On the distribution and origin of sortal classifiers in Altaic languages

Shen-An Chen, Marc Allassonière-Tang, Yung-Ping Liang and One-Soon Her

ABSTRACT: The grammatical feature of sortal classifiers, common in East and Southeast Asian languages, is also found in 15 of the 65 Altaic languages we have examined, though the classifiers are far fewer and used optionally. These observations suggest that the Altaic classifier systems are not indigenous. Based on the Single Origin Hypothesis that Chinese is the only language with an indigenous classifier system in Eurasia, we propose that the rise of classifiers in Altaic is due to the influence of neighboring classifier languages. Having first confirmed that the putative classifiers in these 15 languages are genuine classifiers, we then examine the phonological and semantic characteristics of the classifiers identified in each language and detect the influence from either Chinese or Persian. Taking historical and geographical factors into consideration, we suggest that classifier languages east of Uyghur were influenced by Chinese, while those to the west are influenced by Persian; Uyghur itself was influenced by both. Assuming that Persian classifiers are not indigenous either, these findings suggest that the Single Origin Hypothesis is applicable to classifier languages in Altaic.