Archaeologists have long believed that humans migrated to North America from Asia, walking across a land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait. Evidence from ancient sites supports this theory, as does genetic evidence. Now, Western Washington University linguistics professor Edward Vajda has demonstrated a linguistic connection as well.
Professor Vajda has been studying with the few remaining speakers of the Ket language since the late 1980’s. The Ket people live in a remote, isolated part of Siberia. Even so, only about 100 of the tribe’s 1,200 members still speak Ket. Professor Vajda is helping to preserve the language by compiling grammar and vocabulary, and in the course of his work he was able to demonstrate how Ket was connected to the Na-Dene language family of the New World,which includes Tlingit, Gwichin, Denaina, Koyukon, Navajo, Carrier, Hupa, Apache and others.
Professor Vajda’s research was recently published in The Dene-Yeniseian Connection, a new book from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Anthropology and Alaska Native Language Center.
In an article published in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Professor Vajda explains why demonstrating a linguistic connection between the two continents is important:
“It’s a new way to understand human prehistory before there were historians to write it down. Isolated languages like Ket have developed features that are very unusual and interesting, and they help us to understand the human mind and human language ability. We linguists should not be the focus of attention here. What is important are the languages and especially the Native communities themselves.”
Ben Potter, another anthropologist featured in the book, explained the importance of Vajda’s work in a little bit more detail, telling the newspaper that the vast majority of Native peoples in western subarctic Canada and Alaska are Na-Dene and before Vajda’s work, there was no definitive link with any other group in the Old World.