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Words From Far-Flung Tribes, Globe and Mail, April 12, 2008

How words from far-flung tribes reveal a 10,000-year-old connection

‘The verb,” says Edward Vajda, linguistic adventurer. “The key to all this is the verbs.”

“All this” is Mr. Vajda’s announcement of a linguistic link between Asia and the Americas, a discovery that has sent a wave of celebration – and controversy – throughout his field.

In 1987, Mr. Vajda was a new professor of Slavic studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., where he came across a book in Russian about Ket, a nearly extinct language spoken by only 1,000 people in a remote area of central Siberia. It belonged to a language family called Yeniseic, of which Ket was the only survivor.

Reading the book, Mr. Vajda noticed the Ket verbs – a complex string of particles attached to a root that made up almost an entire sentence. “It was intriguing,” he says, “because the verb is completely different from anything else in Asia.” In fact, they reminded him of verbs in a Na-Dene language he had studied: Navajo.

Although traces of tools and genes have shown that humans migrated from Siberia to North America between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, no one had ever found evidence of a linguistic connection between Asia and the Americas.

Mr. Vajda set out to do just that. Over the next 10 years, he learned as much as he could about Ket, publishing articles about its extraordinary verbs, and met with experts on American languages. On a trip to Siberia on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 1998, he met Yeniseian scholars and native Ket speakers. (Mr. Vajda figures that he may be one of the only non-Ket people in the world who can carry on a conversation in the language.) Throughout it all, he says, “the more I found out about the Yeniseic verbs, the more I saw parallels.”

By seeking such parallels, Mr. Vajda knew that he was flouting academic convention. Any link between Asian and American languages would be at least 10,000 years old – a span of time almost twice what mainstream historical linguists consider plausible. He risked being dubbed a “long ranger,” one of a small group who construct big language families mainly by comparing lists of words.

In 1996, Mr. Vajda invited a long ranger, Merritt Ruhlen, to speak at Western Washington. In 1998, Mr. Ruhlen published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that put Ket and Dene in the same family based on 36 similar pairs of words.

Mr. Ruhlen received some media attention for his article, including a report on CNN that attracted the attention of Raymond Yakeleya. “That got us thinking,” says Mr. Yakeleya, a television producer in Edmonton and a member of the Dene First Nation. “Were the Ket our ancestors? Were they our people?”

He contacted Mr. Ruhlen, who put him in touch with Mr. Vajda, by then known as a Ket expert.

“It’s exciting,” Mr. Yakeleya says. “If you’re Scottish, you know where the Scots came from, but, as Dene, we always wondered about that too.” Asked about aboriginal myths of autochthonous origins that contradict the scientific story of a cross-strait migration, Mr. Yakeleya says he has heard such stories, but “it’s difficult to see because each of the Dene tribes has a piece of the puzzle.”

But just comparing lists of words, Mr. Vajda says, isn’t proof of anything. “You’ll just come up with science fiction if you do that,” he says.

He turned to the verbs, learning as much as he could about them in modern Ket from its native speakers. Eventually, he was able to show that they have the same structure and sounds as the verbs in ancestral forms of Na-Dene languages that other linguists, such as Jim Kari and Michael Krauss, had reconstructed.

“I’m not passing myself off as a great discoverer,” he says. “If I had to start from scratch, I don’t know if I could have gotten anywhere.”

Finally, he showed that an unusually high number of Yeniseic and Na-Dene words are similar. In modern Ket, for example, the word for finger is t/schwa/q; in ancestral Athabaskan (a Dene language), it’s ts'[schwa]q. He credited Merritt Ruhlen for discovering the shared word for “birchbark.”

Late in February, Mr. Vajda announced his findings at the annual Alaska Anthropological Association meeting in Anchorage. Afterward, linguistics blogs and listservs sizzled with news of a bona fide linguistic discovery: the first demonstrated linguistic link between Asia and the Americas. For a field in which big discoveries don’t happen often, it was celebration time.

Mr. Vajda’s work does more than just reaffirm the archeological and genetic evidence for migration across the Bering Strait. “The news isn’t the Siberian connection, but the successful demonstration of a long-distance, temporally deep connection,” says Johanna Nicholas, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the world’s families of languages. At the same Anchorage meeting, she presented a statistical analysis that supported Mr. Vajda’s evidence.

What’s more, says Bernard Comrie, the director of the department of linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, “he has succeeded in convincing a number of linguists who are normally quite skeptical about long-range comparisons, as well as specialists in Na-Dene who are normally skeptical about attempts to relate ‘their’ languages to others.”

But not everyone is popping the champagne. In a telephone interview, University of Utah linguist Lyle Campbell remains skeptical. “I think the evidence isn’t as compelling as they think it is,” he says.

For one thing, the two language families are now 8,000 kilometres away from each other. “That fact alone says probably a connection doesn’t seem very likely.”

For another thing, Mr. Vajda matched very short items, like the prefixes of verbs, some of which are only a consonant long – short enough to have occurred by chance. “I think he’s made a very good case,” Mr. Campbell says, “but I don’t think he’s demonstrated it conclusively in my mind.”

Another critic of Mr. Vajda’s work is Mr. Ruhlen, who wants credit for suggesting the connection first. In a heated e-mail correspondence, Mr. Ruhlen defended his work as Mr. Vajda scrambled to acknowledge work done as early as 1923 by an Italian, Alfredo Trombetti.

In 2005, Raymond Yakeleya helped to organize an international Dene meeting in Calgary that gathered Canadian aboriginal people as well as Navajo and Apaches from the U.S.

“It can’t only be the white man digging in our past,” Mr. Yakeleya says. “We have to start doing some of the digging too.”

The goal is to invite Ket people to a Dene elders’ meeting in Yellowknife in 2009.

When Bruce Starlight, an elder in the Tsut’ina First Nation, met Navajo attendees at the 2005 gathering, he felt attached to them. “There’s a kinship that is just like, you feel it, it’s a feeling. It’s a brotherhood feeling,” he says.

Will he have that feeling when he meets any Ket? “Very sure. I’m very sure,” he says.

Michael Erard writes about language and linguistics from Portland, Me.