This week’s entry in the Weird Linguistics category isn’t so much "weird" as "amazing". But I have to stick with the title I’ve got.
You are probably familiar with the Indo-European language family, the family to which most of the languages of Europe belong. Proto-Indo-European was originally the language of a semi-nomadic group on the steppes of modern-day Ukraine or Central Asia, who began a series of expansions some 7,000 years ago spurred by a series of technological advances— especially farming and the chariot. Their prehistoric expansion eventually brought them all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the British Isles. In the east, they came to the northern part of India as part of the Aryan Invasion, and a far-flung group known as the Tocharians got all the way to Western China.
I find it astounding to consider that some random group of nomads managed to strike the cultural-linguistic jackpot, so that their descendants pushed all the way from Central Asia to eastern India and western Europe in prehistoric times—and to eventually dominate most of North and South America as well. I’m even more astounded by the fact that we can reconstruct this expansion from linguistic and archaeological data thousands of years after the fact.
But this is not even the most impressive pre-historical linguistic expansion that we know of, which brings me to my real point. The real champions of geographic expansion are not the Indo-Europeans, but the Austronesians.
Austronesian language dispersion
The Austronesian languages include Hawaiian, Fijian, Tagalog, Malayan, Maori, and hundreds of other languages spoken throughout the Pacific and Madagascar. The Austronesians expanded from their original homeland on the island of Taiwan in a series of waves spaced throughout prehistory, but while the Indo-Europeans were going overland, the Austronesians were going over the sea. And boy did they get around: not only did they populate all of the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, and the Philippines, but they also turned west and got all the way to Madagascar. This latter fact is tremendously surprising: Madagascar wasn’t settled primarily by Africans crossing the relatively narrow Mozambique Channel, but by Austronesians who had to cross the Indian Ocean from Borneo to get there.
This is, to me, far more impressive than the Indo-European expansion. No Austronesian society ever had hulled ships, but they still managed to navigate the vastness of the Pacific and cross the monsoon-wracked Indian Ocean centuries before any other civilization would attempt the same thing.
Yet even this is not the most far-ranging language family we know of. No, that distinction belongs to the Dené-Yeniseian languages.
Dené-Yeniseian language dispersion
The Indo-European languages are the ones that all English speakers are familiar with, and you’ve probably at least heard of several Austronesian languages. But chances are that you have never heard of even one of the Dené-Yeniseian tongues. Do you see that little green smudge in the middle of Siberia in the map above, just north of Mongolia? Those are the Yeniseian languages, a nearly-extinct family of languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Central Asia. There are only six known languages in this family. Only two of them survived into the 20th century, and only one of them (Imbat Ket) is still alive today. But we are lucky that it has survived, because the evidence that we have of the languages has proven them to be the only known pre-historical linguistic link between the Old World and the New.
The American cousin of the Yeniseian languages is the Na-Dene language family, which comprises several branches found in Alaska, Canada, California, and the American Southwest. The dispersal of this branch is something of a story in itself, with Na-Dene speakers occupying a large continuous area in the northernmost part of the Americas, but with distant relatives much further south. This southwestern branch contains the most famous tribes of this family: Navajo and Apache are Na-Dene languages, and these languages are the only ones whose names might be familiar to the average English speaker.
The distance from the heart of Siberia to southwestern America is even greater than the distances covered by the Austronesians. Yet while we understand the history and the expansion of the Austronesians and the Indo-Europeans very well, the Dené-Yeniseian languages mostly present us with mysteries. No one knows where their original homeland was. No one knows the motive for their expansion, or if it can even be called an expansion. We don’t know how or when the Proto-Yeniseians crossed from Siberia into America, and we don’t know why the American branch of the family is split into such distant northern, southern, and western lines. There are conjectures and guesses about all of these things, but precious little that we can identify as fact.
Nonetheless, I find that this linguistic relationship surprises me more than any other. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that the Americas were populated from Asia at some point in the distant past. It’s quite something else to boil that fact down into a set of cognates, and to be able to say with some certainty that these two languages separated by thousands of miles of ocean and ice in fact sprang from the same ancestral tongue. It’s the most amazing thing in linguistics.