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Transeurasian languages: are Japanese and Korean related?

Darren Southcott reports from the SOAS seminar given by Dr Martine Robbeets on 20 November: “Korean and the Transeurasian languages: similarities that make a difference”. With additional material from Peter Corbishley

Korean and the Transeurasian languages was not the title of a talk designed to bring in the crowds. But slowly SOAS room G50 filled up to a respectable 25 to witness a linguistic tour de force that took us from Japan in the North Pacific to a small Jewish community in Lithuania on the Baltic, and from the Mediterranean to the sea of Okhotsk, throughout what is Transeurasia. On the journey we met ‘naked verb roots’, ‘insubordination’ , ‘copulas in common’ and ‘bound verbal morphologies.’

Anyone familiar with Korea and its culture will know that any field which postulates a genealogical relationship of language or otherwise between Korea and Japan is skirting a proverbial minefield. However, as expected the lecture remained distinctly highbrow, leaving the more impassioned discussions to the Naver blogosphere.

Doubtless having engaged in many lay discussions on the subject, the audience was clearly fascinated to hear from an expert in the field and Robbeets was certainly that. With Master’s degrees in Japanese Studies and Korean Languages, and a PhD in research into the Altaic languages, Robbeets currently splits her time between University of Leuven and University of Mainz as a research fellow.

The talk began with a brief introduction to the proposed classification of Korean. Was the Korean a language isolate, within a Japonic-Korean family, within an Altaic family, or within a Transeurasian family? Dr Robbeets was here to present us with the evidence to prove the latter, more novel proposition.

Transeurasian highway

The notion of an Altaic family of languages is fairly widespread and often the arguments are presented as a dichotomy between pro-Altaic and anti-Altaic, a divide Robbeets was keen to bridge. The Transeurasian hypothesis was in many ways a response to this division.

The language families around which this debate rages are Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Korean and Japonic. The Transeurasian and Altaic theories largely agree on these, so why Transeurasian and not Altaic? Well, firstly it is a question of geography.

The Altai Mountains in Central Asia could never have been the ancestral home of any proto-Altaic language. Multidisciplinary research has established that any proto-language would have had to have been situated more to the East, in an arc stretching through Manchuria and Siberia, around clusters loosely defined by ethnicity. Altaic theories had also seen a tendency to construct an Altaic culture around this proto-grouping, something Robbeets was keen to avoid.

There has always been considerable evidence of similarities between the languages, but there is debate as to the causes of these. Are they the result of genealogy, borrowing or independent origination? Between Korean and Japanese this has always been a bone of contention and Robbeets produced external, cultural and genealogical evidence to support her internal, linguistic evidence.

Word order is an important marker of language genealogy and is often used as a marker of contrast between Transeurasian, which are Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) and Indo-European languages, which are mostly Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). This is however weak, as with just three interchangeable linguistic parts, we cannot rule out independent origination as an explanation for similarity.

Borrowability is also an important measure of linguistic genealogy and some forms are more borrowable than others. Borrowing is high amongst the noun class of words, particularly in cultures such as those in East Asia which have shared such a close cultural history. For these reasons the verb class is often the strongest for uncovering linguistic genealogy, particularly bound morphemes as they are the least likely to be borrowed across linguistic divides.

Robbeets thus provided linguistic evidence from the corpus of Transeurasian historical languages to argue for genealogical relationships between the families which could only be explained by means of a common ancestor; a proto-Transeurasian language.

In terms of external evidence, Robbeets looked at Japan, focusing on the Yayoi people, who settled on the Japanese islands, succeeding the Jomon cultures in the centuries leading up to 500 BCE. The main islands of Honshu and Kyushu were the main areas of settlement and the genetic and archaeological evidence supports migration from the Korean peninsula. Populations at the periphery of this movement of people, Ryukyu and Ainu, retain South East Asian genetic characteristics believed to be more reflective of the earlier Jomon people and culture.

It is logical to assume that language was also involved in this transfer of people and culture from the Asian mainland, but Robbeets stressed the importance of sticking to the linguistic evidence. As such, Robbeets went on to explore the ancient languages of the Korean peninsula to suggest forms of Japonic language were spoken there into the Three Kingdoms period, with Goguryo being in fact a Japonic language.

Delving even deeper into linguistic evidence, Robbeets provided strong evidence for the Goguryo-Japonic relationship. Providing evidence that the relationship between Korean-Japanese is even stronger than Goguryo-Japanese, she suggested it was no longer supportable to deny a genealogical relationship between the Japanese-Korean, and the wider Transeurasian family of languages.

The problem in this area has always been the scarcity of evidence, particularly when compared to the Indo-European languages. Robbeets in her research has shown that we can look to other linguistic evidence for the genealogical relationship between the Transeurasian languages. She also showed that unless the bound-morpheme evidence in the verb class can be otherwise explained, there is a strong case for a close Japonic-Korean genealogical relationship.

The at-times-bewildering evidence went a long way to shedding light on the area for the novice and enthusiast alike, but one certainty remains – the debate is not over!

Language geographic chart

Red: Turkic: Speakers of the Turkic languages (over 200 million speakers) like Uzbek, Tuvan, and Turkmen.
Blue: Mongolic: Speakers of the Mongolic languages (about 9 million speakers) like Buryat and Mongolian.
Green: Tungusic: Speakers of the Manchu Tungusic languages (about 63,000 speakers and endangered) like Manchurian and Evenki.
Yellow: Japonic: Speakers of the Japonic languages (about 130 million speakers) like Japanese and Okinawans.
Pink: Koreanic: Speakers of the Korean languages (about 78.5 million speakers). Only spoken by the Koreans.


Thanks to Peter Corbishley for the images / diagrams, the introductory paragraph, and the following afterthought:

The question before us was: given the interdisciplinary evidence from archaeology, from genetics, from physical anthropology and from ethnic histories in Manchuria, – do Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic and Japonic share a common linguistic history? To reach a conclusion we had to bypass language based similarities based on chance or on cultural borrowings of vocabulary derived from living in close physical proximity. In fact the search for the lexis of body parts and basic verbs with regular sound correspondences formed the goal of an event which rested on, and displayed, a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of languages and linguistics. But perhaps as importantly presented modestly, coherently and intelligibly by Martine Robbeets from Leuven and Mainz. For me at least a truly exciting intellectual experience. Oh, and yes, on this one point Korean and Japanese are related at least in sharing patterns of sound around p/b , t/d and r/l.

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