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A. Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary and Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic)

Gábor Takács1

Székesfehérvár 8000, Semmelweis u. 19, Hungary1

This content is open access.

Citation Information: Lingua Posnaniensis. Volume 53, Issue 1, Pages 109–119, ISSN (Online) 2083-6090, ISSN (Print) 0079-4740, DOI: 10.2478/v10122-011-0008-3, August 2011

Publication History

Published Online:
2011-08-26

A. Dolgopolsky's Nostratic Dictionary and Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic)

The monumental comparative dictionary by Aharon Dolgopolsky (Prof. emer. of the University of Haifa), long awaited by many specialists interested in the long-range comparison of language families, is here at last, available online since spring 2008.1 What we have here is a life's work completing more than fifty years' research. The first online publication will soon be followed by a second revised edition. The present reviewer had the privilege in Haifa in December 2008 to be able to assist the author in reviewing the etymological entries with initial *m-.

The author is the internationally widely known doyen of this domain, which he established still in Moscow in the early 1960s together with the late Vladislav Illič-Svityč (1934-1966). Both of them were working initially and basically in the field of Indo-European comparative linguistics. Illič-Svityč was an expert on Balto-Slavonic accentology, while Dolgopolsky started his careeer as a researcher of Romance philology. But soon, both of them had become familiar with the results of Semito-Hamitic (recently called Afro-Asiatic after Greenberg), Kartvelian, Dravidian, Uralic, and Altaic historical linguistics. This had led them to a conviction, that has arisen independently in them, on the relationship of the six so-called Nostratic language families enumerated above (including Indo-European). Both scholars had naturally realized that Afro-Asiatic has the least elaborated and reliable phonological and lexical reconstruction2, whereas the proto-languages of the other five families had been uncomparably more clearly and coherently described or, at least (in the case of Altaic), approached. Not accidentally had both Moscovite scholars got to reconstructing two most problematic branches of Afro-Asiatic: Illič-Svityč chose Chadic3 and Dolgopolsky focused on Cushito-Omotic, where his fruitful research had yielded a number of fundamental publications4 until the end of his career in Moscow (1976)5, where he left behind an informal school of comparative linguistics with talanted promising pupils like Sergej Starostin (Old Chinese, Altaic, North Caucasian), Evgenij Helimskij (Uralic), and Olga Stolbova (Chadic). Dolgopolsky's pioneering Comparative-Historical Phonology of Cushitic Languages (Сравнительно-исторический словарь кушитских языков) from 1973 has been very frequently quoted even in Western works in spite of its being published in Russian. After 1976 in Haifa, Dolgopolsky has continued - beside Nostratic studies in general - first of all his comparative Afro-Asiatic research and publication activity devoted primarily to clarifying the regular consonant correspondences among the Afro-Asiatic branches6, which signifies where the priority task still lies in Nostratic. All these results have long raised Dolgopolsky - beside the late Igor' D'jakonov (1915-1999) of Leningrad (St. Petersbug) - to the rank of the highest authority in comparative-historical Afro-Asiatic linguistics of recent times. This is why I devoted in 2008 a Semito-Hamitic (Afro-Asiatic) Festschrift in his honour.7

Prof. Dolgopolsky's profound knowlegde of the lexical stocks involved and of the etymological problems in all language families examined by him can only be admired. My present paper cannot be a review stricto sensu of this gigantic accumulation and analysis of many thousands of pieces of linguistic data, let alone the allotted very minimal space. What I regard as most effective under the circumstances is to investigate at least through a few sample entries chosen at random how this magnificent etymological dictionary uses lexical data of the most obscure and scientifically neglected language family, namely Afro-Asiatic. Elsewhere, it might have been probably substantially easier and smoother to extract etymological information from the domains of other language families by far better equipped with reliable etymological lexicons, most of which can be safely regarded as standard tools. If we look at how autonomously Dolgopolsky handles e.g. Indo-European etymologies, we can deduce that he is much farther off than just quoting the relevant etymological sources even in these well-equipped domains.

Unfortunately, the objective circumstances are many times less favorable in the case of Proto-Afro-Asiatic, presumably the oldest one of all the known language families8, the parental language of Akkadian, Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian etc., where we until now simply lack a comprehensive and high-quality comparative lexicon and a reliable lexical reconstruction.9 This is why partial results here are at the moment much more important than the very uncertain comparative dictionaries. Ever since I have known Dolgopolsky's Russian and English articles on Nostratic in general, I have eagerly observed how these - as a "side-effect" - contribute to our scanty knowledge about Afro-Asiatic lexical correspondences. To my mind, the language family of all Nostratic families where the quantitative progress in the inner comparative study of the lexicon has gained most from Illič-Svityč's and Dolgopolsky's Nostratic work is just the still obscure domain of Afro-Asiatic etymology, and vice versa: I have no doubt that modern Afro-Asiatic comparative research has received the strongest impulse from Nostratic linguistics in Moscow, suffice it to refer - beside Illič-Svityč and Dolgopolsky - to Stolbova, Militarev, and Blažek (who also belongs to the Moscow school), the most productive authors of comparative Afro-Asiatic in the recent decades.

The Nostratic Dictionary testifies to Dolgopolsky's significant research results contributing to Afro-Asiatic etymology, which is until now hindered by a number of objective circumstances: (1) even we ourselves in the Moscow school only have a general working hypothesis on the basic consonantal correspondences (esp. in the relationship of Proto-Semitic, Egyptian, and Proto-Berber), which have not yet been satisfactorily elaborated and thoroughly tested in all details (esp. in the least explored Omotic and Chadic daughter languages). (2) Secondly, it has always been - almost irrespectively of the individual authors (albeit in different degrees) - difficult in our etymological research, especially in the case of Semitic and Egyptian, to keep a balance between the philological background of our comparanda and their external parallels. Dolgopolsky has worked carefully in order to minimize these unavoidable negative effects. My comments to the following etymological entries that were selected at random mostly carry additional data, new cognates, which signifies the still unexploited immense treasure and possibilities in our domain. May this discussion gain new friends for Nostratic studies and Afro-Asiatic etymology!

Keywords: Afro-Asiatic; Nostratic

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