'Burushaski' Language Finds New Relatives?

19th century photograph of a Raja and Burusho tribesmen

Macquarie University historical linguistics researcher, Associate Professor Ilija Casule, discovered that the language, known as Burushaski, which is spoken by about 90,000 people who reside in a remote area of North West Pakistan, is Indo-European in origin, not Indo-Iranian.

Professor Casule’s discovery, which has now been verified by a number of the world’s top linguists, has excited linguistics experts around the world. An entire issue of the eminent international linguistics journal The Journal of Indo-European Studies is devoted to a discussion of his findings later this month.

More than 50 eminent linguists have tried over many years to determine the genetic relationship of Burushaski. But it was Casule’s painstaking research, based on a comprehensive grammatical, phonological, lexical and semantic analysis, which established that the Burushaski language is in fact an Indo-European language most likely descended from one of the ancient Balkan languages. Professor Casule believes that language is most probably ancient Phrygian.

The Phrygians migrated from Macedonia to Anatolia (today part of Turkey) and were famous for their legendary kings who figure prominently in Greek mythology such as King Midas who turned whatever he touched into gold. They later migrated further east, reaching India. Indeed, according to ancient legends of the Burushashki people, they are descendants of Alexander the Great.

Tracing the historical path of a language is no easy task. Professor Casule said he became interested in the origins of Burushaski more than 20 years ago.

“People knew of its existence but its Indo-European affiliation was overlooked and it was not analysed correctly. It is considered a language isolate – not related to any other language in the world in much the same way that the Basque language is classified as a language isolate,” he said.

The remoteness of the area that was independent until the early 1970s when it became part of Pakistan, ensured Burushaski retained certain grammatical and lexical features that led Professor Casule to conclude it is a North-Western Indo-European language, specifically of the Paleobalkanic language group and that it corresponds most closely with Phrygian.

Dr. Casule’s work is groundbreaking, not only because it has implications for all the Indo-European language groups, but also provides a new model for figuring out the origins of isolate languages – where they reside in the linguistic family tree and how they developed and blended with other languages to form a new language.

Interview with Robert Siegel

Robert Siegel talks to professor Ilija Casule of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His research shows that a language spoken b about 90,000 people in a remote area of Pakistan is Indo-European in origin. He explains how 20 years of research has tied this isolated group of people to a migration that started in the Balkans and moved East 3,000 years ago.


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.

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.

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.

Courtesy NPR

Jan Henrik Holst comments

I am a linguist from the University of Hamburg and I have taught Burushaski in the last three years. I have also published on Indo-European languages, e. g. in Historische Sprachforschung. I join this debate on the internet now for the first time. Already many years ago, I came across Casule's claims, and, unfortunately, they are extremely flawed and nonsensical. In order to make such a case, one would have to know Burushaski well and the research on it, know Indo-European linguistics well, and be competent in the methods of historical linguistics in order to make such a connection. But that's not the case with Casule; his publications are full of mistakes in all of these areas, they are horrible. Burushaski is of course not an Indo-European language; it is something entirely different. It is superfluous that JIES devotes parts of its latest volume to this. The above article claims things such as: "Prof Ilija Casule’s discovery, which has now been verified by a number of the world’s top linguists, has excited linguistics experts around the world." Statements of this type are the opposite of what the truth is. In reality, there is not a single serious linguist who verified that, or who got excited. Most linguists competent to judge this, if they heard about the matter at all, did not bother about Casule's stuff. There are many layman claims like this around, and they are just a nuisance.