The First Siberian Language Connected to Native American Languages

Yeniseian and Na Dene

We all know the theory that Native Americans came from Siberia. So far, we have had archaeological and genetic proofs for this. Now, we have the first linguistic link: a nearly extinct language of central Siberia has a common origin with one of the largest groups of Native American languages, Na Dene, spoken thousands of kilometers away, as showed by a new research presented in February at a meeting of linguists at the Alaska Native Language Center, in Fairbanks.

"The finding may allow linguists to weigh in on how the Americas were first settled. 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 conservative standards," said author Edward Vajda, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, involved in these researches for over 15 years.

Previous researches had come with lists of similar sounds and words. Vajda went further in his research.

"Such similarities are likely to be dismissed as coincidence even if they represent genuine evidence. I'm providing a whole system of [similar] vocabulary and also of grammatical parallels-the way that verb prefixes are structured," said Vajda.

He compared the Na-Dene languages to the Siberian Yeniseian language family, made of the extinct languages Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol and the extant Ket language.

"Less than 200 speakers remain and most are over 50. Within a couple of generations, Ket will probably become extinct," said Vajda.

The Na-Dene family comprises the Athabaskan tribes in the U.S. and Canada (the most famous are Apache and Navajo) as well as the Haida, Tlingit and Eyak people on the Pacific coast. The last Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in January 2008 in Anchorage, aged 89.

The Yeniseian-Na Dene connection

The Yeniseian-Na-Dene connection was established using the similar common verb-prefix system, not found in any other Siberian language.

"Only Na-Dene languages have a system of verb prefixes that very closely resemble the Yeniseian," said Vajda, who discovered several dozen cognates, words that sound alike and have the same or similar meaning and root within different languages, with sound correspondences.

Merritt Ruhlen, an anthropologist at Stanford University in California, was the first to signal Na-Dene-Yeniseian cognates.

"I systematically connect these structures in Yeniseic with the structures in modern Na-Dene. My comparisons aren't just lists of some look-alike words … I show there is a system behind it." - said Vajda.

This is "the first successful demonstration of any connection between a New World language and an Old World language," said Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California, in Berkeley.

But the research cannot tell which of the languages is basic. Some Na-Dene words in the Na-Dene may be closer to the words of the mother tongue of the two groups, but the Yeniseian languages could be even more archaic. If we take into consideration the theory that Native Americans crossed the Bering land bridge, this would mean that the mother tongue of the two groups would be over 10,000 years old.

"If true, this would be the oldest known demonstrated language link," said Vajda.

But this could also point towards various waves of migrations, and the Na Dene could have entered North America later.

"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," said Nichols.


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