Literally "early" [from Greek 'palaeos'] + Siberia.
A term of convenience used in philology to classify a disparate group of languages spoken in remote regions of Siberia, whose only common provenance is that they are held to have antedated the more dominant Altaic languages, particularly Tungus and latterly Turkish that have largely displaced them. Even more recently, Turkish (at least in Siberia) and especially Tungus, have been displaced in their turn by Russian.
Five isolates or at least very small language groups, linguistically entirely unrelated to each other, compose the Palaeo-Siberian languages:
- 1. Chukchi and its close relative, Koryak. Kamchadal is thought to be distantly related. Chukchi and Koryak are spoken in easternmost Siberia and are thriving. Kamchadal is spoken on the Kamchatka peninsula and is nearly defunct. The group as a whole is called Chukotko-Kamchatkan.
- 2. Yukaghir is spoken in two dialects: Odul in the lower Kolyma and Indigirka valleys and Chuvantsy, further inland and further east, now probably extinct. Yukaghir is held by some to be related to Finno-Ugric.
- 3. Ket (or Yeniseian) is a language isolate on the middle Yenisei and its tributaries. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to relate it to Sino-Tibetan and North Caucasian.
- 4. Gilyak is spoken in the lower Amur basin and on the northern half of Sakhalin island. It has a recent modern literature and the Gilyak have experienced a turbulent history in the last century.
- 5. 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 Hokkaido where a strong interest in its revival is taking place. It has been related to Indo-Pacific and Kalto.