From The Ottawa Citizen
Words for 'canoe' point to long-lost family ties
Canwest News Service July 8, 2010
An obscure language in Siberia has similarities to languages in North America, which might reshape history, writes Randy Boswell.
A new book by leading linguists has bolstered a controversial theory that the language of Canada's Dene Nation is rooted in an ancient Asian tongue spoken today by only a few hundred people in Western Siberia.
The landmark discovery, initially proposed two years ago by U.S. researcher Edward Vajda, represents the only known link between any Old World language and the hundreds of speech systems among First Nations in the Western Hemisphere.
The collection of articles by Vajda and other experts details a multitude of clear connections -- nouns, verbs and key grammatical structures -- between the language spoken by the Ket people of Russia's Yenisei River region and dozens of languages used by North American aboriginal groups.
The newly recognized link has prompted the Yukon-based Arctic Athabaskan Council to begin forging cultural and political ties with Russia's tiny population of Ket speakers. They live 8,000 kilometres west of Whitehorse and are separated from their linguistic cousins in North America by some 10,000 years of history.
University of Alberta linguist Jack Ives writes in the essay collection that "the question of just how such a distribution arose -- with a separation between Siberia and northwestern North America involving thousands of kilometres -- is simply fascinating."
University of Alaska linguist James Kari, co-editor of the book, titled The Dene-Yeniseian Connection: Bridging Asia and North America, said the discovery could rewrite the story of when, where and how ancient Asian migrants arrived in North America at the end of the last Ice Age. He said it should also trigger new avenues of research "across several disciplines," including archeology, anthropology, paleo-ecology, biology and genetics.
In April, representatives of some of the North American nations believed to share a root language with the Ket travelled to Moscow for a "historic meeting" with their new-found linguistic kin.
Vajda, a linguistics professor at Western Washington University, told Canwest News Service in 2008 how years of research with the Ket culminated with a dramatic insight involving words associated with the canoe.
He found that the few remaining Ket speakers in Russia and the Dene, Gwich'in and other Athapaskan speakers in North America used almost identical words for canoe and such component parts as the prow and cross-piece.
"Finally, here was the beginning of a system that struck me as beyond the realm of chance," Vajda wrote at the time. "At that moment, I think I realized how an archeologist must feel who peers inside a freshly opened Egyptian tomb and witnesses what no one has seen for thousands of years."
Currently, only the Eskimo-Aleut family of aboriginal languages spoken by the Inuit of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia straddle the hemispheric divide between Asia and the Americas. Those connections aren't surprising, given the relatively recent arrival of the Inuit to North America.
But linguists had never definitively linked any ancient, Old World language to those spoken by the Indian nations of North and South America. Their ancestors are believed to have migrated from Asia to the New World -- across what was then a dried-up Bering Strait -- at least 13,000 years ago.
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See also February 12, April 9 and April 20, 2010 press releases by the Athabascan Council from earlier this year.