Thursday, March 13, 2008

From Yenisei to Arizona

The March 4th issue of the Anchorage Daily News reported on a fascinating paper by linguist Edward Vajda, who, after ten years of research, has found a solid link between an obscure Siberian language and the large Athabascan (or Na'Dene) language group of western North America. After interviewing many of the surviving speakers of Ket, the language of a native Siberian nation from the Yenisei River valley, Vajda found "several dozen cognates" in the vocabularies of Ket and the Athabaskan languages, and identified consistent morphological rules governing the transformation of Ket words into Athabascan. His findings help to reinforce the Beringian hypothesis of Native American origins - the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from eastern Siberia during the Pleistocene epoch. If he is correct - and his peers in the field seem to think he is - Vajda has also discovered one of the most widespread human language groups. Pre-historic Ket and Athabascan speakers can be found in Siberia, in the Alaskan panhandle, in western Canada, in California, and in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, where the Athabaskan-speaking Navajos settled around 1400 AD. And they accomplished this expansion without draft animals, wheels, or sailing ships.

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