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New Book Chronicles Asia, North America Language Link

Fairbanks, Alaska—A team of researchers, including several at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, have found what looks to be the first well-supported demonstration of an ancient language connection between people in remote Asia and North America.

Their work is chronicled in “The Dene-Yeniseian Connection,” a publication of the Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska. In the book, lead author Edward Vajda of Western Washington University details his hypothesis that the Ket language of Central Siberia is related to the North American Na-Dene language family, which includes Tlingit, Gwich’in, Dena’ina, Koyukon, Navajo, Carrier, Hupa, Apache and about 45 other languages. Ket is the sole survivor of an earlier language family called “Yeniseian.”

The two language groups are separated by thousands of miles of land and an ocean, yet have similarities that indicate they came from the same roots. For scientists, these similarities are convincing evidence that these populations started out in the same area speaking the same language and then migrated via the Bering Sea land bridge.

Vajda’s hypothesis is backed by an international group of scholars, including UAF archaeologist Ben Potter and UAF linguist James Kari, who both served as editors of the 369-page volume.

“What has taken place in the last three years with the publication of these articles is unprecedented as an initial academic presentation of a long-distant language relationship,” Kari said.

Vajda first announced his hypothesis at a UAF symposium in 2008. Vajda has examined the similarities between the Ket language, currently spoken by a small, isolated group of people in central Siberia, and the North America Na-Dene languages.

Vajda found more than 100 shared cognates that are related by interconnected sound changes, as well as several verbal affixes that mark tense and aspect, and some shared pronouns. Cognates are words with a common etymological origin. For English speakers, it is similar to hearing the sameness of the English word ‘father’ and the Latin ‘pater’.

The results emphasize the importance of studying disappearing languages for what they can reveal about human prehistory, Vajda said. “The clearest lesson from comparing Yeniseian and Na-Dene is that effort spent documenting the world’s disappearing languages now can have vital impact on the future. Who would have imagined the ancient words Native American and Siberian boarding-school children were punished for speaking a few decades ago could wield a power vast enough to reunite entire continents?”

“The Dene-Yeniseian Connection” is a joint publication of the UAF anthropology department and the Alaska Native Language Center. With the publication of the 369-page book, linguistics specialists all over the world will have a chance to carefully examine the hypothesis and the supporting data.

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