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

“The verb,” Edward Mr. Vajda, linguistic adventurer, says. “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 — through his field .

In 1987, Mr. Vajda was a new professor of Slavic Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, where he came across a book in Russian about a language called 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 Yeneseic, of which Ket was the only survivor. One its siblings, Arin, is only known because a Cossack adventurer named Arzamas Loskutov wrote down words from the last Arin speaker in 1735.

Reading the book, Mr. Vajda noticed the Ket verbs, a complex string of particles attached to a root that make up almost an entire sentence. “It was intriguing,” Mr. Vajda says, “because the verb is completely different from anything else in Asia.” In fact, they reminded him of verbs in Navajo, a Na-Dene language that he had studied. That was enough to pique his interest to pursue evidence of a connection between Na-Dene and Yeniseian — a linguistic connection between Asia and the Americas.

Although traces of tools and genes have established that humans migrated from Siberia to North America between 10 and 12,000 years ago, no one had ever demonstrated that languages spoken in both places are related.

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 experts on American languages, on whose shoulders he would eventually stand. Also rewarding was a trip to Siberia on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 1998, where he met Yeniseian scholars and native Ket speakers. Mr. Vajda figures he may be one of the only non-Ket in the world who can carry on a conversation in the language.

Throughout it all, he says, “the more I found about the Yeniseic verbs, the more I saw parallels.”

By seeking such parallels, Mr. Vajda knew 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 had thought plausible and prudent. Searching for these sorts of relationships at such vast distances of time and space would get one dubbed a “long ranger,” the name for a small, marginal group of linguists who like construct language families mainly by comparing lists of words. Finding homes for Ket, Basque, Finnish, and other isolated languages has been a favourite pastime. Imprudent, the mainstream calls it.

Mr. Vajda proved sympathetic to this big thinking. In 1996, he 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 language family based on 36 similar pairs of words.

Mr. Ruhlen received some media attention for his article, including a CNN report that was seen by Raymond Yakeleya, a television producer in Edmonton and member of the Dene First Nation. “That got us thinking,” Mr. Yakeleya remembered, “were the Ket our ancestors? Were they our people?” Mr. Ruhlen put Mr. Yakeleya in touch with Mr. Vajda, who was by then known as a Ket expert.

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

Mr. Vajda spent the decade or so building an argument that would convince more than the long rangers. 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.

For help, he turned to the verbs. After learning as much as he could about the verb in modern Ket from its native speakers, he showed it has 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.”

Connecting languages is such tricky work, because the potential confounds grow the further back (and further away) the connection. For one thing, unrelated languages can still look and sound alike because the human brain invented the same grammatical patterns in multiple places. Or, speakers of one language also borrow from other languages. And languages can, by following their own paths, accidentally begin to look like another language. Redrawing language families provides such valuable evidence about the migration and cultures of prehistoric peoples, it’s crucial to do it right.

Mr. Vajda saw that comparing verbs wasn’t enough. So he attacked another problem, how the languages acquired tone through the same processes of phonetic change. To top it off, he showed that an unusually high number of Yeniseic and Na-Dene words are similar. In modern Ket, the word for finger is təq; in ancestral Athabaskan (a Dene language), it’s ts’əq. He credited Mr. Ruhlen for discovering the shared word for “birchbark.”

Late in February, Mr. Vajda had his chance to announce 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 very often, it was celebration time.

Mr. Vajda’s work is remarkable not only because it reaffirms the archaeological and genetic evidence for migration across the Bering Straits. “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 showing that Mr. Vajda’s evidence is sufficient for establishing the ancient link.

“He has succeeded in convincing a number of linguists who are normally quite skeptical about long-range comparisons,” says Bernard Comrie, the director of the department of linguistics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, “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 — and self-described curmudgeon — Lyle Campbell remains skeptical of the proposed Dene-Yeniseian connection. “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 miles 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. These are 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.”

Mr. Campbell rattled off a long list of recent discoveries that have proven important for reconstructing the prehistoric human past. Among them are Algic, Uto-Aztecan, and Oto-Manguean — three major language families in the Americas discovered in the 20th century, the last one an open question until the 1970s. The Sino-Tibetan family, Mr. Campbell noted, has been accepted for less than 50 years, and Austroasiatic less than 20 years. “So we do make some progress,” he says. “We do find there are distant genetic relationship that we are able to prove.”

Even more critical of Mr. Vajda is Merrit Ruhlen who wants credit for suggesting the connection first and who feels wronged by linguists like Johanna Nichols. The news of Mr. Vajda’s discovery sparked a heated email correspondence between Mr. Vajda and Mr. Ruhlen, with Mr. Ruhlen airing old grievances and defending his work and Mr. Vajda scrambling to acknowledge previous work made as early as 1923 by an Italian, Alfredo Trombetti.

“You have to start off by comparing basic vocabulary,” Mr. Ruhlen says. “Every language family has been found that way.”

But Mr. Vajda’s demonstration has set a benchmark for what’s acceptable to the non long-rangers, who insist they’re not biased. “I think the main thing [Mr. Vajda’s work] does is resoundingly falsify the claim often made by long-range comparativists that mainstream linguists have set some upper limit on time depth and refuse to even consider the possibility of relatedness at a deeper level or beyond established family groupings,” Nichols says. “Though difficult and time-consuming, discoveries of new language families are not impossibly rare.”

Mr. Vajda also persisted in looking for a Ket-Dene connection in the face of research suggesting that modern Ket and Na-Dene speakers do not share any DNA material. In 2002, University of Kansas Michael Crawford published an analysis that showed that Ket speakers are genetically more related to their Siberian neighbours, and Na-Dene speakers to their neighbours. This doesn’t automatically preclude a connection, since languages and genes don’t necessarily travel together.

“Languages can be acquired from other unrelated groups, while you cannot ‘learn’ or acquire a genome,” says Mr. Crawford.

However, Mr. Vajda says there is no evidence that the Ket or Athabaskans switched languages. “These two groups are known for their linguistic conservatism, which extends to a general aversion to borrowing foreign words,” he says. Mr. Vajda believes that a DNA comparison should exclude people of Haida descent, since he believes that Haida, an endangered language spoken in the Queen Charlotte Islands, is not related to Athabaskan, Eyak, or Tlingit. Mr. Crawford’s analysis included the Haida. And, says Mr. Vajda, the Ket have been intermarrying with their neighbours for millennia.

Raymond Yakeleya and others have welcomed Mr. Vajda’s discovery as well. In 2005, he helped organize an international Dene meeting in Calgary that gathered Canadian aboriginals as well as Navajo and Apaches from the U.S, which strengthened his conviction that the Dene are curious about their origins.

“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.