The squirrel-less are guilty

Courtesy of Loanwords in the World’s Languages ed. Haspelmath & Tadmor (Mouton de Gruyter, 2009) comes one of the most amusing etymologies I’ve ever seen.

In his contribution on loanwords in Ket, Edward Vajda describes the historical background of how speakers of Yeniseic languages first encountered Russians through the latter settlers’ demand for a tribute of furs. Due to these pressures, many Yeniseic speakers sought to avoid contact with Russians, and Russian loanwords before the Soviet era are fairly limited. But the Ket also showed a predilection for coining their own words for new concepts from native Ket material instead of borrowing foreign words.

Vajda ultimately drops this little gem: The concept ‘guilty’ was interpreted in Ket as saʁan, derived from a combination of native Ket sa’q ‘squirrel’ with the case marker -an ‘without, lacking’, since someone without furs to pay their tax was ‘guilty’ or ‘at fault’ in a legalistic sense.

Introductions to Ket and the Yeniseian languages

Ket is a fascinating language, the small remnant of the once-vast Yeniseian language family of Central Siberia, with a grammar and lexicon vastly different than the Uralic, Turkic and Tungusic languages that surround it. Though still obscure compared to the larger language families of the region, Ket has come to broader attention in recent years because of Edward J. Vajda’s hypothesis that the Yeniseian languages are related to the Na-Dene languages of North America thousands of miles away.

I’m not sure if and when I will learn Ket to any proficiency, but I wanted a quick introduction to its history, its relationship to other languages in the area, and the culture of its speakers. Here are three books that have been useful to me:

The cover of the second-volume of the Kortlandt Festschrift Evidence and Counter-Evidence

Evidence and Counter-Evidence Vol. 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008). This Festschrift in honour of Frederik Kortlandt contains (among many other things of interest to a wide audience) a paper by Stefan Georg titled “Yeniseic languages and the Siberian linguistic area” that quickly brings you up to speed with how distinct Ket is from the bigger language families of Central Siberia. It’s only 18 pages, written in an accessible tone and it takes only a few minutes to read, it but makes you feel as if you have learned a huge amount.

The cover of Vajda’s book Yeniseian Peoples and Languages

Edward J. Vajda, Yeniseian Peoples and Languages: A History of Yeniseian Studies with an Annotated Bibliography and a Source Guide (Routledge, 2001). This is mostly a bibliography of every work on the Kets hundreds of pages long, with entries sorted by author. However, the opening chapter is fun reading, introducing one to the major personalities of the field from Castrén on, and it points to some interesting-looking synchronic and diachronic grammars.

The cover of the collection Languages and Prehistory of Central Siberia edited by Edward J. Vajda

Languages and Prehistory of Central Siberia edited by Edward J. Vajda (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004). This collection of 12 articles explores the interaction between Ket, the Samoyedic languages of the area, and South Siberian Turkic. The last three articles are concerned with archaeology. This is very useful, but see Tapani Salminen’s review from Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen 59: 142–149 that points out a number of errors.