Archive for May, 2012

Entrance to Alaska Ferry Terminal, Bellingham, Washington

The same special issue of the journal World Archaeology that I was discussing in the previous post has an article looking specifically at the relationship between linguistic and archaeological evidence in the study of the prehistory of North America. It is by M. Dale Kinkade and J. V. Powell, two linguists who specialized in the languages of the Pacific Northwest, so while the paper consists in part of a survey of the distribution of language families across the continent and ideas about their prehistory, the discussion of the Northwestern families is more in-depth than the others, and the case study that forms another section is on a specific region on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. That bias aside, it’s a very good article summarizing the state of knowledge as of its publication in 1976, and there have been few major breakthroughs since then (with one major exception that I’ll discuss in a later post), so most of it still holds up quite well.

One of the best parts of the paper is its discussion of methodology, particularly the reasons that historical linguistics can’t provide actual dates for events in the past the way archaeology can. This is now widely accepted by almost all linguists, but this was not always the case, as Kinkade and Powell note:

The most notable attempt to devise a procedure for dating linguistic prehistory is lexicostatistics. Developed in the 1950s  by Swadesh and others, lexicostatistics is based on three assumptions, all of which are, unfortunately, invalid. These premisses [sic] are:

  1. A basic core vocabulary of 200 (or 100) words are less subject to change than other parts of the language, these words including terms for the same items in all languages.
  2. The rate of retention of vocabulary items in the basic core vocabulary is constant through time.
  3. The rate of loss is the same in all languages.

Note the similarity between these assumptions and those underlying radiocarbon dating, which I don’t think is a coincidence. I suspect there’s an interesting project here in the history of science looking at the influences on Swadesh as he was developing his ideas as well as the factors that led his theories to become quite popular among both linguists and archaeologists in the 1950s. By the early 1960s an increasing number of critics were pointing out the flaws in Swadesh’s approach, although there were still a significant number of adherents of glottochronology well into the 1970s (including some of the contributors to this same special issue). In any case, since then linguistics as a discipline has soundly rejected glottochronology, so Kinkade and Powell’s discussion of it here feels prescient rather than dated.

Having rejected glottochronology, Kinkade and Powell stick to the more “traditional” ways of linking historical linguistics to the more general study prehistory, primarily by looking at the distributions of established language families and to some extent loanword patterns, placenames, and the distributions of certain important lexical items. They discuss each language family considered fairly well-established (although a few on their list were and still are controversial) and summarize the proposals for its Urheimat. Some of these are obvious and not at all controversial, such as the placement of Athapaskan in Alaska. Others, such as Uto-Aztecan, have been subject to such fierce debate that there is really no consensus about where the proto-language was spoken or even what evidence is most useful to decide that. Kinkade present a map with what appear to be their preferred guesses for where each protolanguage was spoken, but the number of question marks on it indicate how uncertain they are about many of those guesses.

The final section of the paper is an in-depth discussion of the linguistic evidence bearing on the question of the occupation of the Ozette Village site on the Olympic Peninsula. All evidence clearly indicates that in late prehistory this site was occupied by the Makah people who still inhabit the general area, but Kinkade and Powell point to several lines of evidence, especially placenames and oral traditions of both the Makah and the Quileute people who live to the south of them, suggesting that the general area was occupied in earlier times by speakers of a Chimakuan language related to Quileute (which is not related to Makah). Since there are deposits at Ozette going back very far, this suggests in turn that while the most recent inhabitants of the village spoke Makah, this may not have been true of their predecessors. Kinkade and Powell don’t go into much detail about how they think this linguistic change may have occurred, but what they do say suggests that they see migration of Makah speakers from the north having physically displaced Chimakuan-speakers. Given the evidence they present, however, to me it looks at least equally likely that the change was the result of assimilation of Chimakuan-speakers to the Makah language and culture. The Makah and Quileute are apparently very similar culturally, and there seems to be some evidence that it was the Makah who were considered the more prestigious group.

Overall, this paper is a very useful summary of the state of research into the prehistory of language families in North America as of the mid-1970s, and since this hasn’t been a very active field of study since then it’s still a pretty good guide to the issues. This subject could really use a lot more attention and especially cooperation between linguists and archaeologists, as it has quite a lot of overlooked potential to shed light on the past. There are some signs that this potential is beginning to be explored, but there’s still plenty more to be done with it.
Kinkade, M., & Powell, J. (1976). Language and the prehistory of North America World Archaeology, 8 (1), 83-100 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979654

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