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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.[2] The only surviving language of the group today is Ket.

EthnicityYeniseian people
today along the Yenisei River
historically large parts of Siberia and of Mongolia
Linguistic classificationDené–Yeniseian?
  • Yeniseian
  • Northern
  • Southern †
Yeniseian map XVII-XX.png
Distribution of Yeniseian languages in the 17th century (hatched) and in the end of 20th century (solid)


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.[3]

Family divisionEdit

0. Proto-Yeniseian

1. Northern Yeniseian
1.1. Ket (200 speakers)
1.2. Yugh (1 speaker)
2. Southern Yeniseian †
2.1. Kott–Assan
2.1.1. Kott (extinct by the mid-1800s)
2.1.2. Assan (extinct by 1800)
2.2. Arin–Pumpokol
2.2.1. Arin (extinct by 1800)
2.2.2. Pumpokol (extinct by 1750)
2.2.3. Jie? (extinct or evolved into Pumpokol)

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,[4] 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.[5][6] It is suggested that at least parts of the Xiongnu, possibly the ruling part, spoke a Yeniseian language.[7] One sentence of the language of the Jie, a Xiongnu tribe who founded the Later Zhao state, appears consistent with being a Yeniseian language.[7] Later study suggests that Jie is closer to Pumpokol than to other Yeniseian languages such as Ket.[8]

A proposal connecting Yeniseian to Na-Dené, one of the major language families of indigenous peoples in North America, has been met with a cautious welcome.[9]

Family featuresEdit

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.[10] 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.[11]

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 pronounsEdit

Personal pronouns in Yeniseian languages
Singular Plural
1. 2. 3. 1. 2. 3.
Ket āˑ(t) ūˑ būˑ ɤ̄ˑt ~ ɤ́tn ɤ́kŋ būˑŋ
Yugh āt ū ɤ́tn kɤ́kŋ béìŋ
Kott dialects ai au uju ~ hatu (masc.)
uja ~ hata (fem.)
ajoŋ auoŋ ~ aoŋ uniaŋ ~ hatien
Assan aj au bari ajuŋ avun hatin
Arin ai au au aiŋ itaŋ
Pumpokol ad u adu adɨŋ ajaŋ ?



The following table exemplifies the basic Yeniseian numerals as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:[12]

   Gloss    Yeniseian languages and dialects Available reconstructions
Northern branch Southern branch
Ket dialects Yugh Kott-Assan Arin-Pumpokol
SK Kott Assan Arin Pumpokol Starostin
1 qūˑs χūs huːtʃa hutʃa qusej xuta *xu-sa
2 ɯ̄ˑn ɯ̄n iːna ina kina hinɛaŋ *xɨna
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
7 ɔˀŋ ɔˀŋ χelina ɡejlina ɨnʲa onʲaŋ *ʔoʔn-
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)

A few etymologiesEdit

The following table exemplifies a few basic vocabulary items as well as the various attempts at reconstructing the proto-forms:[12]

Gloss Yeniseian languages and dialects Available reconstructions
Northern branch Southern branch
Ket dialects Yugh Kott-Assan Arin-Pumpokol
SK NK CK Kott Assan Arin Pumpokol Vajda Starostin Werner
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
STONE tʌˀs tʌˀs tʌˀš čʌˀs šiš šiš kes kit *cʰɛˀs *čɨʔs *t'ɨʔs
FINGER tʌˀq tʌˀq tʌˀq tʌˀχ tʰoχ ?  intoto  tok *tʰɛˀq *tǝʔq *thǝʔq
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
WINTER kɤ̄ˑt kɤ̄ˑti kɤ̄ˑte kɤ̄ˑt keːtʰi ? lot lete *kʷeˑtʰi *gǝte *kǝte
LIGHT  kʌˀn  kʌˀn kʌˀn kʌˀn kin ? lum ? *kʷɛˀn *gǝʔn- ?
PERSON kɛˀd kɛˀd kɛˀd kɛˀtʲ hit het kit kit *kɛˀt *keʔt ?
TWO ɯ̄ˑn ɯ̄ˑn ɯ̄ˑn ɯ̄n in in kin hin *kʰīˑn *xɨna *(k)ɨn
WATER ūˑl ūˑl ūˑl ūr ul ul kul ul *kʰul *qoʔl (~ẋ-, -r)  ?
BIRCH ùs ùːse ùːsə ùːʰs uča uuča kus uta *kʰuχʂa *xūsa *kuʔǝt'ǝ
  SNOWSLED  súùl súùl šúùl sɔ́ùl  čogar  čɛgar šal tsɛl *tsehʷəl      *soʔol *sogǝl (~č/t'-ʎ) 

Proposed relations to other language familiesEdit

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 theoryEdit


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.[13] 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).[14] One significant exception is the critical review of the volume of collected papers by Lyle Campbell[15] and a response by Vajda[16] 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.

Other hypothesesEdit


The Karasuk hypothesis, linking Yeniseian to Burushaski, has been proposed by several scholars, notably by A.P. Dulson[17] and V.N. Toporov.[18] 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.[19]


As noted by Tailleur[20] and Werner,[21] 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[22] and Karl Bouda.[23] This hypothesis is seen as controversial and has no support of modern linguists at this time.[24]


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[25] and O.G. Tailleur,[26] the late Sergei A. Starostin[27] and Sergei L. Nikolayev[28] have sought to confirm these connections. Others who have developed the hypothesis, often expanded to Dené–Caucasian, include J.D. Bengtson,[29] V. Blažek,[30] J.H. Greenberg (with M. Ruhlen),[31] and M. Ruhlen.[32] George Starostin continues his father's work in Yeniseian, Sino-Caucasian and other fields.[33]

The validity of this theory is very controversial or viewed as obsolete by nearly all modern linguists.[34][35][24]


  1. ^ "Ostyak" is a concept of areal rather than genetic linguistics. In addition to the Yeniseian languages it also includes the Uralic languages Khanty and Selkup.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Yeniseian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Vajda, Edward J. (2013). Yeniseian Peoples and Languages: A History of Yeniseian Studies with an Annotated Bibliography and a Source Guide. Oxford/New York: Routledge.
  3. ^ Flegontov, Pavel; Changmai, Piya; Zidkova, Anastassiya; Logacheva, Maria D.; Altınışık, N. Ezgi; Flegontova, Olga; Gelfand, Mikhail S.; Gerasimov, Evgeny S.; Khrameeva, Ekaterina E. (2016-02-11). "Genomic study of the Ket: a Paleo-Eskimo-related ethnic group with significant ancient North Eurasian ancestry". Scientific Reports. 6: 20768. arXiv:1508.03097. Bibcode:2016NatSR...620768F. doi:10.1038/srep20768. PMC 4750364. PMID 26865217.
  4. ^ See Vovin 2000, Vovin 2002 and Pulleyblank 2002
  5. ^ See Vajda 2008a
  6. ^ Sinor, Denis (1996). "23.4 The Xiongnu Empire". In Herrmann, J.; Zürcher, E. (eds.). History of Humanity. Multiple History. III: From the Seventh Century B.C. to the Seventh Century A.D. UNESCO. p. 452. ISBN 978-92-3-102812-0.
  7. ^ a b Vovin, Alexander. "Did the Xiongnu speak a Yeniseian language?". Central Asiatic Journal 44/1 (2000), pp. 87–104.
  8. ^ Vovin, Alexander; Vajda, Edward J.; de la Vaissière, Etienne (2016). "Who were thE * (羯) AND WHAT LANGUAGE DID THEY SPEAK?". Journal Asiatique. 304 (1): 125–144.
  9. ^ "Pause Is Seen in a Continent's Peopling". New York Times. 13 Mar 2014.
  10. ^ See Anderson 2003
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b See Vajda 2007, Starostin 1982 and Werner (???)
  13. ^ See Vajda 2010
  14. ^ Language Log » The languages of the Caucasus
  15. ^ 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).
  16. ^ 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).
  17. ^ See Dulson 1968
  18. ^ See Toporov 1971
  19. ^ See Van Driem 2001
  20. ^ See Tailleur 1994
  21. ^ See Werner 1994
  22. ^ See Donner 1930
  23. ^ See Bouda 1963 and Bouda 1957
  24. ^ a b Sanchez-Mazas, Alicia; Blench, Roger; Ross, Malcolm D.; Peiros, Ilia; Lin, Marie (2008-07-25). Past Human Migrations in East Asia: Matching Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. Routledge. ISBN 9781134149629.
  25. ^ See Bleichsteiner 1930
  26. ^ See Tailleur 1958 and Tailleur 1994
  27. ^ See Starostin 1982, Starostin 1984, Starostin 1991, Starostin & Ruhlen 1994
  28. ^ See Nikola(y)ev 1991
  29. ^ See Bengtson 1994, Bengtson 1998, Bengtson 2008
  30. ^ See Blažek & Bengtson 1995
  31. ^ See Greenberg & Ruhlen, Greenberg & Ruhlen 1997
  32. ^ See Ruhlen 1997, Ruhlen 1998a, Ruhlen 1998b
  33. ^ See Reshetnikov & Starostin 1995a, Reshetnikov & Starostin 1995b, Dybo & Starostin
  34. ^ Trask, R. L. (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pg. 85
  35. ^ Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of Languages. New York: Columbia University Press. pg. 434


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External linksEdit