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Nomenclature of Linguistic Families

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The languages spoken by the pre-Columbian tribes of North America were many and diverse. Into the regions occupied by these tribes travelers, traders, and missionaries have penetrated in advance of civilization, and civilization itself has marched across the continent at a rapid rate. Under these conditions the languages of the various tribes have received much study. Many extensive works have been published, embracing grammars and dictionaries; but a far greater number of minor vocabularies have been collected and very many have been published. In addition to these, the Bible, in whole or in part, and various religious books and school books, have been translated into Indian tongues to be used for purposes of instruction; and newspapers have been published in the Indian languages. Altogether the literature of these languages and that relating to them are of vast extent.

While the materials seem thus to be abundant, the student of Indian languages finds the subject to be one requiring most thoughtful consideration, difficulties arising from the following conditions:

1 A great number of linguistic stocks or families are discovered.

2 The boundaries between the different stocks of languages are not immediately apparent, from the fact that many tribes of diverse stocks have had more or less association, and to some extent linguistic materials have been borrowed, and thus have passed out of the exclusive possession of cognate peoples.

3 Where many peoples, each few in number, are thrown together, an intertribal language is developed. To a large extent this is gesture speech; but to a limited extent useful and important words are adopted by various tribes, and out of this material an intertribal “jargon” is established. Travelers and all others who do not thoroughly study a language are far more likely to acquire this jargon speech than the real speech of the people; and the tendency to base relationship upon such jargons has led to confusion.

4 This tendency to the establishment of intertribal jargons was greatly accelerated on the advent of the white man, for thereby many tribes were pushed from their ancestral homes and tribes were mixed with tribes. As a result, new relations and new industries, especially of trade, were established, and the new associations of tribe with tribe and of the Indians with Europeans led very often to the development of quite elaborate jargon languages. All of these have a tendency to complicate the study of the Indian tongues by comparative methods.

The difficulties inherent in the study of languages, together with the imperfect material and the complicating conditions that have arisen by the spread of civilization over the country, combine to make the problem one not readily solved.

In view of the amount of material on hand, the comparative study of the languages of North America has been strangely neglected, though perhaps this is explained by reason of the difficulties which have been pointed out. And the attempts which have been made to classify them has given rise to much confusion, for the following reasons: First, later authors have not properly recognized the work of earlier laborers in the field. Second, the attempt has more frequently been made to establish an ethnic classification than a linguistic classification, and linguistic characteristics have been confused with biotic peculiarities, arts, habits, customs, and other human activities, so that radical differences of language have often been ignored and slight differences have been held to be of primary value.

The attempts at a classification of these languages and a corresponding classification of races have led to the development of a complex, mixed, and inconsistent synonymy, which must first be unraveled and a selection of standard names made there from according to fixed principles.

It is manifest that until proper rules are recognized by scholars the establishment of a determinate nomenclature is impossible. It will therefore be well to set forth the rules that have here been adopted, together with brief reasons for the same, with the hope that they will commend themselves to the judgment of other persons engaged in researches relating to the languages of North America.

A fixed nomenclature in biology has been found not only to be advantageous, but to be a prerequisite to progress in research, as the vast multiplicity of facts, still ever accumulating, would otherwise overwhelm the scholar. In philological classification fixity of nomenclature is of corresponding importance; and while the analogies between linguistic and biotic classification are quite limited, many of the principles of nomenclature which biologists have adopted having no application in philology, still in some important particulars the requirements of all scientific classifications are alike, and though many of the nomenclatural points met with in biology will not occur in philology, some of them do occur and may be governed by the same rules.

Perhaps an ideal nomenclature in biology may some time be established, as attempts have been made to establish such a system in chemistry; and possibly such an ideal system may eventually be established in philology. Be that as it may, the time has not yet come even for its suggestion. What is now needed is a rule of some kind leading scholars to use the same terms for the same things, and it would seem to matter little in the case of linguistic stocks what the nomenclature is, provided it becomes denotive and universal.

In treating of the languages of North America it has been suggested that the names adopted should be the names by which the people recognize themselves, but this is a rule of impossible application, for where the branches of a stock diverge very greatly no common name for the people can be found. Again, it has been suggested that names which are to go permanently into science should be simple and euphonic. This also is impossible of application, for simplicity and euphony are largely questions of personal taste, and he who has studied many languages loses speedily his idiosyncrasies of likes and dislikes and learns that words foreign to his vocabulary are not necessarily barbaric.

Biologists have decided that he who first distinctly characterizes and names a species or other group shall thereby cause the name thus used to become permanently affixed, but under certain conditions adapted to a growing science which is continually revising its classifications. This law of priority may well be adopted by philologists.

By the application of the law of priority it will occasionally happen that a name must be taken which is not wholly unobjectionable or which could be much improved. But if names may be modified for any reason, the extent of change that may be wrought in this manner is unlimited, and such modifications would ultimately become equivalent to the introduction of new names, and a fixed nomenclature would thereby be overthrown. The rule of priority has therefore been adopted.

Permanent biologic nomenclature dates from the time of Linnæus simply because this great naturalist established the binominal system and placed scientific classification upon a sound and enduring basis. As Linnaeus is to be regarded as the founder of biologic classification, so Gallatin may be considered the founder of systematic philology relating to the North American Indians. Before his time much linguistic work had been accomplished, and scholars owe a lasting debt of gratitude to Barton, Adelung, Pickering, and others. But Gallatin’s work marks an era in American linguistic science from the fact that he so thoroughly introduced comparative methods, and because he circumscribed the boundaries of many 10 families, so that a large part of his work remains and is still to be considered sound. There is no safe resting place anterior to Gallatin, because no scholar prior to his time had properly adopted comparative methods of research, and because no scholar was privileged to work with so large a body of material. It must further be said of Gallatin that he had a very clear conception of the task he was performing, and brought to it both learning and wisdom. Gallatin’s work has therefore been taken as the starting point, back of which we may not go in the historic consideration of the systematic philology of North America. The point of departure therefore is the year 1836, when Gallatin’s “Synopsis of Indian Tribes” appeared in vol. 2 of the Transactions of the American Antiquarian Society.

It is believed that a name should be simply a denotive word, and that no advantage can accrue from a descriptive or connotive title. It is therefore desirable to have the names as simple as possible, consistent with other and more important considerations. For this reason it has been found impracticable to recognize as family names designations based on several distinct terms, such as descriptive phrases, and words compounded from two or more geographic names. Such phrases and compound words have been rejected.


Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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