|today along the Yenisei River|
historically large parts of Siberia and of Mongolia
Distribution of Yeniseian languages in the 17th century (hatched) and in the end of 20th century (solid). Hydronymic data suggests that this distribution represents a northward migration of original Yeniseian populations from the Sayan Mountains and northern Mongolia.
The distribution of individual Yeniseian languages in 1600
The Yeniseian languages (sometimes known as Yeniseic or Yenisei-Ostyak;[notes 1] occasionally spelled with -ss-) are a family of languages that are spoken by the Yeniseian people in the Yenisei River region of central Siberia. As part of the proposed Dené–Yeniseian language family, the Yeniseian languages have been argued to be part of "the first demonstration of a genealogical link between Old World and New World language families that meets the standards of traditional comparative-historical linguistics". The only surviving language of the group today is Ket.
From hydronymic and genetic data, it is suggested that the Yeniseian languages were spoken in a much greater area in ancient times, including parts of northern China and Mongolia. It has been further proposed that the recorded distribution of Yeniseian languages from the 17th century onward represents a relatively recent northward migration, and that the Yeniseian urheimat lies to the south of Lake Baikal.
The Yeniseians have been connected to the Xiongnu, whose ruling elite are thought to have spoken a southern Yeniseian language similar to Pumpokol. The Jie, who ruled the Later Zhao state of northern China, are likewise believed to have spoken a Pumpokolic language based on linguistic and ethnogeographic data.
For those who argue the Xiongnu spoke a Yeniseian language, the Yeniseian languages are thought to have contributed many ubiquitous loanwords to Turkic and Mongolic vocabulary, such as Khan, Khagan, Tarqan, and the word for "god" and "sky", Tengri. This conclusion has primarily been drawn from the analysis of preserved Xiongnu texts in the form of Chinese characters.
Proto-Yeniseian (before 500 BC; split around 1 AD)
It is theorized that the Xiongnu and Hunnic languages were Southern Yeniseian. 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), now extinct. The other known members of this family—Arin, Assan, Pumpokol, and Kott—have been extinct for over two centuries. Other groups—the 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.
Ket, the only extant Yeniseian language, is the northernmost known. Historical sources record a contemporaneous northern expansion of the Ket along the Yenisei during the Russian conquest of Siberia. Today, it is mainly spoken in Turukhansky District of Krasnoyarsk Krai in far northern Siberia, in villages such as Kellog and Sulomay. Yugh, which only recently faced extinction, was spoken from Yeniseysk to Vorogovo, Yartsevo, and the upper Ket River.
The early modern distributions of Arin, Pumpokol, Kott, and Assan can be reconstructed. The Arin were north of Krasnoyarsk, whereas the closely related Pumpokol was spoken to the north and west of it, along the upper Ket. Kott and Assan, another pair of closely related languages, occupied the area south of Krasnoyarsk, and east to the Kan River. From toponyms it can be seen that Yeniseian populations probably lived in Buryatia, Zabaykalsky, and northern Mongolia. As an example, the toponym ši can be found in Zabaykalsky Krai, which is probably related to the Proto-Yeniseian word sēs "river" and likely derives from an undocumented Yeniseian language. Some toponyms that appear Yeniseian extend as far as Heilongjiang.
Václav Blažek argues, based on hydronymic data, that Yeniseians were once spread out even farther into the west.[of what?] He compares, for example, the word šet, found in more westerly river names, to Proto-Yeniseian sēs "river."
See also: Proto-Yeniseian
According to a 2016 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. The Yeniseians have also been hypothesised to be representative of a back-migration from Beringia to central Siberia, and the Dené–Yeniseians a result of a radiation of populations out of the Bering land bridge.
In Siberia, Edward Vajda observed that Yeniseian hydronyms in the circumpolar region (the recent area of distribution of Yeniseian languages) clearly overlay earlier systems, with the layering of morphemes onto Ugric, Samoyedic, Turkic, and Tungusic place names. It is therefore proposed that the homeland, or dispersal point, of the Yeniseian languages lies in the boreal region between Lake Baikal, northern Mongolia, and the Upper Yenisei basin, referred to by Vajda as a territory "abandoned" by the original Yeniseian speakers. On the other hand, Václav Blažek (2019) argues that based on hydronomic evidence, Yeneisian languages were originally spoken on the northern slopes of the Tianshan and Pamir mountains before dispersing downstream via the Irtysh River.
The modern populations of Yeniseians in central and northern Siberia are thus not indigenous, and represents a more recent migration northward. This was noted by Russian explorers during the conquest of Siberia: the Ket are recorded to have been expanding northwards along the Yenisei, from the river Yeloguy to the Kureyka, from the 17th century onward. Based on these records, the modern Ket-speaking area appears to represent the very northernmost reaches of Yeniseian migration.
The origin of this northward migration from the Mongolian steppe has been connected to the fall of the Xiongnu confederation. It appears from Chinese sources that a Yeniseian group might have been a major part of the heterogeneous Xiongnu tribal confederation, who have traditionally been considered the ancestors of the Huns and other Northern Asian groups. However, these suggestions are difficult to substantiate due to the paucity of data.
Alexander Vovin argues that at least parts of the Xiongnu, possibly its core or ruling class, spoke a Yeniseian language. Positing a higher degree of similarity of Xiongnu to Yeniseian as compared to Turkic, he also praised Stefan Georg's demonstration of how the word Tengri (the Turkic and Mongolic word for "sky" and later "god") originated from Proto-Yeniseian tɨŋVr.
It has been further suggested that the Yeniseian-speaking Xiongnu elite underwent a language shift to Oghur Turkic while migrating westward, eventually becoming the Huns. However, it has also been suggested that the core of the Hunnic language was a Yeniseian language.
Vajda (et al. 2013) proposed that the ruling elite of the Huns spoke a Yeniseian language and influenced other languages in the region.
One sentence of the language of the Jie, a Xiongnu tribe who founded the Later Zhao state, appears consistent with being a Yeniseian language. Later study suggests that Jie is closer to Pumpokol than to other Yeniseian languages such as Ket. This has been substantiated with geographical data by Vajda, who states that Yeniseian hydronyms found in northern Mongolia are exclusively Pumpokolic, in the process demonstrating both a linguistic and geographic proximity between Yeniseian and Jie.
The decline of the southern Yeniseian languages during and after the Russian conquest of Siberia has been attributed to language shifts of the Arin and Pumpokol to Khakas or Chulym Tatar, and the Kott and Assan to Khakas.
Václav Blažek (2019) suggests that the Botai culture people probably spoke a form of Yeniseian. Linguistic data lends some support for a homeland of Yeniseian within the Central Asian Steppe, prior to its migration into Siberia. The Yeniseian language may have contributed some loanwords related to horsemanship and pastoralism, such as the word for horse (Yeniseian *ʔɨʔχ-kuʔs "stallion" and Indo-European *H1ek̂u̯os "domesticated horse"), towards the proto-Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya culture.
The Yeniseian languages share many contact-induced similarities with the South Siberian Turkic languages, Samoyedic languages, and Evenki. These include long-distance nasal harmony, the development of former affricates to stops, and the use of postpositions or grammatical enclitics as clausal subordinators. Yeniseic nominal enclitics closely approximate the case systems of geographically contiguous families. Despite these similarities, Yeniseian appears to stand out among the languages of Siberia in several typological respects, such as the presence of tone, the prefixing verb inflection, and highly complex morphophonology.
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.
|Northern branch||Southern branch|
|3rd sg.||būˑ||bū||uju ~ hatu (masc.)
uja ~ hata (fem.)
|1st pl.||ɤ̄ˑt ~ ɤ́tn||ɤ́tn||ajoŋ||ajuŋ||aiŋ||adɨŋ|
|2nd pl.||ɤ́kŋ||kɤ́kŋ||auoŋ ~ aoŋ||avun||aŋ||ajaŋ|
|3rd pl.||būˑŋ||béìŋ||uniaŋ ~ hatien||hatin||itaŋ||?|
The following table exemplifies the basic Yeniseian numerals as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:
|Gloss||Northern branch||Southern branch||Reconstructions|
|3||dɔˀŋ||dɔˀŋ||toːŋa||taŋa||tʲoŋa ~ tʲuːŋa||dóŋa||*doʔŋa|
|4||sīˑk||sīk||tʃeɡa ~ ʃeːɡa||ʃeɡa||tʃaɡa||ziang||*si-|
|5||qāˑk||χāk||keɡa ~ χeːɡa||keɡa||qala||hejlaŋ||*qä-|
|6||aˀ ~ à||àː||χelutʃa||ɡejlutʃa||ɨɡa||aɡɡɛaŋ||*ʔaẋV|
|10||qɔ̄ˑ||χɔ̄||haːɡa ~ haɡa||xaha||qau ~ hioɡa||hajaŋ||*ẋɔGa|
|20||ɛˀk||ɛˀk||iːntʰukŋ||inkukn||kinthjuŋ||hédiang||*ʔeʔk ~ xeʔk|
|100||kiˀ||kiˀ||ujaːx||jus||jus||útamssa||*kiʔ ~ ɡiʔ / *ʔalVs-(tamsV)|
The following table exemplifies a few basic vocabulary items as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:
|Gloss||Northern branch||Southern branch||Reconstructions|
|Larch||sɛˀs||sɛˀs||šɛˀš||sɛˀs||šet||čet||čit||tag||*čɛˀç||*seʔs||*sɛʔt / *tɛʔt|
|River||sēˑs||sēˑs||šēˑš||sēs||šet||šet||sat||tat||*cēˑc||*ses||*set / *tet|
|Resin||dīˑk||dīˑk||dīˑk||dʲīk||čik||?||?||?||*čīˑk||*ǯik (~-g, -ẋ)||*d'ik|
|Wolf||qɯ̄ˑt||qɯ̄ˑti||qɯ̄ˑtə||χɯ̄ˑt||(boru ← Turkic)||qut||xotu||*qʷīˑtʰi||*qɨte (˜ẋ-)||*qʌthǝ|
|Water||ūˑl||ūˑl||ūˑl||ūr||ul||ul||kul||ul||*kʰul||*qoʔl (~ẋ-, -r)||?|
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.
Main article: Dené–Yeniseian languages
In 2008, Edward Vajda of Western Washington University presented evidence for a genealogical relation between the Yeneisian languages of Siberia and the Na–Dené languages of North America. At the time of publication (2010), Vajda's proposals had been favorably reviewed by several specialists of Na-Dené and Yeniseian languages—although at times with caution—including Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, James Kari, and Heinrich Werner, as well as a number of other respected linguists, such as Bernard Comrie, Johanna Nichols, Victor Golla, Michael Fortescue, Eric Hamp, and Bill Poser (Kari and Potter 2010:12). One significant exception is the critical review of the volume of collected papers by Lyle Campbell and a response by Vajda published in late 2011 that clearly indicate the proposal is not completely settled at the present time. Two other reviews and notices of the volume appeared in 2011 by Keren Rice and Jared Diamond.
Main article: Karasuk languages
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.
Main article: Sino-Tibetan languages
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. A 2008 study found further evidence for a possible relation between Yeniseian and Sino–Tibetan, citing several possible cognates. Gao Jingyi (2014) identified twelve Sinitic and Yeniseian shared etymologies that belonged to the basic vocabulary, and argued that these Sino-Yeniseian etymologies could not be loans from either language into the other. A link between the Na–Dené languages and Sino–Tibetan languages, known as Sino–Dené had also been proposed by Edward Sapir. Around 1920 Sapir became convinced that Na–Dené was more closely related to Sino–Tibetan than to other American families. Edward Vadja's Dené–Yeniseian proposal renewed interest among linguists such as Geoffrey Caveney (2014) to look into support for the Sino–Dené hypothesis. Caveney considered a link between Sino–Tibetan, Na–Dené, and Yeniseian to be plausible but did not support the hypothesis that Sino–Tibetan and Na–Dené were related to the Caucasian languages (Sino–Caucasian and Dené–Caucasian).
Main article: Dené–Caucasian languages
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. This theory is very controversial or viewed as obsolete by nearly all modern linguists.