A highly contentious proposal that Burushaski, most commonly thought of as a language isolate, is in fact a deviant member of Indo-European has recently earned some attention in the popular press (much of it crippled by serious misunderstandings about what exactly Indo-European is, or — even worse — the idea that Burushaski was only just discovered by linguists). I haven’t had the opportunity to read this latest edition of The Journal of Indo-European Studies, but earlier versions of the same argument have left me no more moved than this enthusiastic amateur attempt to similarly prove that “the Turkic languages could be a lost “satemized” branch of the Indo-European family”. (Which is not to say that no long-range relationships involving Burushaski are worth contemplating — more on this shortly.)
In combination with recent discussions of Indo-European migration at Dienekes, however, this is as good a reason as any to share a passage from Frye (1996: 32-33):
From stories by the Burushaski speaking people of Hunza in northern Pakistan that their ancestors lived in the Yarkand-Khotan regions of Xinjiang, one might suggest that the proto-Burushaskis extended over a much larger territory before the coming of the Indo-European speaking peoples. Burushaski is unrelated to the Tibeto-Burman, Dravidian, Altaic or Indo-European families of languages and, like Basque in the Pyrenees and several tongues of the Caucasus, may be a relic of languages spoken by aborigines in Central Asia before the expansion of the Indo-European speakers. For the latter ranged far, from India and China to the Atlantic Ocean mostly in the second millennium B.C.E.
Thus, before the coming of the Indo-Europeans, we may assume that Central Asia was occupied by a number of peoples, speaking languages which have disappeared, or of which the last traces are Burushaski and Dravidian speakers. Possibly long vanished Elamite, or languages related to Mannean or Urartian, also had representatives in Central Asia, but the population and settlements of aborigines were probably small and few.
This Urheimat story is somewhat easier to swallow than Čašule’s Phrygian exodus, but it nonetheless managed to catch me by surprise, so further references — if any readers are aware of them — would be appreciated.
I’ll keep this brief and close by noting that, if George van Driem’s exciting speculations in Languages of the Himalayas indeed hold water (and perhaps that’s a large if), the Burushos’ relation to IE expansion could be far more nuanced that of singlemindedly retreating victim. Follow-up to come…
[EDIT: Victor Mair and his camp have suggested Frye's claims above re: pre-Tocharian Tarim Basin peoples have little in the way of substantiation, which is a little troubling if true given the specificity of that claim about Hunza Burusho traditions.]
Frye, R. N. (1996). The heritage of Central Asia, from antiquity to the Turkish expansion. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.
van Driem, G. (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An ethnolinguistic handbook of the greater Himalayan Region: Containing an introduction to the symbiotic theory of language. Leiden: Brill.