for National Geographic News
A fast-dying language in remote central Siberia shares a mother tongue with dozens of Native American languages spoken thousands of miles away, new research confirms.
The finding may allow linguists to weigh in on how the Americas were first settled, according to Edward Vajda, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
Since at least 1923 researchers have suggested a connection exists between Asian and North American languages—but this is the first time a link has been demonstrated with established standards, said Vajda, who has studied the relationship for more than 15 years.
Previous researchers had provided lists of similar-sounding and look-alike words, but their methods were unscientific. Such similarities, Vajda noted, are likely to be dismissed as coincidence even if they represent genuine evidence.
So Vajda developed another method. "I'm providing a whole system of [similar] vocabulary and also of grammatical parallels—the way that verb prefixes are structured," he said.
His research links the Old World language family of Yeniseic in central Siberia with the Na-Dene family of languages in North America.
The Yeniseic family includes the extinct languages Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol. Ket is the only Yeniseic language spoken today. Less than 200 speakers remain and most are over 50, according to Vajda.
"Within a couple of generations, Ket will probably become extinct," he said.
(Related news: "Languages Racing to Extinction in 5 Global 'Hotspots' [September 18, 2007].)
The Na-Dene family includes languages spoken by the broad group of Athabaskan tribes in the U.S. and Canada as well as the Tlingit and Eyak people. The last Eyak speaker died in January.
Vajda presented the findings in February at a meeting of linguists at the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks.
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