|Don't look back. You're not going that way. - Barbara Johnson|
The Altai mountains are a little-known range of barren peaks in the Gobi Desert. What makes this range so special is that it marks the border between the traditional homelands of two peoples: the Mongols and the Turks. The term Altaic refers to the family of languages that includes Mongolian, Turkic and Tungusic. Since the people in this region were nomads, the Altaic languages are spoken over a broad area stretching from Eastern Europe to the Bering Sea.
Unlike some other language families, such as Indo-European, there are few ancient sources for Altaic scholars to study. In fact, the connection between the members of the Altaic family (Turkic, Mongolian, Tungusic) is not accepted by all linguists and there is even more controversy when Japanese and Korean are included in the family. (For more information on these two languages, see my list of possible cognates in Japanese and Korean. Formerly, linguists thought that the Altaic family had a genetic relationship with the Uralic family (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian etc.), but this hypothesis has been rejected for the most part.
Altaic languages have not received the attention they deserve, and their exact relationship is still puzzling even to the linguists that specialize in them. The languages share a number of features that suggest they could be related: agglutination, vowel harmony and a lack of grammatical gender and articles. But to the non-linguist, a connection between them is not readily apparent.
Central Asia, the home of the Altaic peoples, has played an important role in world history. This region was the only viable land corridor between East and West Asia, and it has traditionally been a place of commercial and cultural interchange. The trade routes running through this area carried not only silks and other commericial products, but also helped in the transmission of art, religion and ideas between Eastern and Western civilizations.
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Japanese Korean Cognates