Siberian language may be related to Nadene languages

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A remote population of a few hundred indigenous Siberians who live thousands of miles west of Alaska speak a language that appears to be an ancient relative of more than three dozen Native languages in North America, experts say.

A panel of respected linguists who met in Anchorage on Friday are hailing new research that links the Old World language of Ket, still spoken sparingly along the Yenisei River in western Siberia, and the sprawling New World family of Na-Dene languages — a broad grouping that encompasses the many Athabascan tribes in Alaska, along with the Tlingit and Eyak people, as well as Indian populations in western Canada and the American Southwest, including the Navajo and the Apache.

A regional Eskimo dialect straddles the Bering Strait

Other than Siberian Yupik, a regional Eskimo dialect that straddles the Bering Strait, a connection between North American and Asian language families had never before been demonstrated.

The research by University of Western Washington linguist Edward Vajda, who spent 10 years deciphering the Ket language, drew upon parallel work by three Alaskans — Jeff Leer, Michael Krauss and James Kari, professors of linguistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — who independently detailed patterns in Na-Dene languages.

Establishing that two such far-distant language groups are closely related is both demanding and rare in the exacting field of historical linguistics, according to participants who attended a language symposium at the annual meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association.

Relationships between Asian and North American languages

That Interior Indian languages spoken in North America are related to languages spoken in Asia has long been assumed, since other fields of science have widely concluded that the Americas weren’t populated until ice age hunters migrated across a temporary land bridge from the old world to the new some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

And as early as 1923, other linguists speculated specifically about a genetic link between the Yeniseic family of languages spoken along the Yenisei River (of which Ket is now the only surviving member) and the Na-Dene family, spoken in North America. Ten years ago, American linguist Merritt Ruhlen did so again after producing a list of 36 cognates — comparable words in two languages that sound alike and mean the same thing.

But producing lists of similar-sounding words isn’t sufficient evidence to establish a real genetic relationship between two languages, declared Bernard Comrie, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, speaking at the conference.

That’s because cognates can also occur by accident or chance — when selective words are adopted by travelers from unrelated languages, or when words have a universal appeal.

New findings based on complex and verifiable morphologies

What makes the new finding so exciting, Comrie said, is that it’s based on complex and verifiable morphologies that show how certain Ket words were systematically altered to create Athabascan words — or vice versa (the research doesn’t speculate on which language came first or when).

Vajda began studying the Ket language firsthand in the 1990s after the Iron Curtain fell and he interviewed Ket speakers in the southwestern Siberia city of Tomsk, as well as in Germany.

“There is no road and no train,” Vajda said in an interview last week in Anchorage, here to address the symposium. “You have to go by steamboat or helicopter to get there.”

Only 100 fluent speakers of Ket remain

Through his research and interviews, Vajda determined that there are about 1,200 people who say they are Ket, including about 200 people who speak the language. But only about 100 speak Ket fluently, Vajda said, and nearly all of them are now older than 50.

“They were the last hunters of north Asia that didn’t have any domesticated animals that they used for food,” he said. “They moved around, they didn’t live in the same place.”

That came to an end when the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union forced the Ket to live in villages. Now their traditional lifestyle is nearly gone, Vajda said — and their language is disappearing too.

While trying to capture it before it vanishes altogether, Vajda gained a new understanding about the peculiarities of Ket verbs, suffixes and tonalities — which are unlike any of the other Siberian languages to the east. 

Comparing what he learned with research conducted independently in Alaska, Vajda began to find words the two languages had in common. A news release issued this week by the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF concurs, noting language similarities “too numerous and displaying too many idiosyncratic parallels to be explained by anything other than common descent.” 

Among linguistic scholars elsewhere who’ve reviewed Vajda’s paper in its draft form and reacted favorably so far is Dr. Heinrich Werner of Bonn, Germany — a world authority in the Ket language, whose work Vajda cited and incorporated into his own, along with that of the Alaskans.

Vajda thinks his research might be a door-opener for scientists in other fields, including those who work in human genetics and archaeology, to proceed with additional comparisons of the two cultures. 

He says it also points out the necessity and urgency to record dying languages before they disappear.
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