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  • Anthropological papers of the University of Alaska: The Dene-Yeniseian connection
  • Michael Dunn
Anthropological papers of the University of Alaska: The Dene-Yeniseian connection. Ed. by James Kari and Ben A. Potter. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2010. Pp. vi, 363. ISBN 9781555001124. $40.

This collection of papers presents and discusses a landmark achievement in linguistics: Edward Vajda's first demonstration of a plausible genealogical link between languages of Eurasia and languages of the Americas (apart from the more recent circumpolar movements of Eskimo languages). Dramatic discoveries are rare in historical linguistics: as befits an old and often library-bound discipline, the pace of change in historical linguistics is slow, and most contributions are of the incremental type. In contrast, the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis is a big step, and whatever the eventual consensus of its truth turns out to be, the proposal of Dene-Yeniseian is an important event in the development of historical linguistics and deserves all our attention.

The collection is based on papers presented at the Dene-Yeniseian Symposium held at the University of Alaska in February 2008. It starts with two useful and informative introductions: the editors' introduction giving the historical background to the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis, followed by an introduction from the linguistic perspective by BERNARD COMRIE, which explains to a non-specialist readership the basic principles of the comparative method in historical linguistics and sketches the typological characteristics of the two component families, Yeniseian and Na-Dene. EDWARD J. VAJDA presents the case for the Dene-Yeniseian link in a sixty-six-page paper, which he follows with another paper in which he discusses Dene-Yeniseian in the context of other long-range comparative hypotheses, with generous acknowledgment of all possible intellectual precursors to the idea. Vajda makes clear his sympathy for the 'long ranger' tendencies in historical linguistics, but sticks to a mainstream approach in his analysis.1 Part 2 of the collection contains interdisciplinary perspectives from human genetics (G. RICHARD SCOTT and DENNIS O'ROURKE), archaeology (BEN A. POTTER), areal phonology and Na-Dene historical linguistics (JEFF LEER), 'geolinguistics' (JAMES KARI), comparative kinship (JOHN W. IVES, SALLY RICE, and Edward J. Vajda), and folklore (YURI E. BEREZKIN, ALEXANDRA KIM-MALONEY). Part 3 of the collection is devoted to commentaries: a series of reviews of the evidence for the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis by major figures in linguistics. While all of the authors of this section agree that the evidence for [End Page 429] the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis is high quality and that the hypothesis should be taken seriously, there is not unanimous agreement that it has been decisively proven.

The core linguistic case for Dene-Yeniseian follows the gold standard of historical linguistics, and includes evidence for the common origin of certain morphological systems, as well as evidence for regular sound change. The evidence for shared morphological systems comes from several domains. There is evidence that both Yeniseian and Na-Dene tense-aspect-mood markers have evolved from an original bipartite verb system, with auxiliary and content verbs both hosting their own affixes. The pronominal systems are more problematic: Vajda states (53) that the lack of apparent cognacy relations between any first- and second-person pronouns is one of the reasons that few linguists have bothered to look further into Dene-Yeniseian connections. A number of possible cognates are investigated, along with a possible homology between the relative location of speech-act-participant and third-person agreement prefixes. Three 'shape prefixes' appear to have cognates in the two families, as do a set of elements that gave rise to Na-Dene classifiers. Finally, Vajda shows homologies between rather complex action nominal derivations (generally called 'infinitives' in descriptions of Yeniseian, and 'gerunds' in Na-Dene), which have been independently reconstructed in the two families.

In his discussion of the phonological systems, Vajda describes how a number of coda-reduction processes acting in parallel in Yeniseian and Na-Dene can explain idiosyncrasies in one family by the phonological outcomes in the other. Likewise, tones (observed in Yeniseian Ket and sporadically...


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