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Linguist Map

 Native American Nations | Linguistic Families                    

In 1836 Gallatin conferred a great boon upon linguistic students by classifying all the existing material relating to this subject. Even in the light of the knowledge of the present day his work is found to rest upon a sound basis. The material of Gallatin’s time, however, was too scanty to permit of more than an outline of the subject. Later writers have contributed to the work, and the names of Latham, Turner, Prichard, Buschmann, Hale, Gatschet, and others are connected with important classificatory results.

The writer’s interest in linguistic work and the inception of a plan for a linguistic classification of Indian languages date back about 20 years, to a time when he was engaged in explorations in the West. Being brought into contact with many tribes, it was possible to collect a large amount

of original material. Subsequently, when the Bureau of Ethnology was organized, this store was largely increased through the labors of others. Since then a very large body of literature published in Indian languages has been accumulated, and a great number of vocabularies have been gathered by the Bureau assistants and by collaborators in various parts of the country. The results of a study of all this material, and of much historical data, which necessarily enters largely into work of this character, appear in the accompanying map.

The contributions to the subject during the last fifty years have been so important, and the additions to the material accessible to the student of Gallatin’s time have been so large, that much of the reproach which deservedly attached to American scholars because of the neglect of American linguistics has been removed. The field is a vast one, however, and the workers are comparatively few. Moreover, opportunities for collecting linguistic material are growing fewer day by day, as tribes are consolidated upon reservations, as they become civilized, and as the older Indians, who alone are skilled in their language, die, leaving, it may be, only a few imperfect vocabularies as a basis for future study. History has bequeathed to us the names of many tribes, which became extinct in early colonial times, of whose language not a hint is left and whose linguistic relations must ever remain unknown.

It is vain to grieve over neglected opportunities unless their contemplation stimulates us to utilize those at hand. There are yet many gaps to be filled, even in so elementary a part of the study as the classification of the tribes by language. As to the detailed study of the different linguistic families, the mastery and analysis of the languages composing them, and their comparison with one another and with the languages of other families, only a beginning has been made.

After the above statement it is hardly necessary to add that the accompanying map does not purport to represent final results. On the contrary, it is to be regarded as tentative, setting forth in visible form the results of investigation up to the present time, as a guide and aid to future effort.

Each of the colors or patterns upon the map represents a distinct linguistic family, the total number of families contained in the whole area being fifty-eight. It is believed that the families of languages represented upon the map can not have sprung from a common source; they are as distinct from one another in their vocabularies and apparently in their origin as from the Aryan or the Scythian families. Unquestionably, future and more critical study will result in the fusion of some of these families. As the means for analysis and comparison accumulate, resemblances now hidden will be brought to light, and relationships hitherto unsuspected will be shown to exist. Such a result may be anticipated with the more certainty inasmuch as the present classification has been made upon a conservative plan. Where relationships between families are suspected, but can not be demonstrated by convincing evidence, it has been deemed wiser not to unite them, but to keep  them apart until more material shall have accumulated and proof of a more convincing character shall have been brought forward. While some of the families indicated on the map may in future be united to other families, and the number thus be reduced, there seems to be no ground for the belief that the total of the linguistic families of this country will be materially diminished, at least under the present methods of linguistic analysis, for there is little reason to doubt that, as the result of investigation in the field, there will be discovered tribes speaking languages not classifiable under any of the present families; thus the decrease in the total by reason of consolidation may be compensated by a corresponding increase through discovery. It may even be possible that some of the similarities used in combining languages into families may, on further study, prove to be adventitious, and the number may be increased thereby. To which side the numerical balance will fall remains for the future to decide.

As stated above, all the families occupy the same basis of dissimilarity from one another—i.e., none of them are related—and consequently no two of them are either more or less alike than any other two, except in so far as mere coincidences and borrowed material may be said to constitute likeness and relationship. Coincidences in the nature of superficial word resemblances are common in all languages of the world. No matter how widely separated geographically two families of languages may be, no matter how unlike their vocabularies, how distinct their origin, some words may always be found which appear upon superficial examination to indicate relationship. There is not a single Indian linguistic family, for instance, which does not contain words similar in sound, and more rarely similar in both sound and meaning, to words in English, Chinese, Hebrew, and other languages. Not only do such resemblances exist, but they have been discovered and pointed out, not as mere adventitious similarities, but as proof of genetic relationship. Borrowed linguistic material also appears in every family, tempting the unwary investigator into making false analogies and drawing erroneous conclusions. Neither coincidences nor borrowed material, however, can be properly regarded as evidence of cognation.

While occupying the same plane of genetic dissimilarity, the families are by no means alike as regards either the extent of territory occupied, the number of tribes grouped under them respectively, or the number of languages and dialects of which they are composed. Some of them cover wide areas, whose dimensions are stated in terms of latitude and longitude rather than by miles. Others occupy so little space that the colors representing them are hardly discernible upon the map. Some of them contain but a single tribe; others are represented by scores of tribes. In the case of a few, the term “family” is commensurate with language, since there is but one 28 language and no dialects. In the case of others, their tribes spoke several languages, so distinct from one another as to be for the most part mutually unintelligible, and the languages shade into many dialects more or less diverse.

The map, designed primarily for the use of students who are engaged in investigating the Indians of the United States, was at first limited to this area; subsequently its scope was extended to include the whole of North America north of Mexico. Such an extension of its plan was, indeed, almost necessary, since a number of important families, largely represented in the United States, are yet more largely represented in the territory to the north, and no adequate conception of the size and relative importance of such families as the Algonquian, Siouan, Salishan, Athapascan, and others can be had without including extralimital territory.

To the south, also, it happens that several linguistic stocks extend beyond the boundaries of the United States. Three families are, indeed, mainly extralimital in their position, viz: Yuman, the great body of the tribes of which family inhabited the peninsula of Lower California; Piman, which has only a small representation in southern Arizona; and the Coahuiltecan, which intrudes into southwestern Texas. The Athapascan family is represented in Arizona and New Mexico by the well known Apache and Navajo, the former of whom have gained a strong foothold in northern Mexico, while the Tañoan, a Pueblo family of the upper Rio Grande, has established a few pueblos lower down the river in Mexico. For the purpose of necessary comparison, therefore, the map is made to include all of North America north of Mexico, the entire peninsula of Lower California, and so much of Mexico as is necessary to show the range of families common to that country and to the United States. It is left to a future occasion to attempt to indicate the linguistic relations of Mexico and Central America, for which, it may be remarked in passing, much material has been accumulated.

It is apparent that a single map can not be made to show the locations of the several linguistic families at different epochs; nor can a single map be made to represent the migrations of the tribes composing the linguistic families. In order to make a clear presentation of the latter subject, it would be necessary to prepare a series of maps showing the areas successively occupied by the several tribes as they were disrupted and driven from section to section under the pressure of other tribes or the vastly more potent force of European encroachment. Although the data necessary for a complete representation of tribal migration, even for the period subsequent to the advent of the European, does not exist, still a very large body of material bearing upon the subject is at hand, and exceedingly valuable results in this direction could be presented did not the amount 29 of time and labor and the large expense attendant upon such a project forbid the attempt for the present.

The map undertakes to show the habitat of the linguistic families only, and this is for but a single period in their history, viz, at the time when the tribes composing them first became known to the European, or when they first appear on recorded history. As the dates when the different tribes became known vary, it follows as a matter of course that the periods represented by the colors in one portion of the map are not synchronous with those in other portions. Thus the data for the Columbia River tribes is derived chiefly from the account of the journey of Lewis and Clarke in 1803-’05, long before which period radical changes of location had taken place among the tribes of the eastern United States. Again, not only are the periods represented by the different sections of the map not synchronous, but only in the case of a few of the linguistic families, and these usually the smaller ones, is it possible to make the coloring synchronous for different sections of the same family. Thus our data for the location of some of the northern members of the Shoshonean family goes back to 1804, a date at which absolutely no knowledge had been gained of most of the southern members of the group, our first accounts of whom began about 1850. Again, our knowledge of the eastern Algonquian tribes dates back to about 1600, while no information was had concerning the Atsina, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, the westernmost members of the family, until two centuries later.

Notwithstanding these facts, an attempt to fix upon the areas formerly occupied by the several linguistic families, and of the pristine homes of many of the tribes composing them, is by no means hopeless. For instance, concerning the position of the western tribes during the period of early contact of our colonies and its agreement with their position later when they appear in history, it may be inferred that as a rule it was stationary, though positive evidence is lacking. When changes of tribal habitat actually took place they were rarely in the nature of extensive migration, by which a portion of a linguistic family was severed from the main body, but usually in the form of encroachment by a tribe or tribes upon neighboring territory, which resulted simply in the extension of the limits of one linguistic family at the expense of another, the defeated tribes being incorporated or confined within narrower limits. If the above inference be correct, the fact that different chronologic periods are represented upon the map is of comparatively little importance, since, if the Indian tribes were in the main sedentary, and not nomadic, the changes resulting in the course of one or two centuries would not make material differences. Exactly the opposite opinion, however, has been expressed by many writers, viz, that the North 30 American Indian tribes were nomadic. The picture presented by these writers is of a medley of ever-shifting tribes, to-day here, to-morrow there, occupying new territory and founding new homes—if nomads can be said to have homes—only to abandon them. Such a picture, however, is believed to convey an erroneous idea of the former condition of our Indian tribes. As the question has significance in the present connection it must be considered somewhat at length.

Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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