The Significance of S. A. Starostin’s works for the Altaic studies

The Significance of S. A. Starostin’s works for the Altaic studies

Vladimir Alpatov

(53rd Annual Meeting of the PIAC, St. Petersburg 2010)

Sergei A. Starostin (1953–2005), the outstanding Russian comparative linguist, passed away five years ago. He studied many problems of the comparative linguistics and advanced the studies of many families of languages. He reconstructed the phonological system of Ancient Chinese, investigated Indo-European, Afro-Asian, Caucasian and other language families, proposed the hypothesis about the kinship of the Sino-Tibetan, Yenisei and Caucasian languages. One of the main fields of his investigations was the Altaic languages.

S. A. Starostin’s first publication was issued when he was 19 years old and it was devoted to the comparative study of Japanese. At the student time he compared Old Japanese and the Rykyu dialects and reconstructed the Proto-Japanese language. Then Starostin studied the problem of the kinship of Japanese. This problem is very difficult because there are no near relatives of the Japanese language. The hypothesis of the Altaic origin of Japanese exists since the middle of the XIX century but the Soviet school of comparative linguists founded by V. M. Illich-Svitych in the 1960s considered Japanese and the Altaic languages the part of the vast Nostratic family with the Indo-European, Uralic, Dravidian and some other language. However the place of the different Altaic languages in the Nostratic family was not clear before the studies of Starostin, some supporters of the Nostratic linguistics thought that the Turk, Mongolian, Tungus-Manchu languages and probably Japanese and Korean are the separate branches of the Nostratic family and the Altaic family does not exist. However Starostin based the existence of the Altaic family and the kinship of the Altaic language with Japanese in the book “The Altaic Problem and the Origin of the Japanese Language” (1991). He used the glottochronological method of M. Svadesh and determined the Altaic etymologies of some words of the basic vocabulary of Japanese. Starostin compared the basic vocabulary of Old Japanese and the Austro-Asian languages too and determined that the similarity of them is few and can be explained by ancient borrowing.

Since 1992 Starostin headed the scientific department that studied the most ancient kinship of the languages of the Old World. He supported the hypothesis about the common origin of all the languages and dreamed to reconstruct the language of Adam in the future. The important part of the studies of Starostin and his colleagues was its computerization. The Altaic studies went on equally with the comparative studies of many other languages, these studies were fulfilled by S. A. Starostin with A.V. Dybo and O.M. Mudrak. These tree scholars prepared the etymological dictionary of the Altaic languages (2003, in English). The dictionary and the other works of them are known in many countries however their ideas are not supported by many specialist on Altaic languages because of different linguistic and extra-linguistic causes.

S. A. Starostin not only reconstructed the ancestor languages but studied the structure of some languages including Japanese and Korean. He published the description of the phonology and accent of Modern Japanese, wrote the manual of the history of Japanese, studied Korean dialects.