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Tongue ties: a language bridge across the Bering Strait

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.crosscut.com/tribes/13846/Tongue+ties:+a+language+bridge+across+ the+Bering+Strait/ Tongue ties: a language bridge across the Bering Strait A
    Message 1 of 1 , May 8, 2008
      http://www.crosscut.com/tribes/13846/Tongue+ties:+a+language+bridge+across+
      the+Bering+Strait/

      Tongue ties: a language bridge across the Bering Strait

      A Western Washington University professor has compared native languages in
      North America to those in Asia and found ties that suggest they come from
      the same ancestors.

      By Michele Solis, Native People
      Posted on April 30, 2008, Printed on May 2, 2008

      http://www.crosscut.com/tribes/13846/

      The bones, arrowheads, and DNA (most recently found in fossilized poop) all
      agree: Our North American continent was first peopled by immigrants from
      north Asia over 10,000 years ago. And now linguist Edward Vajda has found
      remnants of this ancient heritage in words spoken today.

      Vajda, a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, recently
      demonstrated a convincing kinship between a Siberian language family called
      Yeniseic and a Native American family called Na-Dene, which includes
      languages spoken in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.

      Compared to the hard evidence of archaeology, language is more like
      quicksand, which is why the new link is surprising. "It's been assumed that
      the rate of language change is so rapid that all evidence of linguistic
      relationships would have disappeared by (this) time," said Vajda.

      Despite languages' tendency to morph, Vajda found enough similarities
      between the Yeniseic and Na-Dene families to convince fellow linguists that
      both are derived from a common ancient tongue at a recent symposium held at
      the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. To do this, he drew upon his
      expertise in Ket, an endangered language spoken in central Siberia. "In
      this one little obscure language with fewer than 200 (speakers), we have
      this evidence of a link across the oceans," he said.

      To learn this endangered language that hadn't been completely documented,
      Vajda relied on Russian scholars, rare books, and his own field work in
      Tomsk, a city in Siberia, where he worked with native Ket speakers. Ket
      people were hunter-gatherers until they were forced to settle during Soviet
      collectivization campaigns, said Vajda.

      While learning Ket, Vajda originally wondered about a connection with
      Native American languages. "I just saw features in the Ket verb that just
      really sort of reminded me of Navajo," he said. After the 15 years it took
      him to master Ket, he could rigorously establish similarities between
      Yeneseic languages, which included Ket and extinct Siberian languages like
      Pumpokol and Yugh, and Na-Dene languages like Navajo and Athabaskan, which
      is spoken in Alaska and Washington.

      A link between the Yeniseic and Na-Dene families had been supposed for some
      time, since they share look-alike words that have similar meanings. But
      such "look-alikes" alone do not prove languages are related because they
      can occur by chance. Vajda's work moves beyond these superficial
      similarities by finding true "cognates," words that have a common origin,
      and by showing similar word structures and consistent sound
      correspondences.

      For instance, take the Ket word for "hair": It's made by adding the word
      for "head" to the word for "fur" to make "head-fur." It turns out that this
      very same "head-fur" construction is used to make the word "hair"
      throughout the Na-Dene languages, and not only is it a cognate, but the
      individual words for "head" and "fur" are also cognates. "That type of
      thing is really strong evidence that languages are related," Vajda said.

      Notably, the cognates he found occur in vocabulary relevant to a
      hunter-gatherer lifestyle, as expected for words derived from the same
      ancient language. "You really have to look at the basic vocabulary because
      these are the words that are probably in the language five or 10 thousand
      years ago," he explained.

      These cognates might also be unwitting informants about North American
      prehistory, Vajda suggested. "This link (might) help us understand what was
      original in the lifestyle of these people — what kind of terrain, and what
      kind of trees and animals (they had) in their original homeland," he said.

      Vajda also found similarities in verbs, which are particularly complicated
      in these languages. Verbs in both families are modified by a complex series
      of prefixes, and Vajda showed that the order, form, and meanings of these
      prefixes were the same in both language families.

      For example, Ket uses a "shape" prefix, which describes the shape of the
      object being acted upon by the verb. It's a very specific construction: For
      hammering a flat plank, the verb "to hammer" is preceded by a word meaning
      "flat"; for hammering something round, like a stone, there is a prefix
      meaning "round"; and for hammering something long, there is a "long"
      prefix.

      This complicated shape prefix system also occurs in Na-Dene languages. "We
      have the same three prefixes, with the same three meanings, and (in) the
      same slot in the verb," he said.

      Finally, Vajda identified enough cognate words between Yeniseic and Na-Dene
      that he could make a glossary of the sound correspondences between them,
      which shows how sounds in one language have morphed into a different sound
      in another. For example, a /d/ sound in German corresponds to a /th/ sound
      in the English cognate. Think "Dick" and thick, or "Leder" and leather.

      Vajda found that an /s/ sound in Ket corresponds to a /ts/ sound in
      Athabaskan. So the word for "mosquito" is pronounced "soo-ee" in Ket and
      "tsoo-ee" in Athabaskan. "These basic sound correspondences tell you that
      this isn't coincidental, that these similarities come from a common
      origin," said Vajda.

      Part of what made Vajda's comparisons so convincing is that he relied on
      the research of other linguists who had independently worked out the
      structures of the Na-Dene languages, without any interest in finding
      similarities between them and Asian languages. "I could systematically
      connect Ket with the system they had established," he said.

      Many of these linguists agreed with Vajda's analysis. "This is more
      material than for many language families that are recognized (as) deeply
      linked in time," said Jim Kari, an expert in Athabaskan languages at the
      University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Getting these linguists together for the
      symposium also generated more evidence. "Even at breakfast one morning, we
      apparently found a cognate for 'merganser,'" said Kari.

      The work also underscores the importance of documenting obscure languages
      before they die out. Vajda closed his symposium paper with this thought:
      "Who could have guessed that the ancient words Native American and Native
      Siberian boarding-school children were punished for speaking aloud just a
      few short decades ago would prove to wield a power vast enough to reunite
      entire continents?"

      Michele Solis is a freelance science writer living in Seattle.
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