The Siberian Origin of Na-Dene Languages

Ed Vajda with Ket language experts Valentina Romanenkova (left) and Marina Irikova on the Tom River in Central Siberia in May 2006

Public Lecture
Wednesday. February 27, 2008, 7 p.m
Wood Center Ballroom, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Edward J. Vajda
Professor of Modern and Classical Languages and Director, Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University

The Na-Dene family (Tlingit, Eyak, Athabaskan) was presumably the latest New World stock to become established in North America before the Eskimo-Aleut languages. The comparative method can be used to demonstrate that these languages have a distant relative in North Asia – the Ket language isolate. Ket is the sole survivor of the once widespread Yeniseic family, which includes Ket plus several extinct languages -- Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, Pumpokol -- formerly spoken from Mongolia and Kazakhstan throughout western Siberia (attested by early explorers and via substrate river names). All known Yeniseic languages seem to be related at a time depth of about 2,500 years. The large number of cognates between them permits the reconstruction of much basic vocabulary, suggesting a proto-language spoken by mobile bands of hunter-gatherer-fishers in the boreal forests of northern Inner Asia.

This first part of this presentation introduces several intractable problems in reconstructing proto- Yeniseic phonology that cannot adequately be solved using family-internal evidence alone. Yet Ket is generally regarded as a language isolate, a situation that precludes outside comparisons with other families. The second part of the presentation describes regular sound correspondences based on several dozen cognates in basic vocabulary between Yeniseic and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (Na-Dene) suggesting a genetic link between these families. The Yeniseic-internal phonological problems presented earlier are then revisited, with the Na-Dene comparative evidence yielding precise solutions to all of the problems. The talk concludes by suggesting that this sort of "usefulness" of the purported evidence is a natural concomitant to regular sound correspondences and provides strong confirmation of genetic relatedness between language groups.

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