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 <>
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 languagefamilies has been demonstrated by linguists from Washington and Alaska.Professor Edward Vajda of Western Washington University (Bellingham), aspecialist on the Ket language isolate spoken by a shrinking number ofelders living along the Yenisei River of central Siberia, combining tenyears of library and field work on Ket and relying on the earlier work ofHeinrich Werner on the now-extinct relatives of Ket, has clarified thedauntingly complex morphology and phonology of Ket and its Yeniseiccongeners. At a symposium held Feb. 26-27 at the University of Alaska,Fairbanks and a panel to take place Feb. 29 at the Alaska AnthropologicalAssociation annual meeting in Anchorage, Vajda shows that the abstractforms of lexical and grammatical morphemes and the rules of composition ofthe Ket verb find systematic and numerous parallels in the Na-Deneprotolanguage reconstructed to account for the modern Tlingit and Eyaklanguages and the Athabaskan language family (whose daughters includeGwich'in, Koyukon, Dena’ina and others of Alaska, Hupa of California, andNavajo of the U.S. Southwest). The comparison was made possible by recentadvances in the analysis of Tlingit phonology and Tlingit-Athabaskan-Eyakpresented at the same symposium by Prof. Jeff Leer of the University ofAlaska, Fairbanks, and by earlier work by Prof. Michael Krauss of UAF onthe now-extinct Eyak language and on comparative Athabaskan, and onAthabaskan lexicography and verb stem analysis by symposium organizer Prof.James Kari of UAF. Working independently, Vajda and the Alaska linguistshave arrived at abstract stem shapes and ancestral wordforms too numerousand displaying too many idiosyncratic parallels to be explained by anythingother than common descent. The comparison also shows conclusively thatHaida, sometimes associated with Na-Dene, is not related.

The distance from the Yeniseian range to that the most distant Athabaskanlanguages is the greatest overland distance covered by any known languagespread not using wheeled transport or sails. Archaeologist Prof. BenPotter of UAF reviewed the postglacial prehistory of Beringia andspeculated that the Na-Dene speakers may descend from some of the earliestcolonizers of the Americas, who eventually created the successful andlong-lived Northern Archaic tool tradition that dominated interior andnorthern Alaska almost until historical times.

Vajda's work has been well vetted. In addition to Na-Dene specialistsKrauss, Leer, and Kari, who have reacted favorably, the symposium was alsoattended by historical linguists Prof. Eric P. Hamp of the University ofChicago and Prof. Johanna Nichols of the University of California,Berkeley, both of whom announced their support for the proposedrelationship, and Bernard Comrie, Director of the Linguistics Department,Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig and professorat UC Santa Barbara, endorsed Vajda's method. Athabaskanist Prof. VictorGolla of Humboldt State University, Eurasianist Prof. Michael Fortescue ofthe University of Copenhagen, Yeniseicist Dr. Heinrich Werner of Bonn(formerly of Taganrog University, Russia), Prof. Bernard Comrie (Max PlankInstitute, Leipzig), and Prof. Nicholas Evans (Australian NationalUniversity) read the draft of Vajda's report and reacted favorably [thesefive have not been consulted in the writing of this statement].

A feature article will appear in the Anchorage Daily News on Tuesday, March4, 2008.

Symposium website:

Contact:Jim Kari, UAF:

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