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Pakistan's 'Burushaski' Language Finds New Relatives


It's like discovering a distant cousin, a really distant cousin. It's like learning that someone you had barely heard of is actually part of the family. In this case, the family is the Indo-European family of languages. And the umpteenth cousin is a language called Burushaski. It's spoken by about 90,000 people, the Burusho people, and nearly all of them live in Pakistan. A few hundred live in India.

Just to give a sense of what it sounds like, here's a joke in Burushaski that we came across online.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)


SIEGEL: Well, I guess you had to be there. Look up Burushaski and you'll see it's described as an isolate, a language unrelated to any other language in the world.

But Professor Ilija Casule, of Macquarie University in Australia, has rescued it from the linguistic orphanage. He says it has similarities to Indo-European languages that are not just coincidence. And Professor Casule joins us right now.

Welcome to the program.

ILIJA CASULE: I'm happy to be on your program.

SIEGEL: Can you tell us - what have you found about Burushaski? What is it that makes it an Indo-European language?

CASULE: Well, the crucial point is that the vocabulary that corresponds with Indo-European is core vocabulary, names of body parts, basic verbs, basic adjectives and also grammatical endings. If you explain the grammar and connect it with another grammar, then you have show relationship.

Only words - and even worse - only stem do not show relationship. You could find that Japanese is related to English if you look hard enough and systematically enough. So that's why it took me 20 years. And, you know, it still needs further elaboration.

SIEGEL: Was there some aha moment? Some word or pronoun or number that made you think, aha, that's not just a coincidence?

CASULE: Well, I'll tell you one and perhaps it's not the best example, you know, technically, but the word for to write in Burushaski is (foreign language spoken). Now, in ancient (foreign language spoken), which I claim is the closest still relative in time to Burushaski, the form (foreign language spoken) means written and that's so similar, also celestial in (foreign language spoken) is (foreign langue spoken) and also in Greek. In Burushaski, it's (foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: And when you found, for example, the similarities in the word for celestial, I guess it was still possible that somebody who looked at the heavens came from Greece and wandered through the lands where the Burusho people lived and they took a loan word.

CASULE: That's exactly right, but 80 names of body parts - for example, the name for brow, as in English eyebrow, is (foreign language spoken) and (foreign language spoken) in Burushaski. And it corresponds systematically. That's the most important part. Every word you find has to have a systematic correspondence with all the rest of Indo-European.

SIEGEL: Well, if you're right, if in fact this is a European language that somehow made it to northern Pakistan, how did it get there? Who are these people that they are so far east?

CASULE: Well, the ancient (foreign language spoken) are the fame of King Midas, who supposedly turned everything into gold, moved according to (unintelligible) from Macedonia, from the northern part and central, and then to Asia Minor, where they became a large civilization. They overpowered the (unintelligible) civilization, but later were overpowered themselves, so they moved further.

They actually reached India very early, so this is like finding a lost - as you said yourself - a lost relative who keeps the family fortune.

SIEGEL: Have you heard any reactions from Burushaski speakers to your conclusion that they are Europeans far afield?

CASULE: Well, they themselves claim that they're descendents of Alexander the Great, but they're skeptical because people have come up to them with thousands of proposals and they like the idea and they do think that they are more civilized than everyone else around them.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Casule, thank you very much for talking with us.

CASULE: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That is linguist, Ilija Casule, of Macquarie University in Australia talking about the language, Burushaski, spoken in northern Pakistan, and he has found that it is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.