More on Vajda’s Siberian-Na-Dene Language Link

National Geographic News has just published an article about the recent symposium in Alaska regarding a possible connection between Yeniseic languages in Siberia and Na-Dene languages in the Americas. John Roach’s article, Siberian, Native American Languages Linked — A First, highlights the recent work of Edward Vajda, who defended his connection during the February symposium. Vajda goes deeper than cognate lists in his parallels, providing several corresponding grammatical systems, particularly verb prefix structure. Ket, his primary Siberian source, is the only living Yeniseic language (which remains highly endangered) and bears some striking grammatical similarities to Navajo. Yeniseic languages have a unique verb prefix system: unique enough that Vajda could not find a corresponding system throughout Northern Asia. Na-Dene was the closest family geographically with a similar system. Johanna Nichols, a groundbreaking Historical Linguist and Linguistic Anthropologist, attended the symposium and made comment. Roach quotes:

With the exception of the Eskimo-Aleut family that straddles the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, this is “the first successful demonstration of any connection between a New World language and an Old World language,” Nichols said.

Vajda has not yet published his findings, so the extent of his linguistic claims is not yet clear. However, based on Roach’s summary of his discussion, there are two major points of controversy. First, Roach states that Vajda found “several dozen” cognates. Whether or not the comparative method for linguistic reconstruction was used remains to be seen. Regardless, a cognate list under 50 seems a bit thin to solidify a connection at all, let alone begin reconstruction. Furthermore, the public at this point has no access to the words to assess their status as true cognates. Without a doubt, a consistent and corresponding element of grammatical structure is a strong argument for a common ancestor, but we must consider the systems of linguistic change, particularly sound change (which requires cognates), as a central factor.

A second point of controversy is the matter of depth: how long ago does the proposed connection date back? Vajda makes no direct claims, but states that this would be the oldest known language link if it corresponds to the late Pleistocene migrations evident in the archaeological record. Unfortunately, the field of linguistics currently has no reliable absolute dating techniques, and relative dating such as glottochronology, has been widely discredited. In this case, it seems the lack of cognates would help secure this relationship as an old one. If that were indeed the case, a volume of cognates would become evident in the reconstructions of Proto-Yeniseic and Proto-Na-Dene. Whether or not Vajda has taken this into consideration remains to be seen. At any rate, Nichols is not convinced of a 10,000 year-old connection:

“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,” she said.

At this point it is very difficult to make any generalizations. Vajda has not yet published his findings, but merely opened the door to discussion on the topic. Until he does, the foundation of our support or criticism is unknown.

24 thoughts on “More on Vajda’s Siberian-Na-Dene Language Link

  1. Well. That’s interesting isn’t it? Tim has just posted this for me:

    http://remotecentral.blogspot.com/search/label/Human%20Evolution%20on%20Trial%20-%20Culture

    In the language tree there I’ve put Ket and Na-Dene on the same branch. I’d independently come to the conclusion they were probably related.

    From Vadja’s comments: “this would be the oldest known language link if it corresponds to the late Pleistocene migrations evident in the archaeological record”. However I believe that if the hypothesis is correct it provides evidence in support of the comments I made to Alex regarding the expansion from the Sea of Japan. Therefore it is actually more recent than the earliest movement into America.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree that the age of the connection will have a great impact on a number of related studies; particularly within the fields of human biology and archaeology. If the connection is deep, it adds weight to many Pleistocene migration theories. If it isn’t, it evokes (and supports) a number of new questions and hypotheses, such as yours about the Sea of Japan. Although coorisponding grammatical systems tend to indicate depth, I agree with Nichols in her assertion that this is likely a later connection, part of a larger subset of migration patterns. When we get to see the cognates, we may have a better idea. Hopefully, Vajda will include modern and reconstructed examples.

  3. Is it possible that the link between the Yeniseic and Na Dene language families (if it does indeed withstand closer scrutiny) could reflect a population movement from east to west (i.e., North America to Eurasia), rather than from west to east? If the connection between the two language families can still be demonstrated and hasn’t been obliterated by the passage of time, isn’t it likely that the relationship is relatively recent rather than dating back to the earliest peopling of the Americas? The Na Dene languages are spread over a wide area of North America, suggesting that they have been established there for a very long time, but the Yeniseic languages don’t seem ever to have been widespread in Siberia, which raises the suspicion that they might be relatively recent intruders rather having been derived from the same Eurasian source as the Na Dene languages. Also, it appears that Ket and perhaps the other Yeniseic languages are typologically quite different from any of their neighbors. If populations could move from Eurasia to North America, why couldn’t they just as easily have moved in the opposite direction?

    Another puzzling aspect of the Yeniseic/Na Dene connection is that Ket and the other Yeniseic languages weren’t spoken anywhere near the Chukchi peninsula, but rather in a region that’s almost half-way to Moscow. Even the supposed Yeniseic homeland seems to be placed in the Gobi desert region. Still, it’s an interesting an exciting theory.

  4. Bill, I’d agree that there is no reason at all why there should not have been a movement of people back into Asia from Beringia at some time. You comment, “the Yeniseic languages don’t seem ever to have been widespread in Siberia”. Although Yeneseic languages have a limited distribution at present it seems the region where they are spoken has been shrinking, at least historically. It is quite probable they were widespread and have been replaced by a relatively recent expansion of languages such as Chukchi and Tugusic etc.

    I agree totally with your comment, “If the connection between the two language families can still be demonstrated and hasn’t been obliterated by the passage of time, isn’t it likely that the relationship is relatively recent rather than dating back to the earliest peopling of the Americas?” If the relationship dated back that far we’d be very unlikely to be able to find any connection. Of course the possibility of any connection awaits the publication of the evidence.

  5. forget beringia, the yenissey river[where the ket and the rest are located ] sweeps out into the zemlyas and on towards spitzbergen and northern greenland [greenberg said there is no trace in the far east of this language group in his book great human diasporas ] early assemblages in northern greenland have previously been described as magdalenean ,neolithic finds in spitsbergen would be rather a smoking gun. We allready have them hunting mammoths in the zemlyas. Mercator maps dont do justice to the question use google look from the north pole and you can plot the circum polar distribution of the dene caucasian groups identified by greenberg.

  6. there is an incorrect author attribution in the first draft i miss atribute cavalli sforzas book title to greenberg.

  7. the zemlyas are the most northern point in siberia[one of them will be the magnetic north pole in 2050]
    There were several separate colonizations of northern greenland dating back 5000 bc
    These early tool assemblages show no similarity to inuit
    a northern polar entry onto the continent does not really dispute greenbergs West to east movement for the language, provided we accept that after a polar entry the immigrants followed the” back side “of the artic southwards ,towards alaska rather than gander

  8. hello I am of dene blood. I have a question, has any body that speaks dene bizaad spoken to this man? Also what about the links to ancient turkish and dene? I also had a freind who was in veitnam during the war, he was a white guy who grew up speaking Nav,Apache,dialects of dene. He claimed he could speak freely with out many mistakes on his part, was understood and in turn he understood them. to the point that the dirty jokes had the same punch line.

  9. hello it is me again there I have more. I also had an art teacher who went on a teachers trade with Mongolia when she got home sick she called home to the rez “long distance” she started to talk with the operator and told her what she wanted to do . the operator then interupted her and said , i understand what you are saying but I dont recognize where you are from .my teacher then realized that she was speaking Navajo to the operator! hmmm ?

  10. Virgil,I’m kyrgyz national and I speak kyrgyz language which is I would’t say close but it came out from the same tree of siberian languages.
    Now,this is quite astonishing to me that navajo could be understood in Mongolia,sounds unbelievable then I think I could too.
    As far as I know of general similarities between native american and siberian languages there is one example: Native american word kayak in my kyrgyz language sounds as kayk and has the same meaning.

  11. Is this such a surprise? I’ve surmised for many years now a Na-Dene-Sino-Tibetan connection. I first saw Merritt Ruhlen’s comparison between Na-Dene and Yennisseian (which he mailed me a copy of his rough draft) in 1997. Genetically, male Y chromosome DNA markers have been identified between Na-Dene and many Central Asian peoples. And craniofacial measurements conclude that Na-Dene are “closer to the living Chinese than any other people in either hemisphere.” Many linguists have speculated on these possibilities in the past dating to the late 19th century. They knew all along of these affinities…

  12. Can someone give me an example of linguisitic similarities between Na-Dene and Yenissean?
    My language which is kyrgyz is directly connected to the Yenissean one.So if it’s true then can someone show me where it really is the way as it described.
    I’m kinda getting excited here.

  13. I am navajo from Northern Arizona, and I have also been very curious as to how the language or people have migrated. I always thought the best way to determine the link would be to bring the two(or many) languages together through individuals who speak their own respective language fluently. This might be off subject from the eastern asian-american link, but my aunt maintains a relationship with the a family of Dene from up north who visit arizona often to exchange cultural and linguistic similarities. more than that they are family friends and when speaking they can both exchange fluently and heavily in deep conversation between the two languages. My aunt has told me that the two languages are parallel, except for a very few adoptions of french words mixed in with the Dene language, where navajos have done the same with a very few spanish words.

    The Navajo creation story consists of the people passing through a dark world which leads me to believe this as a possible migration through the north.

    I have also tried to do my own internet research regarding a link between Navajo and Native languages that exist down in Mexico and beyond, but there is no reservations and published linguistic links or websites regarding southern tribes. It’s hard when you are using only the computer as a guide.

    There are Navajos, and other natives who dispel the migration theory as “propoganda created in an effort to remove our argument of them being ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Invaders’, and instill in us that we ourselves are too.” I disagree, because the similarity in facial features and structure is too obvious to ignore. Also the ‘yurt’ is very similar in structure to the ‘Hogaan’ of the navajo. (I am not sure on the historical origin of the yurt or how far it’s use dates back)

    The study intrigues me, if you have any questions or info you can email me b3barlow@srpnet.com

    Thanks

  14. How long does such complex verb structures as in Na-dene an Yesisseien take to develop. Probably not very long, because something similar has developed in modern european languages lik e Italian and modern Greek, ex:

    Italian: glielodato – i have given it to him/her.

    Usually virtten: glie l’ho dato and analyzable as:

    glie-l-o-d-ato it: to him it-I-perfect- do-perfect

    Italian is a mainly vso/svo-language but the verb complex has a petrified osv or ovs order.

    My point is this. The connection and that particular structure may not go far back in time and before there could be quite another structure, like for example that of Sino-tibetaanian languages.

  15. i think that it is very cool that you guys put all this information on and how they have their own cculture for their language but how many people speaks it?

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