Jul 14, 2009


Burushaski (Urdu: بروشسکی - burū́šaskī) is a language isolate (that is, not known to be related to any other language of the world).[1] It is spoken by some 87,000 (as of 2000) Burusho people in the Hunza, Nagar, Yasin, and parts of the Gilgit valleys in the Northern Areas in Pakistan. Other names for the language are Kanjut (Kunjoot), Werchikwār, Boorishki, Brushas (Brushias) and Miśa:ski.

Today Burushaski contains numerous loanwords from Urdu (including English and Sanskrit words received via Urdu), and from neighbouring Dardic languages such as Khowar and Shina, as well as a few from Turkic languages and from the neighboring Sino-Tibetan language Balti, but the original vocabulary remains largely intact. The Dardic languages also contain large numbers of loanwords from Burushaski.

There are three divergent dialects, named after the main valleys: Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin (also called Werchikwār). The dialect of Yasin is thought to be the least affected by contact with neighboring languages and is generally less similar to the other two than those are to each other; nevertheless all three dialects are mutually intelligible.


No connection has been established between Burushaski and any other language or language family. Several attempts have been made to establish a genealogic relationship between Burushaski and the Caucasic languages,[2] with the Yeniseian languages in a family called Karasuk,[3] or to include Burushaski in the Dené-Caucasian proposal, which includes both Caucasic and Yeniseian.[4][5] An attempt to link Burushaski to the poorly attested Paleo-Balkan languages has also been made.[6] None of these efforts have met with scholarly acceptance. In 2008 Yeniseian was convincingly shown to be related to Na-Dene in a Dene-Yeniseian family,[7] and the evidence does not appear to extend to Burushaski.

Following Berger (1956), the American Heritage dictionaries suggested that the word *abel (apple), the only name for a fruit (tree) reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, may have been borrowed from a language ancestral to Burushaski. (Today "apple" and "apple tree" are /balt/ in Burushaski.) Others, however, reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European word for "apple (tree)" as *mel-, while yet others don't think Proto-Indo-European had a word for "apple" at all and consider the different words of different Indo-European subgroups to be separate loans from different unidentified non-Indo-European languages.

[edit] Writing system

Usually Burushaski is not written. Occasionally, the Urdu version of the Arabic alphabet is used, but a fixed orthography does not exist. Nasir al-Din Nasir Hunzai has written poetry in Burushaski using the Urdu alphabet.

Tibetan sources record a Bru-śa language of the Gilgit valley, which appears to have been Burushaski. The Bru-śa are credited with bringing the Bön religion to the Zhangzhung in Tibet and Central Asia, and their script is alleged to have been the ancestor of the Tibetan alphabet. Thus Burushaski may once have been a significant literary language. However, no Bru-śa manuscripts are known to have survived.[8]

Linguists working on Burushaski use various makeshift transcriptions based on the Latin alphabet, most commonly that by Berger (see below), in their publications. The Burushaski Research Academy, in cooperation with Karachi University, has recently published the first volume (A to C̣) of a Burushaski-Urdu Dictionary using this transcription.

[edit] Phonology

Burushaski primarily has five vowels, /i e a o u/. Various contractions result in long vowels; stressed vowels (marked with acute accents in Berger's transcription) tend to be longer and less "open" than unstressed ones ([i e a o u] as opposed to [ɪ ɛ ʌ ɔ ʊ]). Long vowels also occur in loans and in a few onomatopoeic words (Grune 1998). All vowels have nasal counterparts in Hunza (in some expressive words) and in Nager (also in proper names and a few other words).

In addition, Berger (1998) finds the following consonants to be phonemic, shown below in his transcription and in the IPA:
Bilabial Dental Alveolo-
palatal Retroflex Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ṅ /ŋ/
Plosive aspirated ph /pʰ/1 th /tʰ/ ṭh /ʈʰ/ kh /kʰ/ qh /qʰ/2
plain p /p/ t /t/ ṭ /ʈ/ k /k/ q /q/
voiced b /b/ d /d/ ḍ /ɖ/ g /g/
Affricate aspirated3 ch /t͡sʰ/ ćh /t͡ɕʰ/ c̣h /ʈ͡ʂʰ/
plain c /t͡s/ ć /t͡ɕ/ c̣ /ʈ͡ʂ/
voiced j /d͡ʑ/4 j̣ /ɖ͡ʐ/5
Fricative voiceless s /s/ ś /ɕ/ ṣ /ʂ/ h /h/
voiced z /z/ ġ /ʁ/
Trill r /r/
Approximant l /l/ y [j]6 ỵ /ɻ/7 w [w]6


1. Pronunciation varies: [pʰ] ~ [p͡f] ~ [f].
2. Pronunciation varies: [qʰ] ~ [q͡χ] ~ [χ].
3. The Yasin dialect lacks aspirated affricates and uses the plain ones instead.
4. Sometimes pronounced [ʑ].
5. Sometimes pronounced [ʐ].
6. Berger (1998) regards [w] and [j] as allophones of /u/ and /i/ that occur in front of stressed vowels.
7. This phoneme has various pronunciations, all of which are rare sounds cross-linguistically. Descriptions include: "a voiced retroflex sibilant with simultaneous dorso-palatal narrowing" (apparently [ʐʲ]) (Berger 1998); "a fricative r, pronounced with the tongue in the retroflex ('cerebral') position" (apparently [ɻ̝]/[ʐ̞], a sound which also occurs in Standard Mandarin, written r in Pinyin) (Morgenstierne 1945); and "a curious sound whose phonetic realizations vary from a retroflex, spirantized glide to a retroflex velarized spirant" (Anderson forthcoming). In any case, it does not occur in the Yasin dialect, and in Hunza and Nager it does not occur at the beginning of words.

[edit] Grammar

Burushaski is a double-marking language and word order is generally Subject Object Verb.

Nouns in Burushaski are divided into four genders: human masculine, human feminine, countable objects, and uncountable ones (similar to mass nouns). The assignment of a noun to a particular gender is largely predictable. Some words can belong both to the countable and to the uncountable class, producing differences in meaning: for example, when countable, /balt/ means "apple", when uncountable, it means "apple tree". (Grune 1998)

Noun morphology consists of the noun stem, a possessive prefix (mandatory for some nouns, and thus an example of inherent possession), and number and case suffixes. Distinctions in number are singular, plural, indefinite, and grouped. Cases include absolutive, ergative/oblique, genitive, and several locatives; the latter indicate both location and direction and may be compounded.

Burushaski verbs have three basic stems: past tense, present tense, and consecutive. The past stem is the citation form and is also used for imperatives and nominalization; the consecutive stem is similar to a past participle and is used for coordination. Agreement on the verb has both nominative and ergative features: transitive verbs mark both the subject and the object of a clause, while intransitive verbs mark their sole argument as both a subject and an object. Altogether, a verb can take up to four prefixes and six suffixes.

[edit] Nouns

[edit] Noun classes

In Burushaski, there are four noun classes, similar to declensional classes in Indo-European languages, but unlike Indo-European, the nominal classes in Burushaski are associated with four grammatical "genders":

* m > male human beings, gods and spirits
* f > female human beings and spirits
* x > animals, countable nouns
* y > abstract concepts, fluids, uncountable nouns

Below, the abbreviation "h" will stand for the combination of the m- and f-classes, while "hx" will stand for the combination of the m-, f- and x-classes. Nouns in the x-class typically refer to countable, non-human beings or things, for example animals, fruit, stones, eggs, or coins; conversely, nouns in the y-class are as a rule uncountable abstractions or mass nouns, such as rice, fire, water, snow, wool, etc.

However, these rules are not universal - countable objects in the y-class are sometimes encountered, e.g. ha, 'house'. Related words can subtly change their meanings when used in different classes - for example, bayú, when a member of the x-class, means salt in clumps, but when in the y-class, it means powdered salt. Fruit trees are understood collectively and placed in the y-class, but their individual fruits belong to the x-class. Objects made of particular materials can belong to either the x- or the y- class: stone and wood are in the x-class, but metal and leather in the y-class. The article, adjectives, numerals and other attributes must be in agreement with the noun class of their subject.

[edit] Pluralisation

There are two numbers in Burushaski: singular and plural. The singular is unmarked, while the plural is expressed by means of suffix, which vary depending on the class of the noun:

* h-class > possible suffixes: -ting, -aro, -daro, -taro, -tsaro
* h- and x-class > possible suffixes: -o, -išo, -ko, -iko, -juko; -ono, -u; -i, -ai; -ts, -uts, -muts, -umuts; -nts, -ants, -ints, -iants, -ingants, -ents, -onts
* y-class > possible suffixes: -ng, -ang, -ing, -iang; -eng, -ong, -ongo; -ming, -čing, -ičing, -mičing, -ičang (Nagar dialect)

Some nouns admit two or three different prefixes, while others have no distinctive suffix, and occur only in the plural, e.g. bras 'rice', gur 'wheat', bishké, 'fur', (cf. plurale tantum). On the other hand, there are also nouns which have identical forms in the singular and plural, e.g. hagúr 'hors(es)'. Adjectives have a unique plural suffex, whose form depends on the class of the noun they modify, e.g. burúm 'white' gives the x-class plural burum-išo and the y-class plural burúm-ing.

Examples of pluralisation in Burushaski:

* wazíir (m), pl. wazíirting 'vizier, minister'
* hir (m), pl. hirí 'man' (stress shifts)
* gus (f), pl. gushíngants 'woman' (stress shifts)
* dasín (f), pl. dasíwants 'girl', 'unmarried woman'
* huk (x), pl. hukái 'dog'
* tilí (x), pl. tilí 'walnut'
* tilí (y), pl. tiléng 'walnut tree'

[edit] Declension

Burushaski is an ergative language. It has five primary cases.
Case Suffix Function
Absolutive unmarked The subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive ones.
Ergative -e The subject of transitive verbs.
Oblique -e; -mo (f) Genitive; the basis of secondary case endings
Dative -ar, -r Dative, allative.
Ablative -um, -m, -mo Indicates separation (e.g. 'from where?')

The case suffixes are appended to the plural suffix, e.g. Huséiniukutse, 'the people of Hussein' (ergative plural). The genitive ending is irregular, /mo/, for singular f-class nouns, but /-e/ in all others (identical to the ergative ending). The dative ending, /-ar/, /-r/ is attached to the genitive ending for singular f-class nouns, but to the stem for all others. Examples:

* hir-e 'the man's', gus-mo 'the woman's' (gen.)
* hir-ar 'to the man', gus-mu-r 'to the woman' (dat.)

The genitive is placed before the thing possessed: Hunzue tham, 'the Emir of Hunza.'

The endings of the secondary cases are formed from a secondary case suffix (or infix) and one of the primary endings /-e/, /-ar/ or /-um/. These endings are directional, /-e/ being locative (answering 'where?'), /-ar/ being terminative (answering 'where to?'), and /-um/ being ablative (answering 'where from?'). The infixes, and their basic meanings, are as follows:

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