About the languages
Tungusic languages tend to blend into one another with respect to particular linguistic features instead of showing a sharp demarcation. This makes them difficult to classify using genetic trees. To get a sense for this problem, consider one linguistic feature: the development of the word initial proto-Tungusic sound *p-. Proto-Tungusic *p- has undergone the following weakening process to varying degrees in Tungusic languages: *p>f>h>ø. One additional step in the lenition chain is the appearance of the velar fricative [x]; however, it is unclear whether the development of [x] is a necessary stage of lenition (i.e. the full process is *p>f>x>h>ø) or whether it is a secondary development for [h] relevant only for some languages (i.e. some languages follow a *p>f>h>x development). The following chart (taken from Whaley, Grenoble, and Li, forthcoming) lays out the relevant facts for the Northwestern Tungusic languages.
Note that Evenki does not evince a single pattern with respect to *p- lenition. Rather there are three different manifestations of *p in the language such that in certain dialects Evenki looks like Negidal, in certain dialects like Oroqen/Solon, and in still other dialects behaves uniquely. If this phenomenon of split-behavior were restricted to a small number of linguistic features, we might just chalk it up to the sort of residue one invariably finds in the comparison of related languages, but it is prevalent in Tungusic. To say the least, this makes classifying Tungusic languages difficult. It also requires us to maintain healthy skepticism regarding the assignment of language labels (e.g. Evenki, Solon) to dialect clusters.
Tungusic languages tend to have tremendous numbers of dialects, no doubt reflecting the fact that they historically banded in small clans which operated semi-independently from other clans. Evenki, for instance, is said to have fifty one dialects. Unfortunately, the basis for dialect divisions is rarely made explicit, so it is impossible to tell whether they reflect a significant linguistic fact or whether "dialect" merely correlates with individual Tungusic communities, regardless of the degree of difference between the language spoken in the communities.
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Last updated 20 Nov 1998