A paper I did for a Native American History class on what linguistics tells us about the history of indigenous peoples of the Americas. (Some big chunks cut out, it was a long paper and here I wanted to cut to the chase a little faster.) Since this was a history class, this paper focused on the social-historical aspect.
Linguistics as a Form of Archaology: What Native American Language Diversity Tells Us
The diversity of Native American (“American” meaning “of the Americas”) languages is striking and significant. It is not simply that there were many languages – the number of languages spoken north of Mexico is often given as 250 or as 300. But this does not do justice to the true diversity, or to what that diversity tells us.
To do that, we need to look at language relationships – to families and classifications. This is a subfield of the field of linguistics called Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Historical Linguistics means the examination of the changes in language over time, including the evolution of one language into many. Comparative Lingustics means the comparison of existing languages to determine if they are related (descended from a common ancestor) and if so, how closely.
Historical and comparative linguistics was born in the late 18th century when British philologist William Jones, who had learned Sanskrit, announced his realization that there were striking parallels and resemblances between Sanskrit and ancient languages of Europe, particularly Greek and Latin, and proposed that all these languages came from a common source.
In fact, all the languages of Europe (with a few isolated exceptions), many languages of Central Asia (such as Persian and Afghan) and the languages of the northern two-thirds of India clearly belong to the same language stock, which is called Indo-European. Indo-European contains various language families – the Germanic family, which includes German, Dutch, English, and Scandinavian languages; the Romance family, which includes Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian; the Slavic family, which includes Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Serbian; the Celtic family, which includes Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish; and Indo-Iranianlanguages, which include Farsi (Persian), Afghan (Pashto), Urdu (Pakistani) and the languages of the northern two-thirds of India. (The southern third of India is inhabited by speakers of Dravidian languages, which undoubtedly predate Indo-European in the region.) All of these language families are subfamilies of the Indo-European family. The Indo-European family is sometimes called a superfamily, meaning that it it is a family of families. It is also called a language stock or a language phylum (plural, phyla); this means there is no still larger grouping of languages to which it, in turn, belongs.
At some point, all the Indo-European languages were descended from a common ancestor, which is known as proto-Indo-European. Although of course no one speaks proto-Indo-European today, various Indo-European languages have been written for thousands of years, and by studying the changes in Indo-European languages over the centuries (Sanskrit to Hindi, ancient Greek to modern Greek, Latin to Italian, French and Spanish, etc), it became possible to trace backwards and reconstruct proto-Indo-European, as well as to date it to approximately 6000 years ago.
All the languages in Europe are Indo-European except for Hungarian, Finnish, and Saami (Lapp) which are members of the Ural-Altaic family and distantly related to Turkish and some Siberian languages; and Basque, which is an isolate, completely unique in the world, both in structure and in vocabulary. (Basque word list ) An isolate is a language with no known relatives.
Thus, in total, we can say that three language stocks are represented in Europe: Basque (which accounts for about 0.4% of Europe’s population), Ural-Altaic (which accounts for about 2% of Europe’s population), and Indo-European (which accounts for about 97.6% of the Europeans population, and in addition, as a result of European colonization, accounts for about 60% of the entire world’s population), .
What has all this to do with Native American studies? In a way, nothing. I believe that there should be a Euro-American studies program, with Euro-American and European history and culture analyzed from an indigenous point of view. Rather than taking Western culture as the starting point and then evaluating other cultures based on how they resemble or differ from Western culture, we could start with indigenous way athe starting point, as the norm for human beings, and then look at how Western culture resembles or deviates from the indigenous norm. So this is a beginning of of analysis of European history from a Native point of view. The language situation in Europe tells us something about Europe. This is relevant to Native studies because of what the differences tell us about Native American societies, by contrast, and because it helps put the history of Europe’s invasion into a context.
Indo-European has been extremely expansionist, spreading English, Spanish, and other languages around the world. The linguistic and archaeological evidence concur that, thousands of years before Europe began expanding its influence to the rest of the world, Indo-European speakers overran Europe and also expanded through southern Asia.
With a small handful of exceptions, all of Europe’s languages belong to a single stock, one that is estimated at only 6000 years old. Yet cave paintings and other evidence of human culture go back 40,000 years in Europe. Despite its age, Europe has a remarkable lack of linguistic diversity.
Not only do nearly all Europeans speak languages of a single stock, but if you count the number of individual languages in Europe in 1492 – even if you count separate languages mutually unintelligible dialects of Italian, Iberian tongues such as Catalan, Scottish and Irish forms of Gaelic, etc. – the number of languages spoken in Europe total only a few dozen. Contrast to the hundreds of indigenous languages in North America (which, as I intend to demonstrate, barely begins to convey the true richness of North American linguistic diversity).
What does this tell us? Europeans have a long history of being overrun by conquerors who obliterate their older languages and original identities. peoples of Europe did not always speak Indo-European languages. Every language family has a point of origin. It spreads, through migration, and, as populations separate and lose contact with each other, it turns into multiple different languages. Tribal peoples often displace each other, during their migrations. This can sometimes involve warfare. But tribal peoples don’t conquer each other. They don’t try to control or rule each other. They don’t force their languages or cultures upon each other. And they don’t attempt to wipe each other out, either physically or culturally. Something other than just intertribal warfare was happening in Europe several thousand years ago in order for a continentful of diverse languages (and the ethnic identities that went along with them) to be wiped out. But when you have an entire continent or vast country speaking one language or language family, it was spread by force and conquest. (The US, with English spoken from sea to shining sea, is an example.) The uniformity of language over vast areas means that peoples were not merely displaced, but eliminated, either physically or culturally.
Consider Basque, famed for its uniqueness. Basque – isolated in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain and relatively inaccessible to conquerors who successfully imposed their language on the Basques’ neighbors – is a survivor from pre-Roman times. Not only from pre-Roman times, but pre-Indo-European times. Basque testifies to the diversity of languages that must once, very long ago, have been Europe’s heritage. Before the Indo-European conquest, all of what is now Spain and France spoke non-Indo-European languages. Their old languages were driven into extinction by the Indo-Europeans. They now spoke languages that were Indo-European. The Roman conquest in turn imposed Latin on them and drove the languages into extinction, and Latin over millennia transmuted into modern Romance languages. Basque alone survives to testify to Europe’s ancient pre-Indo-European roots.
Now consider the following languages: Salinan, Shasta, Yuki, Maidu, Pomo, Yokuts, Esselen, Washo, Karuk, Chimariko. You may recognize all of those as being from California, but what is notable about these languages is that each one of them represents a unique isolate, like Basque. That is ten isolates in California alone – each utterly unique, representing an entirely unique language stock all by itself, and each as different from any other language as English is from Arabic or Vietnamese is from Zulu. Take any four of these languages, and you have greater linguistic diversity than in all of Europe, which has only three stocks counting Basque and the three Ural-Altaic languages (Hungarian, Finnish and Saami).
Beyond that, there are a number of other language stocks in California that contain only two languages: Yukian (Yuki and Wappo), Palaihnihan (Atsugewi, also known as Pit River, and Achomawi), Yanan (Yana and Yahi), and Klamath (Klamath and Modoc). Then there are stocks containing more languages: Wintuan, which includes Wintu, Nomlaki, and Patwin; Utian,which includes Miwok and eight other languages; Chumashan, which includes Chumash and five Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mission IndianÃ¢â‚¬Â languages; Yuman-Cochimi, whose Yuman branch includes Mohave, Maricopa, and six other languages, and whose Cochimi branch consists of Cochimi (language stocks are given hyphenated names when they consist of branches that are highly divergent from each other);
All these language stocks are unique to California, or to California and to adjacent regions of Oregon, Nevada, or Mexico. There are also represented in California certain language families that are found elsewhere. The Athabaskan family (Na-Dene) is represented in California by Tututni (notice the connection of the -tni ending with the Navajo dine), Tolowa, Hupa, Mattole, and Wailaki. The Uto-Aztecan stock is represented in California by the Cahuilla and several languages of Ã¢â‚¬Å“MissionÃ¢â‚¬Â Indians. The Algonkian family MAY have a distant relationship with Wiyot and with Yurok (which are not close to each other) but this is controversial, and some linguists consider Wiyot and Yurok each to be isolates.
If we decide to be conservative and put Wiyot and Yurok in the same group, then that is twenty-one distinct language stocks represented in California alone, eighteen of which are exclusive (endemic) to California (or to Californian and adjacent areas in Oregon, Nevada, or Mexico). Compare that to one single language stock stretching across all of Europe and through much of central and southern Asia. other words, if we leave out Europe’s four non-Indo-European survivors, California alone had twenty times as much linguistic diversity as all of Europe and beyond. Even if we count Basque and the Ural-Altaic languages, so that Europe has three stocks, California alone has seven times as much linguistic diversity as all of Europe.
If we add Oregon, in addition to stocks which are also represented in California, we add the isolates Molala, Alsea, Takelma, Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua; the exclusively (endemically) Oregon stocks Coos and Kalapuyan (each with only two to three member languages); and stocks also represented in neighboring states – Chinook (an isolate), Cayuse (an isolate), Sahaptian (the main family of the upper Columbia River, upstream from the Dalles, which includes Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Wallawalla, and Klikitat), Salishan (the main family of Washington state outside the Columbia River Basin, and also prominent in British Columbia). That is ten language stocks in Oregon, and twenty-eight language stocks in California and Oregon together. In Washington are also represented Chimakuan (which includes only two languages, Quileute and Chimakum) and Wakashan ,which is mostly represented on Vancouver Island, but in Washington by the Makah).
Other languages which are considered to be isolates are: Natchez, Timucua, Tunica, Chitimacha, Atakapa, Tonkawa, Karankawa, and Yuchi, in the Southeast; Tsimshian and Haida in coastal British Columbia; Beothuk in Newfoundland; Ktunaxa (also known as Kootenay / Kootenai / Kutenai) in the northern Rockies; Zuni and Keres (spoken in seven pueblos) in the Southwest; Coahilteco and six or more languages in Texas that may each be isolates, although sufficient evidence is uncertain, so we will not count them all. This makes at least twenty-nine isolates (languages as unique in the world as Basque) in North America north of Mexico.
Then there are other some small families: Caddoan (with five languages, all in the Southeast); and Kiowa-Tanoan (Kiowa was formerly considered an isolate, but a remote relationship was demonstrated between it and the Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa languages of certain Rio Grande pueblos).
Ten major language stocks in North America account for about 140 languages spoken north of Mexico. Already mentioned (as represented in California and Oregon) have been:
Algic, means the Algonkian, mainly in the Northeast by languages like Algonquin proper, Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, Wampanoag, Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’qmaq; around the Great Lakes by Anishnabe (Ojibway or Chippewa), Menominee, Ottawa; in the eastern subarctic by Cree and Naskapi; and on the Plains by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Blackfoot. But there is another branch, Ritwan, separate from the Algonkian family, which has come to be generally accepted as having remote links to Algonkian; the Ritwan family is comprised of Wiyot and Yokuts in California, although Wiyot and Yokuts differ from each other as much as they do from Algonkian languages.
Na-Dene, a stock which includes the family,represented by twenty-four languages in the interior of Alaska and northern Canada; in the Southwest by Navajo and Apache, and by six small languages in California and Oregon; plus Tlingit and Eyak, previously considered to be isolates but now widely considered to be each a distinct branch of the Na-Dene stock.
Uto-Aztecan, which in addition to many languages of northern Mexico is represented in the Southwest by Pima, Papago, Yaqui, and Hopi, among others; in the Great Basin, by Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock.
Salishan, represented by many small tribes of Puget Sound and in the interior Northwest by tribes such as the Okanagan, Kalispel, Flathead, and Coeur d’Alene, and by a number of tribes in British Columbia.
Sahaptian, represented by Nez Perce, Yakama, and other tribes of the Columbia River watershed
In addition to those, the most important language families are:
Eskimo/ Aleut, represented in the Arctic and adjacent regions of Alaska and Canada (as well as in Greenland and Siberia/Russia). Although the number of languages in this family is small, it is treated as a major family because it covers such a large territory.
Iroquoian, represented mostly in the Northeast US and eastern Canada, and in the Southeast by the Cherokee and Tuscarora.
Siouan, represented on the Plains and Midwest by Dakota / Lakota / Nakota, Mandan, Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Hidatsa, and Apsaroke (Crow), and in the Southeast by Catawba and several smaller tribes
Muskogean, represented in the Southeast by the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and some smaller languages
This is a total of 52 distinct language stocks north of the present-day Mexican border. The nine largest stocks mentioned account for about 140 languages; on the other hand, the thirty isolates have one language each.
This doesn’t mean that America north of Mexico had 52 times as much linguistic diversity as the Indo-European-speaking regions. There actually was much MORE than 52 times as much diversity. Wiyot and Yurok are more distinct from the Algonkian languages, Kiowa more distant from Tanoan languages, Tlingit and Eyak more distinct from Athabaskan languages, than any Indo-European languages are from each other. So the difference between the diversity of America north of Mexico and Europe is actually much greater than the difference in the number of linguistic stocks. when you consider that the epidemics, which killed 50% to 90% of many tribes who survive today, likely eliminated unknown numbers of isolates and small language families entirely, leaving not a trace.
Adding Mexico and Central America increases the number of stocks in geographical North America to about 80 (though the diversity of stocks decreases sharply around the Aztec and Mayan regions). The number of stocks currently counted for South America is 118 (Campbell, p 172) but South America languages have been less studied and some of those groups may actually be branches of an older stock. Adequate study might reduce the number of stocks. However, all of the presently enumerated stocks are at least as distinct as Indo-European. That means that America as a whole (North, Central, South) had perhaps 200 times as much linguistic diversity as Europe had in 1492 -- without even taking into account the loss of languages from epidemics.
[cutting some stuff here about scholarly disagreement about some of the classifications and problems of “language” vs "dialect]
[continued in next post]