Ancient language connection between Asia and North America
Research looks at Bering strait land bridge
Mary Beth Smetzer
FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Research illuminating an ancient language connection between Asia and North America supports archaeological and genetic evidence that a Bering Strait land bridge once connected North America with Asia, and the discovery is being endorsed by a growing list of scholars in the field of linguistics and other sciences.
The work of Western Washington University linguistics professor Edward Vajda with the isolated Ket people of Central Siberia 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 Dene-Yeniseian Symposium in Alaska organized by James Kari of the University of Alaska Native Language Center.
Vajda's 67-page article, presented at the February 2008 symposium, is featured in "The Dene-Yeniseian Connection," a just-released joint publication of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Anthropology and ANLC.
The 369-page book includes an additional 17 other papers either presented at the conference or solicited by the book's UAF editors: Kari, a professor emeritus of linguistics, and Ben Potter, an assistant professor of anthropology.
Vajda, now director of the Center for East Asian Studies at WWU in Bellingham, 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 from Bellingham, 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.
In 2004, Vajda wrote a small Ket language grammar 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."
The strength of the new book, Vajda said, is that the editors brought together a lot of related international studies of connections with the Old and New World.
"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.
"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 the archaeologist. "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."