This page serves as a record of the February 2008 symposium. For updates and news about Dene-Yeniseian see the main Dene-Yeniseian page.

Dene-Yeniseic Symposium

An international workshop dedicated to exploring the evidence for linguistic, archaeological, and genetic connections between the Na-Dene languages of North America and the Yeniseic languages of Siberia.

February 26, 27 and 29, 2008 
Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska

     Detailed Schedule February 26-29 (updated Mar 3, 2008)

Overview

Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit (Dene) is the largest language family in North America, stretching from western Alaska south to the Mexican border, and its internal genetic relationships have been the subject of intensive study. However, the origins of this family outside North America have never been conclusively demonstrated. This symposium discussed new evidence supporting a linguistic connection between Dene and the Yeniseic family of central Siberia. This proposal is the first to be founded on established comparative methodology rather than on mass comparison, and as such represents one of the most exciting advances in historical linguistics in recent years. The Dene-Yeniseic connection will have an enormous impact on our understanding of the prehistory and settlement of the Americas.

This workshop follows a Na-Dene workshop held August 7-8, 2006, at the Linguistics Department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. That workshop's purpose was to share recent advances in reconstructing the ancient language ancestral to Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit, and further to assess progress in attempting to link it genetically with Haida and with Ket (central Siberia), the last surviving member of the Yeniseic language family.

Dene-Yeniseic in past and future perspective

by Edward Vajda

As preface to this volume and postscript to my conference presentation, "The Siberian origins of Na-Dene languages", which presented evidence supporting a genetic link between the Siberian family Yeniseic and the widespread North American family Na-Dene (Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit), this essay addresses two goals. The first half assesses how my linguistic findings match up against those of archeologists and anthropologists presented at the same conference, some of which also appear in this volume. The second half redresses a few omissions from my original draft article and provides a comprehensive history of Dene-Yeniseic studies. The original article, like the final version published in the present volume, focused mainly on what Yeniseic can contribute to Na-Dene historical linguistics. It therefore highlights specific work by Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, Jim Kari and other Athabaskanists who have spent decades reconstructing Proto-Athabaskan and comparing it with Eyak and Tlingit. The original article did not attempt a full assessment of previous claims linking Yeniseic with other families – a task undertaken in my book "Yeniseian peoples and languages (Vajda 2001c), which is nearly 400 pages long. Nor did it cite past reconstruction work on Proto- Yeniseic with the same attention given to Krauss and Leer's Proto-Na-Dene and Proto- Athabaskan forms. This perhaps left the impression that little work had been done in this area. In fact, a comprehensive system of proto-Yeniseic reconstructions was developed by the celebrated Moscow linguist Sergei Starostin already decades ago (S.Startostin 1982, 1984; cf. the discussion in Vajda 2001c:15-16). Proto-Yeniseic forms based on the most recent published work of Sergei Starostin (1995) and his son George Starostin (1995) have been included in this published version. The patterns of sound correspondences evident between Starostin's original Proto-Yeniseic reconstructions and the Proto-Na-Dene or Proto-Athabaskan reconstructions of Krauss, Leer and Kari – neither having been devised with Dene-Yeniseic comparisons in mind – lends additional support to the claim of genetic relatedness argued for in my article. [more...]

Schedule in brief

  • Feb 26, 10:00-3:00, worksession, Regents Conference Room, University of Alaska Fairbanks
    • Ed Vajda: Overview: "A Siberian Link to Na-Dene languages" 
      This paper has been superceded by the following: 
      Vajda, E. 2010. "Siberian Link to Na-Dene languages." The Dene-Yeniseian Connection, ed. by J. Kari and B. Potter, 33-99. (Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, new series, vol. 5.) Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Anthropology.
    • Jeff Leer: Overview: "The phonology of Tlina-Dena (Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit" [pdf]
    • Johanna Nichols: Of needles and haystacks
    • Ben Potter: Upper paleolithic and mesolithic/archaic record of Siberia and Beringia [pdf]


  • Feb 27, 10:00-3:00, worksession, Regents Conference Room, University of Alaska Fairbanks
    • Ben Potter: Archaeology of Eastern Beringia [pdf
       
  • Feb 27, 7:00-9:00, Public Lecture, Wood Center Ballroom, University of ALaska Fairbanks
      A Siberian Link to Na-Dene Languages, presented by Prof Edward Vajda, (Western Washington University) [more information]

  • Feb 29, 9:00-3:00, Special Session on the Dene-Yeniseic Hypothesis, Alaska Anthropological Association (Anchorage Hilton) 
     
      This session featured presentations by internationally renown researchers, including James Kari (UAF), Bernard Comrie (Max Planck-Leipzig), Edward Vajda (Western Washington), Jeff Leer (UAF), Johanna Nichols (Berkeley), John Ives (Alberta), Yuri Berezkin (St Petersberg), Alexandra Kim (UAA), Marie-Lucie Tarpent (Nova Scotia). [detailed schedule]

Readings

Background readings may be downloaded from the Rasmuson Library e-Reserves(use the password "D-Y").

Post-Symposium Summary

Linguists demonstrate Siberian-North American link
Feb. 29, 2008

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].

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