In 2008 Edward Vajda presented his decade-long research into a connection between the Yeniseian languages of central Siberia (e.g. Ket, Yugh) and the American Na-Dené (AthabaskanEyakTlingit) family. His conclusion was the the languages were indeed related in a Dené–Yeniseian family, a significant finding since if correct it would be the first genetic linguistic connection between the Old and New Worlds. Definitely big news, and as I recall it was generally positively received at the time.

I'm interested in understanding: what is the general view in the academic linguistics community of this research now that time has passed to examine it? I'm also curious as to whether Prof Vajda's research is being built upon by any other groups now?

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    And yes, I've read the wikipedia article and many of the linked papers, but I don't necessarily believe that wikipedia is the right place for a balanced, scholarly, and up-to-date view of a rather obscure topic. Unless the topic was Pokemon. Feb 16, 2012 at 3:51
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    Please see anlc.uaf.edu/dy Make Note of March 24 and March 27, Ed Vajda is speaking at UAF
    – user856
    Mar 20, 2012 at 3:19
  • Can someone update the first link? It doesn't go anywhere now. Sep 19, 2021 at 18:52

1 Answer 1


As for the view of the linguistics community on the likelihood of the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis, the hypothesis has first of all attracted the attention of "serious" linguistics in the field. As Rice (2011) writes in her review, a similar proposal has been made in the past by other linguists, including Merritt Ruhlen (1998) and Sergei Starostin (1995), but these earlier proposals did not have much impact in the general linguistics community. What is different about Vajda's proposal, aside from the evidence he adduces for it, is that Vajda is a "a serious scholar trying to use appropriate procedures." (Campbell 2011) As Campbell also notes, scholars with impressive reputations in the area of general linguistics (Nichols, Comrie) and specialists (Fortescue) have voiced support for the hypothesis. Rice, one of the leading experts on Athabaskan, appears to be studiously neutral in her review (2011), and Campbell, a well-known historical linguist and author of the most widely-used textbook on the subject (Campbell 1998), finds the hypothesis inadequately supported (though his reputation as a conservative in this regard is pretty well-established).

What is interesting about the proposal is that it combines traditional lexical evidence with morphological data. An idea which has been gaining support in recent years is that templatic morphology (cf. Good 2003), when sufficiently complex, may be especially stable over time. This theme was discussed in a workshop at the recent annual meeting of the LSA entitled "The Diachronic Stability of Complex Templatic Morphology," at which Vajda presented a paper.

As for whether the research is being built on by other groups, my sense is that relatively few people have sufficient knowledge of all of the different data sources, so there are unlikely to be serious contributors to the debate who come out of nowhere. It seems that Vajda is still devoting a large portion of his time to the topic.

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    I would add that although Campbell finds the hypothesis inadequately supported to date, he has said personally to me that it shows much promise. The likelihood of this hypothesis panning out is quite high. The problem is that there still remains a huge amount of work to be done reconstructing Proto-Na-Dene and Proto-Yeniseian so that the two can be more thoroughly compared. There is also the issue of whether the two proto-languages are distinct entities, or if in fact one or the other is actually paraphyletic. Tlingit particularly may not be entirely from Proto-Na-Dene.
    – James C.
    Feb 17, 2012 at 20:07
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    In a sense Vajda’s research on DY can’t be built upon, it’s the end of the line in terms of reconstruction possibility. But his work on Yeniseian can and should be furthered. There are two problems with the current state of work on that family. One is that there sadly just isn’t much interest in Yeniseian, other than the questionable scholarship of the “Dene-Caucasian-Burushaski-Basque-whatever” crowd. The second is that the records for all of the Yeniseian languages besides Ket and to some extent Yugh are extremely poor, so that lots of philology and educated guesswork needs to be done.
    – James C.
    Feb 17, 2012 at 20:13
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    Also, Rice is not the leading expert on Athabaskan historical linguistics. She is a major figure, but the leader today would certainly be Jeff Leer, who practically speaks Proto-Athabaskan. He has also been the leader in reconstruction of Proto-Na-Dene since the 1980s. Michael Krauss also maintains an active interest in reconstruction of Proto-Athabaskan-Eyak and hence PND, though like Leer he has not published much on it lately.
    – James C.
    Feb 17, 2012 at 20:19
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    thanks for adding this. i've modified Rice's status from "probably the leading" to "one of the leading"
    – user483
    Feb 17, 2012 at 21:50
  • I'm accepting this as much for @jamesC.'s comments as for jlovegren's answer. This is exactly the kind of answer I'd been hoping for. Feb 18, 2012 at 3:35

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