The Yeniseian languages (sometimes known as Yeniseic or Yenisei-Ostyak;[notes 1] occasionally spelled with -ss-) are a family of languages that were spoken by the Yeniseian people in the Yenisei River region of central Siberia. It is suggested that the Yeniseian languages were spoken in a much greater area in ancient times, possibly including parts of northern China and Mongolia. The only surviving language of the group today is Ket.
According to a recent study, Yeniseian people and their language originated likely somewhere near the Altai Mountains or near Lake Baikal. According to this study, the Yeniseians are linked to Paleo-Eskimo groups.
0. Proto-Yeniseian (before 500 BC; split around 1 AD)
Only two languages of this family survived into the 20th century, Ket (also known as Imbat Ket), with around 200 speakers, and Yugh (also known as Sym Ket), which is now extinct. The other known members of this family, Arin, Assan, Pumpokol, and Kott, have been extinct for over two centuries. Other groups – Buklin, Baikot, Yarin, Yastin, Ashkyshtym, and Koibalkyshtym – are identifiable as Yeniseic-speaking from tsarist fur-tax records compiled during the 17th century, but nothing remains of their languages except a few proper names.
It appears from Chinese sources that a Yeniseian group might have been among the peoples that made up the tribal confederation known as the Xiongnu, who have traditionally been considered the ancestors of the Huns and other Northern Asian groups, but these suggestions are difficult to substantiate due to the paucity of data. It is suggested that at least parts of the Xiongnu, possibly the ruling part, spoke a Yeniseian language. The Ruanruan language (possibly identical to the Xiongnu language) is also suggested to be of Yeniseian origin.
One sentence of the language of the Jie, a Xiongnu tribe who founded the Later Zhao state, appears consistent with being a Yeniseian language. The Yeniseian languages are linked to the yDNA Haplogroup Q-M242 in Asia. yDNA haplogroup Q is found in modern Ket people in Siberia and ancient remains of some Xiongnu and Chinese Dynasties.
The Yeniseian languages have been described as having up to four tones or no tones at all. The 'tones' are concomitant with glottalization, vowel length, and breathy voice, not unlike the situation reconstructed for Old Chinese before the development of true tones in Chinese. The Yeniseian languages have highly elaborate verbal morphology.
Personal pronouns in Yeniseian languages
ɤ̄ˑt ~ ɤ́tn
uju ~ hatu (masc.) uja ~ hata (fem.)
auoŋ ~ aoŋ
uniaŋ ~ hatien
The following table exemplifies the basic Yeniseian numerals as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:
Yeniseian languages and dialects
tʲoŋa ~ tʲuːŋa
tʃeɡa ~ ʃeːɡa
keɡa ~ χeːɡa
aˀ ~ à
haːɡa ~ haɡa
qau ~ hioɡa
*ʔeʔk ~ xeʔk
*kiʔ ~ ɡiʔ / *ʔalVs-(tamsV)
A few etymologies
The following table exemplifies a few basic vocabulary items as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:
Yeniseian languages and dialects
*sɛʔt / *tɛʔt
*set / *tet
*ǯik (~-g, -ẋ)
(boru ← Turkic)
*qoʔl (~ẋ-, -r)
Proposed relations to other language families
Until 2008, few linguists had accepted connections between Yeniseian and any other language family, though distant connections have been proposed with most of the ergative languages of Eurasia.
The Karasuk hypothesis, linking Yeniseian to Burushaski, has been proposed by several scholars, notably by A.P. Dulson and V.N. Toporov.George van Driem, the most prominent current advocate of the Karasuk hypothesis, postulates that the Burusho people were part of the migration out of Central Asia, that resulted in the Indo-European conquest of the Indus Valley.
As noted by Tailleur and Werner, some of the earliest proposals of genetic relations of Yeniseian, by M.A. Castrén (1856), James Byrne (1892), and G.J. Ramstedt (1907), suggested that Yeniseian was a northern relative of the Sino-Tibetan languages. These ideas were followed much later by Kai Donner and Karl Bouda. This hypothesis is seen as controversial and has no support of modern linguists at this time.
Geoffrey Caveney (2014) suggest that the Yeniseian languages, Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dene languages are related but say that his analysis does not support the Sino-Caucasian or Dene-Caucasian hypothesis.
Bouda, in various publications in the 1930s through the 1950s, described a linguistic network that (besides Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan) also included Caucasian, and Burushaski, some forms of which have gone by the name of Sino-Caucasian. The works of R. Bleichsteiner and O.G. Tailleur, the late Sergei A. Starostin and Sergei L. Nikolayev have sought to confirm these connections. Others who have developed the hypothesis, often expanded to Dené–Caucasian, include J.D. Bengtson, V. Blažek,J.H. Greenberg (with M. Ruhlen), and M. Ruhlen. George Starostin continues his father's work in Yeniseian, Sino-Caucasian and other fields.
The validity of this theory is very controversial or viewed as obsolete by nearly all modern linguists.
^ abVovin, Alexander. "Did the Xiongnu speak a Yeniseian language?". Central Asiatic Journal 44/1 (2000), pp. 87–104.
^T. M. Karafet, 'High Levels of Y-Chromosome Differentiation among Native Siberian Populations and the Genetic Signature of a Boreal Hunter-Gatherer Way of Life', Human Biology, December 2002, v. 74, no. 6, pp. 761–789
^Georg, Stefan (2008). "Yeniseic languages and the Siberian linguistic area". Evidence and Counter-Evidence. Festschrift Frederik Kortlandt. Studies in Slavic and General Linguistics. 33. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi. pp. 151–168.
^Lyle Campbell, 2011, "Review of The Dene-Yeniseian Connection (Kari and Potter)," International Journal of American Linguistics 77:445–451. "In summary, the proposed Dene-Yeniseian connection cannot be embraced at present. The hypothesis is indeed stimulating, advanced by a serious scholar trying to use appropriate procedures. Unfortunately, neither the lexical evidence (with putative sound correspondences) nor the morphological evidence adduced is sufficient to support a distant genetic relationship between Na-Dene and Yeniseian." (pg. 450).
^Edward Vajda, 2011, "A Response to Campbell," International Journal of American Linguistics 77:451–452. "It remains incumbent upon the proponents of the DY hypothesis to provide solutions to at least some of the unresolved problems identified in Campbell's review or in DYC itself. My opinion is that every one of them requires a convincing solution before the relationship between Yeniseian and Na-Dene can be considered settled." (pg. 452).
^Trask, R. L. (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pg. 85
^Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of Languages. New York: Columbia University Press. pg. 434
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