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Siberian, Native American Languages Linked -- A First

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 26, 2008
 
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.

Dying Tongue

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.

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.

Mother Tongue

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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