New language research supports land bridge evidence

BERING STRAIT: Washington linguistics expert studied isolated Ket people of Central Siberia.

July 5, 2010 

FAIRBANKS -- Research on a language connection between Asia and North America supports archaeological and genetic evidence for a Bering Strait land bridge, and the discovery is being endorsed by a growing list of scholars in linguistics and other sciences.

Western Washington University linguistics professor Edward Vajda has been studying the isolated Ket people of Central Siberia.

His work is revealing more and more examples of an ancient language connection with the language family of Na-Dene, which includes Tlingit, Gwich'in, Dena'ina, Koyukon, Navajo, Carrier, Hupa, Apache and about 45 other languages.

In 2008, Vajda aired his hypothesis at a symposium in Alaska organized by James Kari of the University of Alaska Native Language Center.

Vajda was trained in Slavic languages but became interested in Ket in the late 1980s, when he came across a book in Russian about the near extinct language in Siberia.

His interest grew, and over the years he has engaged in extensive research, meeting Ket speakers twice in Germany, in southern Siberia and in Ket villages along the Yenisei River in central Siberia.

To reach the remote Ket area, Vajda traveled via six airplanes, three trains and a 4 1/2-hour helicopter ride that sometimes barely cleared the tops of the Siberian spruce forests.

Of the 1,200 Ket people, only about 100, all older than 55, still speak the language.

CLUES TO THE PAST

In 2004, Vajda wrote a small Ket language grammar book and is gathering materials for a larger book.

The importance of studying a disappearing language goes far beyond a personal linguistic interest, Vajda explained.

"It's a new way to understand human prehistory before there were historians to write it down. Isolated languages like Ket have developed features that are very unusual and interesting, and they help us to understand the human mind and human language ability."

"We linguists should not be the focus of attention here," Vajda added. "What is important are the languages and especially the Native communities themselves."

Vajda takes no credit for coming up with the Asian language connection.

"People developed the beginnings of these ideas even 300 years ago, and in 1923 someone made the specific claim I am arguing for. My work builds on vocabulary comparisons made by other linguists in the late 1990s as well."

LINKING OLD CULTURES

Vajda's 2008 symposium article is featured in a new book on the language links.

The book, "The Dene-Yeniseian Connection," compiles 17 other international papers on the topic, and it was jointly published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Anthropology Department and the Native language center.

"This book goes beyond linguistics," he said. "Language relatedness carries with it other nonlinguistic ramifications, and they should be related, too."

In addition to linguists, the publication's multiple authors include archeologists, anthropologists, and human geneticists who are all looking at the same problem and same hypothesis.

"I hope people will see this as a developing work and if this hypothesis is correct, there will be support and more evidence for it."

"This is not the last word; it's the beginning of a multidisciplinary study of the Dene-Yeniseian link," Vajda said.

Ben Potter, an editor of the new book, concurs.

"The papers in this volume raise fascinating questions. This has opened the floodgates to a whole new arena of integration of the different disciplines -- folklore, archaeology, genetics and linguistics," said Potter, an assistant professor of anthropology. "We can work out the implications together."

"The vast majority of Native peoples in western subarctic Canada and Alaska are Na-Dene and before Vajda's work, there was no definitive link with any other group in the Old World," he said.

Normally, the archaeological record doesn't speak, he explained. But with this deep language connection, an understanding of how prehistoric people viewed the spiritual world, how they categorized the natural world, and their customs might be revealed.

"Then we can breathe life into the ancestors of the Yeniseian and Na-Dene people," Potter said. "There is the potential: that together, scholars from many disciplines can begin to reconstruct the lifeways of these people from stone tools, genetics, and now linguistics, and help understand the journey that brought them from Old World to the New."

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