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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Patterns of Retention and Innovation in Dene-Yenisean Verb Morphology



Edward Vajda


The Yeniseian family of central Siberia contains several extint languages (Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, Pumpokol) and one surviving language, Ket, spoken fluently by fewer than 50 elderly people today. Information gathered on the extinct languages, as well as extensive fieldwork over the past 65 years conducted on the three surviving Ket dialects, has yielded valuable insights into the prehistory of North Asia that impact our understanding of both areal and genetic linguistics. Through centuries of influence from the surrounding Turkic, Uralic, Tungusic and Mongolic families, Ket noun and verb morphology show a typologically rare shift from strongly prefixing to predominantly suffixing, while retaining the original prefixes as well. Yeniseian also appears to be genetically related to the Na-Dene (Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) family of North America, so that Ket language data can serve as external comparanda that illuminate the origin of several otherwise inexplicable morphological in Na-Dene. Had the Yeniseian languages vanished without any documentation, these insights could never have been gained.

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