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LINGUIST List 19.717

Mon Mar 03 2008

FYI: Linguists demonstrate Siberian-North American link

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        1.    Andrea Berez, Linguists demonstrate Siberian-North American link

Message 1: Linguists demonstrate Siberian-North American link
Date: 02-Mar-2008
From: Andrea Berez <aberezumail.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Linguists demonstrate Siberian-North American link
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Feb. 28, 2008

By Johanna Nichols, Edward Vajda and James Kari.

A long-sought connection between Siberian and North American language
families has been demonstrated by linguists from Washington and Alaska.
Professor Edward Vajda of Western Washington University (Bellingham), a
specialist on the Ket language isolate spoken by a shrinking number of
elders living along the Yenisei River of central Siberia, combining ten
years of library and field work on Ket and relying on the earlier work of
Heinrich Werner on the now-extinct relatives of Ket, has clarified the
dauntingly complex morphology and phonology of Ket and its Yeniseic
congeners. At a symposium held Feb. 26-27 at the University of Alaska,
Fairbanks and a panel to take place Feb. 29 at the Alaska Anthropological
Association annual meeting in Anchorage, Vajda shows that the abstract
forms of lexical and grammatical morphemes and the rules of composition of
the Ket verb find systematic and numerous parallels in the Na-Dene
protolanguage reconstructed to account for the modern Tlingit and Eyak
languages and the Athabaskan language family (whose daughters include
Gwich'in, Koyukon, Dena’ina and others of Alaska, Hupa of California, and
Navajo of the U.S. Southwest). The comparison was made possible by recent
advances in the analysis of Tlingit phonology and Tlingit-Athabaskan-Eyak
presented at the same symposium by Prof. Jeff Leer of the University of
Alaska, Fairbanks, and by earlier work by Prof. Michael Krauss of UAF on
the now-extinct Eyak language and on comparative Athabaskan, and on
Athabaskan lexicography and verb stem analysis by symposium organizer Prof.
James Kari of UAF. Working independently, Vajda and the Alaska linguists
have arrived at abstract stem shapes and ancestral wordforms too numerous
and displaying too many idiosyncratic parallels to be explained by anything
other than common descent. The comparison also shows conclusively that
Haida, sometimes associated with Na-Dene, is not related.

The distance from the Yeniseian range to that the most distant Athabaskan
languages is the greatest overland distance covered by any known language
spread not using wheeled transport or sails. Archaeologist Prof. Ben
Potter of UAF reviewed the postglacial prehistory of Beringia and
speculated that the Na-Dene speakers may descend from some of the earliest
colonizers of the Americas, who eventually created the successful and
long-lived Northern Archaic tool tradition that dominated interior and
northern Alaska almost until historical times.

Vajda's work has been well vetted. In addition to Na-Dene specialists
Krauss, Leer, and Kari, who have reacted favorably, the symposium was also
attended by historical linguists Prof. Eric P. Hamp of the University of
Chicago and Prof. Johanna Nichols of the University of California,
Berkeley, both of whom announced their support for the proposed
relationship, and Bernard Comrie, Director of the Linguistics Department,
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig and professor
at UC Santa Barbara, endorsed Vajda's method. Athabaskanist Prof. Victor
Golla of Humboldt State University, Eurasianist Prof. Michael Fortescue of
the University of Copenhagen, Yeniseicist Dr. Heinrich Werner of Bonn
(formerly of Taganrog University, Russia), Prof. Bernard Comrie (Max Plank
Institute, Leipzig), and Prof. Nicholas Evans (Australian National
University) read the draft of Vajda's report and reacted favorably [these
five have not been consulted in the writing of this statement].

A feature article will appear in the Anchorage Daily News on Tuesday, March
4, 2008. http://www.adn.com/

Symposium website: http://www.uaf.edu/anlc/dy2008.html

Jim Kari, UAF: ffjmkuaf.edu
Johanna Nichols, UC Berkeley: johannaberkeley.edu
Edward Vajda, Western Washington: eddievajdayahoo.com

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics; Genetic Classification; Historical Linguistics

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