Language Cousins in the Frozen North

Via Language Log, I discovered this big news item: Solid evidence for a relationship between Na-Dene and Yeniseic languages.

If you’re a language geek like me, this is really exciting news. First off, it’s not very often that new large language families are established. The high-level language groupings that linguists know of are pretty stable, and attempts to establish new relationships between families are usually done by crackpots using dubious methods to reach absurd conclusions, like asserting that all languages are descended from ancient Sumerian. (Or that guy who claims that the Romance languages all descend from Modern English.)

The other interesting thing is both the distances involved: the Yeneseic languages are spoken in central Siberia, while the Na-Dene languages are spoken across North America, from Alaska in the west to Greenland in the east (oops, that was confusion with a different language family) and Mexico in the south. This makes the Dene-Yeniseic language group one of the most dispersed in the world, with impressively ambitious speakers:

The distance from the Yeniseian range to that the most distant Athabaskan languages is the greatest overland distance covered by any known language spread not using wheeled transport or sails. Archaeologist Prof. Ben Potter of UAF reviewed the postglacial prehistory of Beringia and speculated that the Na-Dene speakers may descend from some of the earliest colonizers of the Americas, who eventually created the successful and long-lived Northern Archaic tool tradition that dominated interior and northern Alaska almost until historical times.

From the Linguist List

There are papers and more information on the pages linked; I’m just beginning to go through the material myself.


  1. Yeah, it was pretty cool. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to download any of their pdf’s from the site. I’m not sure why…

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