Thursday, July 15, 2010

Words For Canoe...

The Ottawa Citizen reports that Words for 'canoe' point to long-lost family ties. The story begins thusly:

An obscure language in Siberia has similarities to languages in North America, which might reshape history, writes Randy Boswell.

A new book by leading linguists has bolstered a controversial theory that the language of Canada's Dene Nation is rooted in an ancient Asian tongue spoken today by only a few hundred people in Western Siberia.

The landmark discovery, initially proposed two years ago by U.S. researcher Edward Vajda, represents the only known link between any Old World language and the hundreds of speech systems among First Nations in the Western Hemisphere (emphasis added).

It's a nice story about hard working linguist Edward Vajda discovered linguistic relationships between the Ket language of Siberia and Athapaskan languages of North America. A relationship that goes back maybe 13,000 years. From his web page, "The "Dene-Yeniseian Hypothesis" is gaining acceptance as the first demonstrated link between an Old World and a New World language family."

Having been trained at a school known for both typology and field linguistics, I have a lot of respect for the skills and talent a linguist like Vajda brings to the field (especially since I lack the patience to do this kind of work). And his enthusiasm is infectious. From the article:

He found that the few remaining Ket speakers in Russia and the Dene, Gwich'in and other Athapaskan speakers in North America used almost identical words for canoe and such component parts as the prow and cross-piece.

"Finally, here was the beginning of a system that struck me as beyond the realm of chance," Vajda wrote at the time. "At that moment, I think I realized how an archeologist must feel who peers inside a freshly opened Egyptian tomb and witnesses what no one has seen for thousands of years." (emphasis added).

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