Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Missing Language Link

A missing link in language history has been found. Its discovery connects one extremely endangered ancient language spoken only in Siberia with several other rare languages of Native North Americans. This knowledge may potentially rewrite human history.

The language of Canada's Dene Nation, along with the Navajo and Apache in the United States and many other "Athabaskan" dialects, have origins in the Ket language - an ancient and highly endangered language spoken by only a few people in Western Siberia. Initially written about two years ago by Edward Vajda, a linguistics professor at Western Washington University, the landmark discovery represents the only known link between any Old World language and the hundreds of speech systems among first nations in North America.
The new collection of articles by Vajda and more than a dozen other experts from the U.S., Canada and Europe details a multitude of clear connections -- nouns, verbs and key grammatical structures -- between the archaic language spoken by the Ket people of Russia's Yenisei River region and dozens of languages used by North American aboriginal groups, primarily in Alaska, Northern and Western Canada and the U.S. Southwest.

University of Alaska linguist James Kari says the discovery could rewrite the story of when, where and how ancient Asian migrants arrived in North America. It should also push research into new directions across disciplines beyond linguistics, including archeology, anthropology, paleoecology, biology and genetics.

The Bering land bridge joined present-day Alaska and eastern Siberia at various times during the most recent ice ages. It is believed that a small human population survived the ice age in this region, called Beringia. Isolated from its ancestor populations in Asia, they expanded to populate the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago, when the last glaciers blocking the way southward melted.

Researchers suggest that the Bering land bridge migration occurred 12,000 years ago and that every Native American is descended from those Eastern Siberians who migrated across the land bridge. This has been backed up by a unique genetic variant widespread in natives across both continents. Now it has also been backed up with language.

So, how was the link discovered? Vajda found that the few remaining Ket speakers in Russia and the native speakers in North America used almost identical words for canoe. They also used similar words for such component parts as prow and cross-piece. That combination, he thought, was beyond the realm of chance. It was the beginning of a linguistic journey that brought together communities separated by an ocean and more than 10,000 years of history.

Representatives of some North American nations believed to share a root language with the Ket traveled to Moscow in April to visit their new-found linguistic kin. The connection between the Ket and Athabaskan peoples could be hugely important. Arctic Athabaskan Council spokesman Danny Creswell said "Upon this base we can build cultural, economic and perhaps political links."


  1. Hi, Sara. Was the connection between words for "canoe" and canoe parts just the first, or were other words, and grammars, found to be similar or related later?

  2. From what I understand, the connection between canoe and related words were the first pieces of the puzzle falling into place. More similar and related words have been found since, leading more and more linguists to concur with the idea that the Athabaskan languages are descended from the ancient Ket tongue.

  3. Navajo here. I'm very excited to hear Ket.

  4. Actually, 2014 studies suggest both Ket and Na-Dene share a common ancestor language, now lost. Maybe a Uralic tongue. Possibly the Xiongnu who spread from Finland to Vietnam from the steppes IN JUST SIX GENERATIONS! That's like, 100-150 years at most!

  5. The hypothesis is not new. And it will be extremely difficult to be proved.