Paleosiberian languages

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North Asia, East Asia
Linguistic classification Not a single family
Glottolog None

Paleosiberian (or Paleo-Siberian) languages or Paleoasian (Paleo-Asiatic) languages (from Greek παλαιός palaios, "ancient") is a term of convenience used in linguistics to classify a disparate group of linguistic isolates as well as a few small families of languages spoken in parts both of northeastern Siberia and of the Russian Far East. They are not known to have any linguistic relationship to each other; their only common link is that they are held to have antedated the more dominant languages, particularly Tungusic and latterly Turkic languages, that have largely displaced them. Even more recently, Turkic (at least in Siberia) and especially Tungusic, have been displaced in their turn by Russian.


Four small language families and isolates are usually considered to be Paleo-Siberian languages:[1]

  1. The Chukotko-Kamchatkan family, sometimes known as Luoravetlan, includes Chukchi and its close relatives, Koryak, Alutor and Kerek. Itelmen, also known as Kamchadal, is also distantly related. Chukchi, Koryak and Alutor are spoken in easternmost Siberia by communities numbering in the thousands. Kerek is extinct, and Itelmen is now spoken by fewer than 100 people, mostly elderly, on the west coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.
  2. Yukaghir is spoken in two mutually unintelligible varieties in the lower Kolyma and Indigirka valleys. Other languages, including Chuvantsy, spoken further inland and further east, are now extinct. Yukaghir is held by some to be related to the Uralic languages.
  3. Nivkh is spoken in the lower Amur basin and on the northern half of Sakhalin island. It has a recent modern literature.
  4. Ket is spoken in the central Yenisei river basin in the Turukhansk district of Krasnoyarsk Krai by no more than 200 people. It is known to be the last remnant of a small language subfamily, the Yeniseian languages, formerly spoken on the middle Yenisei and its tributaries. (Whether Ket should be considered an isolate is therefore a matter of definition: historically speaking, it is not.)

Ainu is sometimes added to this group though it is not, strictly speaking, a language of Siberia. It barely survives in southern Sakhalin where it was the main native language. It was also spoken in the Kuril Islands and on Hokkaidō, where a strong interest in its revival is taking place. Attempts have been made to relate it to many other language families, including Altaic, Austroasiatic, Austronesian, Nihali, and the putative Indo-Pacific stock.[citation needed]

Korean shares some typological features with the four Paleosiberian groups (e.g. lack of phonemic voiced stops, verb compounding, earlier ergativity), and Alexander Vovin jokingly suggests that it actually has more in common with "Paleosiberian" than with the putative Altaic group (to which it is sometimes assigned) — even though the Paleosiberian languages are not thought to form a typological whole.[2]

Together with Japanese, these "poor relations" resist any easy or obvious linguistic classification, either with other groups or with each other. Languages within the Paleo-Siberian group are thought by some to be related to the Na-Dené and Eskimo–Aleut families, which survive in slightly larger numbers in Alaska and northern Canada. This would back the majority consensus that North America's aboriginal peoples migrated from present-day Siberia and other regions of Asia when the two continents were joined during the last ice age.

Ket, or more precisely Yeniseian as a whole, has been linked in a generally well-received proposal to the Na-Dené languages of North America.[3] Dené–Yeniseian has been called "the first demonstration of a genealogical link between Old World and New World language families that meets the standards of traditional comparative-historical linguistics".[4] In the past, attempts have been made to relate it to Sino-Tibetan, North Caucasian, and Burushaski.

Two further groups languages predating the expansion of Turkic, Tungusic and Russian are known from Western Siberia, namely the Ob-Ugric and Samoyedic languages. They are however not considered Paleosiberian, as they are part of the established larger Uralic family. Yukaghir has often been suggested as a more distant relative of Uralic (see Uralic-Yukaghir languages), but this remains disputed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Campbell, Lyle; Mixco, Mauricio J. (2007). A Glossary of Historical Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. p. 148. ISBN 978 0 7486 2378 5. 
  2. ^ Vovin, Alexander (2015). "Korean as a Paleosiberian Language". 알타이할시리즈 2. ISBN 978-8-955-56053-4. Retrieved 2016-11-06. 
  3. ^ "The Dene–Yeniseian Connection". Alaska Native Language Center. 2010. 
  4. ^ Bernard Comrie (2008) "Why the Dene-Yeniseic Hypothesis is Exciting". Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska: Dene-Yeniseic Symposium.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Вернер Г. К. Палеоазиатские языки [1] // Лингвистический энциклопедический словарь. — М.: СЭ, 1990. (in Russian)