October 15, 2003

Founding fathers of the Amerind debate

Joseph Greenberg's 1987 book lumping nearly all the indigenous languages of the New World into one super-family called Amerind has engendered great popular interest as well as seemingly endless controversy.

Far be it from me to fan the embers into flame. All I want to do is to point out that the controversy has deep roots, with Penn's Dr. Benjamin Barton as the original Greenbergian lumper, while the skeptical splitter viewpoint was championed by none other than Thomas Jefferson.

In Notes on the State of Virginia (written 1781-82), Jefferson wrote

How many ages have elapsed since the English, Dutch, the Germans, the Swiss, the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have separated from their common stock? Yet how many more must elapse before the proofs of their common origin, which exist in their several languages, will disappear? It is to be lamented then . . . that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish, without our having previously collected and deposited in the records of literature, the general rudiments at least of the languages they spoke. Were vocabularies formed of all the languages spoken in North and South America, preserving their appellations of the most common objects in nature, of those which must be present to every nation barbarous or civilised, with the inflections of their nouns and verbs, their principles of regimen and concord, and these deposited in all the public libraries, it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.

He based his conclusions on careful examination of all the vocabularies he could collect, not only for New World languages but also (for example) from Peter the Great's Siberian expeditions.

One of his many correspondents on this topic was Benjamin Smith Barton M.D., Professor of Materia Medica, Natural History and Botany in the University of Pennsylvania. In his 1798 book New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America, Barton wrote that

By a careful inspection of the vocabularies, the reader will find no difficulty in discovering that in Asia the languages of the . . . tribes of the Delaware-stock may be all traced to ONE COMMON SOURCE. Nor do I limit this observation to the languages of the American tribes just mentioned . . . HITHERTO, WE HAVE NOT DISCOVERED IN AMERICA. . . ANY TWO, OR MORE LANGUAGES BETWEEN WHICH WE ARE INCAPABLE OF DETECTING AFFINITIES (AND THOSE VERY OFTEN STRIKING) EITHER IN AMERICAN, OR IN THE OLD WORLD. [emphasis original]

Barton went on to assert that "[m]y inquiries seem to render it probable, that all the languages of the countries of America may . . . be traced to one or two great stocks. . ."

Jefferson disagreed (from Notes on the State of Virginia):

. . . imperfect as is our knowledge of the tongues spoken in America, it suffices to discover the following remarkable fact. Arranging them under the radical ones to which they may be palpably traced, and doing the same by those of the red men of Asia, there will be found probably twenty in America, for one in Asia, of those radical languages, so called because, if they were ever the same, they have lost all resemblance to one another. A separation into dialects may be the work of a few ages only, but for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin, must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth. A greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia.

Later on, he considered a sociolinguistic explanation. Having heard that some Indians considered it dishonorable to use any language but their own, he suggested that when a part of a tribe separated itself, the seceded group might refuse to use the original language and invent their own. (ms. notes circa 1800):

Perhaps this hypothesis presents less difficulty than that of so many radically distinct languages preserved by such handfuls of men from an antiquity so remote that no data we possess will enable us to calculate it.

Plus ça change . . .

[Update 10/16/2003: In Good Bye! magazine's obituary for Joseph Greenberg, the anonymous author writes that "[t]he splitters of linguistics have this problem: they're just not as interesting as the lumpers."

This is clearly true in today's popular press, and it tends to be true in interdisciplinary research, for similar reasons. It was probably also true in the marketplace of ideas in late 18th century America. However, I for one find that Jefferson's explorations of this problem are much more interesting to read than Barton's. This is partly because Jefferson was smarter, and writes better -- Mozart to Barton's Salieri -- but perhaps it's also because his few paragraphs on the subject show a keen mind inquiring after the truth, rather than a mere enthusiast piling up evidence.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 15, 2003 04:21 PM