In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Dené-Yeniseian Hypothesis

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Synchronic Descriptions of Yeniseian Grammar
  • Yeniseian Dictionary Materials and Early Sources
  • Synchronic Descriptions of Na-Dené Grammar
  • Dictionaries of Na-Dené Languages
  • Linguistic Reconstructions of Na-Dené
  • Linguistic Reconstructions of Yeniseian
  • Earlier Hypotheses
  • Relevant Works from Other Fields
  • Critiques

Linguistics The Dené-Yeniseian Hypothesis
Edward J. Vajda
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0064


Dené-Yeniseian is a historical-comparative linguistic hypothesis that claims a genealogical relationship between the North American language family Na-Dené and the Yeniseian family of central Siberia. If fully demonstrated, it would constitute the first established language link between an Old World family and one spoken exclusively by peoples native to the Americas, placing it alongside the Inuit-Yupik-Aleut (Eskaleut) family, which is more obviously located on both sides of the Bering Strait. Na-Dené consists of the still widespread Athabaskan (Dené) family, which contains over forty languages; the Tlingit language of Alaska’s Panhandle; and the recently extinct Eyak, once spoken in the region of Yakutat to Cordova, Alaska. Tlingit and Eyak-Athabaskan are the two primary branches of this family. The inclusion of Haida in Na-Dené remains controversial, and in any event, work on the Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis has not uncovered any new potential evidence that Haida is related to Yeniseian. The Yeniseian family in the early twenty-first century is represented by the critically endangered Ket language, spoken in three closely related dialects by fewer than one hundred elderly speakers out of an estimated twelve hundred ethnic Ket people, most of whom live in small riverside villages in extremely isolated areas of Turukhansk province. The Ket and their extinct relatives—the Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol—formerly lived much farther south along the Yenisei and its tributaries, and substrate river names of Yeniseian origin suggest that these tribes once inhabited an area from north-central Mongolia westward to the Altai Mountains and north to the Angara on the southeastern tip of Lake Baikal, with hydronymic evidence of some Yeniseian dialects at least as far west as the Ob-Irtysh watershed.

Introductory Works

The issue of Dené-Yeniseian is examined most recently in Fortescue and Vajda 2022, where the hypothesis is linked to human genetic evidence demonstrating that some ancestors of Na-Dené peoples entered Alaska from Asia during the Mid-Holocene, only about five thousand years ago, and share a common ancestry with Kets and other Siberian peoples at a time depth of less than seven thousand years. Unlike other First Peoples in more southern areas of the Americas, the Na-Dené have dual ancestry—part arriving from Beringia at least fifteen thousand years ago and part from a migration of Siberians into Alaska only about five thousand years ago. Evidence includes intricate homologies in finite verb structure, action nominal derivation, possessive morphology, and complex noun structure, in addition to lexical cognates in basic vocabulary (about 140 so far detected), revealing a partially deciphered system of interlocking sound correspondences. Comrie 2010 presents a clear and concise linguistic introduction to the Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis. Vajda and Comrie 2010 discusses strong points of the putative evidence and places the hypothesis within the general framework of historical-comparative work. The webpage on Dené-Yeniseian maintained by the Alaska Native Language Center and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks also contains straightforward introductory material on the hypothesis.

  • Alaska Native Language Center, and University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Dene-Yeniseian Languages.

    Regularly updated webpage with current information on the hypothesis.

  • Comrie, B. 2010. The Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis: An introduction. In Special issue: The Dené-Yeniseian connection. Edited by J. Kari and B. Potter. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 5.1–2: 25–32.

    A good introduction to the hypothesis for the general reader that provides a broad historical linguistic context. Published by the Alaska Native Language Center.

  • Fortescue, M., and E. Vajda. 2022. Mid-Holocene language relations between Asia and North America. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    The most thorough version of the hypothesis, with much evidence not published earlier, and a new account of how the Na-Dené protolanguage arrived in Alaska.

  • Vajda, E. J., and B. Comrie. 2010. Una relación genealógica entre las lenguas del Nuevo Mundo y de Siberia. In Análisis lingüísticos: Enfoques sincrónico, diacrónico e interdisciplinario. Edited by R. M. O. Ciscomani, 291–306. Estudios Lingüísticos 2. Hermosillo, Mexico: Universidad de Sonora.

    A basic introduction in Spanish.

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