March 15, 2008

Big news from the Arctic Circle

The inimitable Mr. Verb reports on a recent potential breakthrough in historical linguistics: The Na-Dene languages, most of which are/were spoken in northwestern North America, and the Yeniseic languages of Siberia have been demonstrated to be related. Work by Ed Vajda (Western Washington University) on the endangered Siberian language Ket, and work by Jeff Leer, Michael Krauss, and James Kari (University of Alaska, Fairbanks) on Na-Dene languages, including the recently-extinct Eyak, showed enough parallels to satisfy some heavy-hitting historical linguists of their common descent -- and, as Mr. Verb notes, they're a tough bunch to satisfy. According to a Linguist List report by Johanna Nichols, Edward Vajda and James Kari,

The distance from the Yeniseian range to 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.
This is definitely big news; I don't know when the last time any proposed connections between major language families was demonstrated, but certainly none have ever been convincingly demonstrated between North American and Asian languages. See some of the original evidence here.

Posted by Heidi Harley at March 15, 2008 09:07 PM