Do “Native Americans and Russians share the same language”?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2014]

I have often criticized the mainstream media for its gross misrepresentations of current linguistic research, with headlines such as “English Language ‘Originated in Turkey’”, which does little but deceive and confuse the public. The recent headline in The Daily Mail “Native Americans and Russians share the same language: Dialects reveal how ancestors migrated 13,000 years ago” is another example of such blatant inaccuracy that reveals ignorance of the subject being reported. Leaving aside the imprecise use of the term “dialect” (dialect of what? a language whose other dialects do not reveal the same thing?), the claim that “Native Americans and Russians share the same language” is nonsensical. This problem is not limited to the headline, as the very first sentence of the article states that “It’s been known for years that some Native Americans and Russians share ancestors”—a sentence that presupposes the unquestionable truth of what is in actuality a highly problematic proposition.

The key issue here is what the word “Russians” means. As discussed in a GeoCurrents post, Russia is a multinational/multiethnic state, defying the “nation-state” model, and many of its citizens are not ethnic Russians. The latest Russian census counted 180 non-Russian nationalities in the Russian Federation, a fact boasted by the producers of the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. In English, however, the word “Russian” is ambiguous as it can refer either to a “native or inhabitant of Russia” (as the Webster dictionary puts it) or to a member of a certain ethnic group. The word also has a third meaning that is particularly relevant to the headline in question: “Russian” in reference to language means a certain East Slavic language; although many non-ethnic Russians use this language in their daily lives or even speak it natively, it is deeply associated with the specific ethnic group.

The Russian language distinguishes the different senses expressed by the English word “Russian”, with both nouns and adjectives. A “native or inhabitant of Russia” is rossijanin and a member of the ethnic group is russkij, as is the language. Grammatically speaking, rossijanin (plural: rossijane) is a noun, formed by a suffix ‑anin, which creates nouns from toponyms: for example, rizhanin is ‘a person from Riga’, parizhanin is ‘a person from Paris’, and prazhanin is ‘a person from Prague’. In contrast, russkij is both a noun and an adjective meaning “pertaining to the Russian ethnic group”, which can apply to folklore, cuisine, traditional crafts, and of course language. The adjective corresponding to the noun rossijanin is rossijskij: one can speak of rossijskij passport or rossijskij navy, but not of russkij passport or russkij navy.

Historically, the status of these Russian words was quite different. The word rossijane was used in the eighteenth century, but mostly in a high poetic style. It appeared, for example, in Nikolai Karamzin’s famous treatise The History of the Russian State. At that time, however, the term was not yet used in opposition to russkie—both words meant the same thing and the difference between them was purely stylistic. The same use persisted through the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. In Dmitry Ushakov’s famous dictionary of Russian, initially published in late 1930s, rossijane is annotated as an archaic, high-style, and formal word. In the heyday of Stalin’s rule, Russia was but one of the fifteen Soviet republics, and had no separate citizenship and few of the trappings of a sovereign state to which the word could be applied. After the downfall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century, the word finally acquired its present-day meaning of ‘Russian citizens regardless of nationality/ethnicity’. The glory days of the word rossijane were in the 1990s, when it was regularly used by then-President Boris Yeltsin in his addresses to the people. Interestingly, President Vladimir Putin tends not to use this word, addressing his countrymen instead as “compatriots” (in Russian, sootechestvenniki) or “citizens of Russia” (in Russian, graždane Rossii), as he did in his recent address regarding the Crimea.

To recap, not all rossijane are russkie, and not all russkie are rossijane. Russian Jews and members of other ethnic groups who are Russian citizens are rossijane but not russkie. Ethnic Russians living in Riga or Almaty are russkie but not rossijane. By the same token, the ethnic Russians living in Riga are latvijtsy ‘citizens of Latvia’, but not latyshi ‘Latvians’, and the ethnic Russian living in Almaty are kazakhstantsy ‘citizens of Kazakhstan’, but not kazakhi ‘Kazakhs’.*

Let’s now return to The Daily Mail headline. Since the headline concerns language, the most obvious reading of “Russians” would be “speakers of the Russian language” or “members of the Russian ethnic group”. This construal, however, is blatantly incorrect. The Russian language, a member of the East Slavic branch of the Indo-European family, has as much to do with languages of Native Americans as does English, Arabic, or Chinese. The relevant Native American languages are those in the Na-Dene (or Athabaskan, or Eyak-Athabaskan, as the Ethnologue calls it) language family. This family’s connection to Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, or Sino-Tibetan languages is extremely distant, beyond what historical linguistics can show reliably, at least according to most scholars in the discipline.

The alternative construal interprets “Russians” in the headline as synonymous with rossijane ‘natives or citizens of Russia’. Although this reading is technically correct, it is highly misleading. The relevant language in the Russian Federation is Ket, the only remaining member of the Yeniseian family. According to the 2002 census, there are 1,494 ethnic Kets, the majority of whom reside in Krasnoyarsk Krai in Central Siberia. Nearly all Kets (99.7%) speak Russian, with fewer than 500 retaining their indigenous language (the 2002 census reports that 485 Kets speak the language, but the Ethnologue counts only 210 Ket speakers). Given how small a group the Ket are, using the term “Russians” to apply to them is as accurate as using the term “Americans” to refer to speakers of Aleut (ethnic population 1,030, of whom 150 speak the language), Plains Cree (ethnic population 1,560, with 100 speakers of the language), Hidatsa (ethnic population 1,200, with 200 speakers), or Kiowa (ethnic population 1,100, with 400 speakers). Another good analogy would be a headline stating that “Americans use a three-way case system”—a system in which subjects of transitives, subjects of intransitives, and objects are all marked differently—just because Nez Perce does use such a system. (Nez Perce is a Native American group, total population 2,700, of which only 200 speak the language.) Most Americans have never heard of either the Nez Perce or the three-way case systems (in fact, many of my English-speaking American students struggle to understand what case systems are in general).

The connection between Ket and Na-Dene languages, as well as the genetic connection between the two groups, has been suggested in the past. In terms of the Y-DNA, the Kets exhibit an astoundingly high 95 percent frequency of haplogroup Q, which is relatively rare among other Eurasian groups, but is particularly common among Native Americans. However, haplogroup Q is especially frequent among certain indigenous peoples of South America (94%), but is found more rarely among Na-Dene populations (25-50%). An alternative explanation for the high frequency of a particular haplogroup among the Ket men relies on genetic drift, which is especially significant in small populations such as that of the Ket. Simply put, haplogroup Q might have been much less common in the ancestral Ket population but has had better reproductive success than other haplogroups for random, contingent reasons, driving these other haplogroups to near extinction in the Ket gene pool.

The linguistic argument connecting Ket with the Na-Dene languages was first developed by linguist Edward Vajda. This so-called Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis remains controversial, although it has received stronger support than the more encompassing and speculative “Dene-Caucasian” theory, proposed by Russian scholar Sergei Starostin, which posits a macro-family that includes not only Ket and the Na-Dene languages but also Sino-Tibetan and the North Caucasian language families, as well as the Basque and Burushaski languages. Most linguist continue to treat Ket, Basque, and Burushaski as isolates; Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dené as separate language families; and North Caucasian as two (or even three) separate language families.

The academic paper, whose findings The Daily Mail article reported, was published in PLOS One under the title “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia”. In it, authors Mark A. Sicoli and Gary Holton “apply phylogenetic methods to test support for [the] hypothesis [that the origin of Native Americans was in central or western Asia] against an alternative hypothesis that Yeniseian represents a back-migration to Asia from a Beringian ancestral population”. Their methodology included using neighbor-joining network algorithms and Bayesian phylogenetic methods; we have criticized the latter type of methodology and its applications by certain researchers in connection to the Indo-European language family in my earlier posts. I am also confused by the two hypotheses tested in Sicoli and Holton’s study: it appears to me that “back-migration” would imply that the Na-Dene peoples first came to North America from somewhere else, and the most geographically sensible origin is Beringia or Northeastern Siberia more generally. Thus, it seems to me that the two theories are not mutually exclusive. Still, at least Sicoli and Holton do not call the Ket “Russians”.




* A curious note: James Forrestal’s famous 1949 phrase “The Russians are coming” is translated into Russian as Russkie idut, although poor Forrestal, who is said to have died with this phrase on his lips, probably meant Russian citizens, not ethnic Russians. Go figure!



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