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Kets of Russia and Athabaskan Peoples of North America


Edward Vajda, a linguist at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham, Washington, has for many years researched the similarities between the Ket language now spoken by only a few hundred Kets resident in small villages on the Yenisey river in Siberia, Russia, and Na-Dene languages spoken by Athabaskan peoples in Alaska, northern Canada and portions of the southwest USA. Similarities in these languages have been known for decades, but the Dene-Yeniseian Connection is considered now as a result of Vajda's work to be a robust hypothesis which raises all sorts of very intriguing questions: when, why and how are Athabaskan peoples related to their Eurasian predecessors? AAC met a delegation of Kets at the Arctic Leaders Summit in Moscow in May 2010. A full report with photos of both the summit and our meeting with the Kets is included in AAC's Summer 2010 newsletter (see the documents section of this web site). The Kets are keen to work with AAC. We are exploring now how to develop a relationship with the Kets, including exchange visits. The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and the Copenhagen-based Indigenous Peoples Secretariat have been tremendously co-operative in helping us to develop this relationship.

Edward Vajda kindly provided AAC with the following paragaphs and accompanying photos.

The Yeniseian language family includes the critically endangered Ket as well the extinct Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol languages – all formerly spoken in central Siberia near the Yenisei River. These languages share a large number of cognates – words that descend historically from an ancestral proto-language, probably spoken about 2,000 to 2,500 years ago by hunter-gatherer-fishers in the boreal forests to the west of Lake Baikal. Until recently, Ket was generally regarded as a language isolate, with no demonstrated living relatives elsewhere in Asia. Today, the enigmatic Ket language has fewer than 100 fluent speakers, most of them elderly.

Recent work by Edward Vajda, a linguist from Western Washington University in Washington State, has demonstrated that Ket, and the Yeniseian family to which Ket belongs, is genealogically related to the Na-Dene language family of northwestern North America. Na-Dene contains Tlingit and the extinct Eyak language of coastal Alaska, as well as about thirty Athabaskan (Dene) languages spoken from interior Alaska (Dena’ina, Koyukon) southward through Canada (Dakehl, Tsuut’ina) to parts of California (the Hupa language) and the American Southwest (Navajo and Apache). Evidence supporting the connection includes over 100 words in basic vocabulary, including body part terms, basic verbs like ‘cut’ and ‘poke’, and words for elements of northern forest life such as ‘conifer resin’, ‘conifer needles’, ‘canoe’, ‘birch’, and others. The complex prefixing structure of the verbs in the two families reveal additional evidence in the form of cognate prefixes and roots. Linguistic work on what has come to be called the “Dene-Yeniseian” language connection is continuing and has inspired parallel inquiry by anthropologists, folklorists, geneticists and archeologists.

For further information see:

James Kari and Ben A. Potter (eds.) The Dene-Yeniseian Connection Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, New Series, Vol. 5 (1-2), 2010.

This is a special publication of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Department of Anthropology, and the Alaska Native Language Centre, and can be ordered at

Arctic Athabaskan Council


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