inappropriateness of the Moscow School's Nostratic hypothesis or the incorrectness of many of the proposed new taxonomic Amerindian subfamilies (several of them involving the aforementioned Wakashan languages), that is to say, the frameworks on which Krougly-Enke and Holst work, respectively, are plenty (i.a. Campbell 1997: 260-329, Campbell & Poser 2008: 234-96), therefore there is no reason to insist once more on the very same point. This is the reason why I will not discuss per se Eskimo-Aleut–Wakashan or Eskimo-Aleut–Nostratic. On the contrary, I will focus attention upon very concrete aspects of Krougly-Enke and Holst ́s proposals, i.e. when they work on "less ambitious" problems, for example, dealing with the minutiae of internal facts or analyzing certain words from the sole perspective of Eskimo-Aleut materials (in other words, those cases in which even they do not invoke the ad hoc help of Nostratic stuff). I will try to explain why some of their proposals are wrong, demonstrate where the problem lies, and fix it if possible. In doing so, I will propose new etymologies in an attempt at showing how we may proceed. The main difference between this and handbook examples lies in the reality of what we are doing: this is a pure etymological exercise from beginning to end. I will try to throw a bit of light on a couple of problematic questions regarding Aleut historical phonology, demonstrating how much work should be done at the lowest level of the Eskimo-Aleut pyramid; it is technically impossible to reach the peak of the pyramid without having completed the base. As far as Aleut is regarded, I will mainly profit not only from the use of the traditional philological analysis of Aleut (and, eventually, of Eskimo) materials, but also of diachronic typology, bringing into discussion what in my opinion seems useful, and in some cases I think decisive, parallels. It is worth noting that this paper makes up yet another part of a series of exploratory works dealing with etymological aspects of the reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo-Aleut, with special emphasis on Aleut (vid. i.a. Alonso de la Fuente 2006/2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2010a), whose main goal is to become the solid basis for an etymological dictionary of the Aleut language, currently in progress.