Making the Connection
Vajda established the Yeniseic-Na-Dene link by looking for languages with a verb-prefix system similar to those in Yeniseic languages. Such prefixes are unlike any other language in North Asia.
"Only Na-Dene languages have a system of verb prefixes that very closely resemble the Yeniseic," he said.
From there, Vajda found several dozen cognates—or words in different languages that sound alike and have the same meaning.
The results dovetail with earlier work by Merritt Ruhlen, an anthropologist at Stanford University in California who Vajda said discovered the first genuine Na-Dene-Yeniseic cognates.
Vajda also showed how these cognates have sound correspondences.
"I systematically connect these structures in Yeniseic with the structures in modern Na-Dene," Vajda said.
"My comparisons aren't just lists of some look-alike words I show there is a system behind it."
Johanna Nichols is a linguist at the University of California in Berkeley who attended the Alaska meeting where Vajda presented his research.
With the exception of the Eskimo-Aleut family that straddles the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, this is "the first successful demonstration of any connection between a New World language and an Old World language," Nichols said.
Vajda said his research puts linguistics on the same stage as archaeology, anthropology, and genetics when it comes to studying the history of humans in North Asia and North America.
However, the research has not revealed which language came first. Neither modern Ket nor Na-Dene languages in North America represent the mother tongue.
For example, some words in the Na-Dene family likely represent sounds of the mother tongue more closely than their Yeniseic cognates. Other words in Yeniseic, however, are probably more archaic.
Based on archaeological evidence of human migrations across the Bering land bridge, the language link may extend back at least 10,000 years.
(Explore an atlas of the human journey.)
If true, according to Vajda, this would be the oldest known demonstrated language link.
But more research is needed to determine when the languages originated and how they became a part of various cultures before such a claim will be accepted, according to UC Berkeley linguist Nichols.
"I don't think there is any reason to assume the connection is [10,000 years] old this must surely be one late episode in a much longer and more complicated history of settlement," she said.
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