The Current State of Nostratic Theory, or a Psychoanalytic Reading of a Soviet Utopian Idea

In-between the sensible exchanges on the out-of-America hypothesis with genome blogger, Max Lushington, I read a fascinating piece of Russian web scholarship. George Starostin, the son of a famed Russian linguist, Sergei Starostin, and an accomplished long-range linguist in his own right, has published an overview of the state of Nostratic theory entitled “On the Developmental Prospects of Nostratic Linguistics.”  George Starostin has recently shown some personal and academic integrity by not signing a controversial letter directed against the “enemy of science” Anatole Klyosov, since it’s likely that he is honestly interested in the progress of science and not in parascientific politics. But he is hopelessly entangled in a school of thought that has failed over the past 50 years to prove beyond reasonable doubt the reality of a number of linguistic “macrofamilies.” One of these entities is known as “Nostratic.” The name is derived from Lat noster ‘our’, which now looks like an ironic reference to the protracted attempts of a tight group of intellectually solipsistic, socially abrasive and self-infatuated scholars from the other side of the Berlin Wall to invent a linguistic megaloreality of their own.

Nostratic theory is endorsed by a good number of influential linguists in Russia, while being rejected by the historical-linguistic mainstream in the West. G. Starostin is acutely aware of this conundrum. The tone of the article suggests that the young (1976-) linguist inherited (both as a son and as a scholar) a mixed bag of revolutionary breakthroughs and sheer nonsense from his senior colleagues and he is aggressively trying to tease them apart in order to take Nostratics to the level of a “widely accepted, authoritative concept organizing the work of an international community of macrocomparativists-Nostratologists.” Throughout the article, G. Starostin attributes the Nostratic predicament to evil forces, within and outside of the Nostratic group, that keep misconstruing the original insight by remarkable “pioneers” such as Holger Pedersen and, especially, Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky and preventing Nostratics from achieving the utopian state it was meant to reach. The narrative flow of the article betrays the kind of Batesonian “double bind” G. Starostin finds himself in. He starts off by regretting that the term “Nostratics,” “Nostratic science,” or “Nostratology” (Russian ностратика) is being used in a dual sense: on the one hand, it’s a study of a particular set of Eurasian language families presumed to share deep kinship; on the other hand, it has become synonymous with “megalocomparison” as a whole. G. Starostin revolts against this “incorrect usage” and would prefer the term “Nostratics” to be used narrowly as a name for a theory of deep kinship between Eurasian languages developed and bottled since the 1960s in Moscow. The underlying, not explicitly stated by Starostin, motive for this discomfort around the dual meaning of Nostratics, is that Russian Nostraticists don’t want to be held responsible for such Piltdown-size flops as Joseph Greenberg’s “Amerind” family, which was thoroughly trashed by specialists in American Indian linguistics back in the early 1990s. But when the reader looks at the title of Starostin’s piece, s/he discovers that the author himself refers to “Nostratics” as “Nostratic linguistics” (Russian ностратическое языкознание) and so conceives of it as a branch of linguistic science and not as “Nostratic theory.” So, while semantically fighting against the negative baggage of Nostratic science, G. Starostin metapragmatically reaffirms it. The habit of thinking about Nostratics or megalocomparison not as a hypothesis to be proven or falsified using scientific means but as a superior ideology to be accepted by all scholars who want to be considered “respectable” keeps the young Russian long-ranger in its thrall.

Anthropogenesis-NostraticMap copyG. Starostin suspects that the reason why the Western linguistic mainstream has not accepted Nostratology is due to the fact that 50 years ago Western linguists did not “make a diligent effort [sic!] to read and analyze Illich-Svitych because his works were physically outside of their reach.” And, nowadays, while they can physically obtain Illich-Svitych’s works, those works have already become obsolete, so they are left with the option of obtaining “Nostratic news” not directly from authentic Russian sources but from an independent scholar, Allan Bomhard based in Charleston, NC, U.S.A. And Bomhard is a prolific pseudoscientist [антинаучный подход, in G. Starostin] who, while technically following Neogrammarian principles of linguistic comparison and having all of Russian Nostraticists as Facebook friends, is, according to G. Starostin, corrupting Nostratology by admitting semantic frivolousness. Another historical linguist with pseudoscientific leanings, according to G. Starostin, is Chris Ehret, Distinguished Research Professor at the UCLA History Department, but Starostin does not specify what Ehret’s flaws are.

But then, G. Starostin laments, even if they translated all of the Illich-Svitych’s Nostratic oeuvre and supplied it with an up-to-date commentary, the West would not accept Nostratology. One is left wondering: will cultural and language barriers between Russian and Western scientists ever allow objective falsifiability criteria to rule either in favor or against a linguistic family presumably supported by “thousands” of pieces of evidence.

The bad news is that G. Starostin himself does not seem to allow for a possibility that Nostratics is simply a false theory and its 1001 etymologies happen to be no good. G. Starostin’s piece is published in Russian, so it’s intended not as an attempt to convince the Western mainstream of Nostratology’s merits, but as “insider baseball” for the learned Russian audience who knows and loves Nostratic linguistics just as much as it loves Russian ballet and figure-skating. Neither it’s intended to dissuade the West from reading Bomhard or Bomhard from practicing his “pseudoscientific ways.” G. Starostin mentions a 1989 Russian-language publication by a giant-of-a-linguist, Eugene Khelimski (Евгений Хелимский), in which Bomhard was severely criticized. Apparently, Bomhard did not “correct his mistakes,” and hence he’s now facing the wrath of Starostin. But since Bomhard can’t read Russian [as a disclaimer, a few years ago I worked with Bomhard to have his piece on Nostratic kinship terms published in the Algebra rodstva almanac. – G.D.], so he likely did not read Khelimski and will likely remain unaware of his pseudoscientific antics for another 50 years. In recent years, Bomhard strayed into utter nonsense as he co-authored with an even-more pseudoscientific writer, A. Fournet, a paper advancing comparative evidence for one “Indo-European-Hurrian” family. According to Starostin, Alexei Kassian “debunked” Bomhard’s method using lexicostatistical method. Starostin, of course, did not mention the fact that lexicostatistics is accepted by the Western mainstream almost as little as Nostratics because it would look like Kassian used a method that does not have a utopian scientific status as a way to show that the Indo-European-Hurrian hypothesis is pseudoscientific. Nor did he mention the fact that Russian scientists – including Kassian himself – typically have a poor command of English and hence they would not even know what Bomhard’s corrupt method even looks like.

G. Starostin admits that there have not been a “expected breakthrough in Nostratic linguistics in the past 15 years.” As the older generation of Russian Nostraticists has grown older and less capable of mass comparing thousands of words, or got depleted by the premature deaths of V. Illich-Svitych, S. Starostin and E. Khelimski, the emigration of V. Shevoroshkin and A. Dolgopolsky (all typical Russian misfortunes), the onus is now on G. Starostin himself to save the “discipline” that as recently as 15 years ago showed so much potential to no fewer than one “mainstream” American linguist, Alexis Manaster-Ramer.

G. Starostin has identified a previously unforeseen problem with the Nostratic method, which it inherited from the Neogrammarian method. The name of this problem is Semantics. That’s where the hopeless Bomhard erred, that’s where the controversial Dolgopolsky, who reconstructed 5 Nostratic words for ‘head’, stumbled, and that’s where the Moscow School of Nostratics will again lead the change. In G. Starostin’s utopian world,

“Nostratic etymology will become truly compelling [here it’s not clear to whom – to the Western linguistic mainstream or to Starostin himself; it must be to Starostin himself because he dropped the ball on the Western mainstream in the beginning of his piece. – G.D.] when the Nostratic person will acquire, as it befits a normal person, one head, one brain, one nose, one tongue, two hands (hand-arm) and two legs (foot-leg)…”

Ostensibly in an effort to achieve this lofty goal Moscow Nostraticists, G. Starostin announces, decided to cull Morris Swadesh’s always-skinny “basic vocabulary” list to just 50 “superstable” (Russian сверхустойчивые, as in сверхзвуковой, оr “supersonic”) items. Now the Nostratic person will never get a brain because it does not look like a stable enough concept to the Nostratic scholar. Simple logic requires that “Nostratic etymology” is now doomed to remain uncompelling because the criterion advanced by Starostin on Sentence no. 200 of the article is violated in his Sentence no. 201. But not in the eyes of G. Starostin himself who, toward the end of his piece, proudly declares that the new and improved lexicostatistics suggests the grouping of Uralic and Indo-European languages, supports Joseph Greenberg’s contention that Kartvelian and Dravidian diverged early and reaffirms the inference from the old and partially flawed lexicostatistics that Afroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan are not “Nostratic” languages.

So, by reducing the input of real and healthy language material into their Soviet-style science factory by 50% Nostratologists successfully managed to spew twice as many “promising,” “intriguing” and utterly “revolutionary” ideas as 15 years ago. 10 years ago, in my review of the Nostratic material of kinship, family and marriage entitled  “Reconstructing ‘our’ kinship terminology” I raised this fundamental concern with Nostratic studies (building on my earlier critique of Indo-European comparativism) but nothing has changed. And Nostratologists continue to be surprised, in all seriousness, by the fact that the Western linguistic mainstream still refuses to buy their science.