Language Isolates Part IV (North America)

North America: the gateway to the New World (assuming colonisation through the Behring strait) and, as such, a land of enormous linguistic diversity. If we take seriously (which we should not) Greenberg’s classification, North America was home to two of the three macro-families of the Americas: Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené. Both of these have proposed links with the Old World, under some versions of the Nostratic (or ‘Eurasian’) hypothesis and according to the Dené-Yeniseian (or even broader ‘Dené-Caucasian’) theory. Language distribution in North America has some features that distinguish it from South America. First, like Eurasia, some language families are very widespread, covering enormous continuous territories (even the largest families fo South America, like Tupi and Arawak, tend to have discontinuous, ‘dendritic’ distributions, e.g. along major rivers). The  Na-Dené and Algic families occupy particularly large areas, and this is partly due to a simple matter of geography: a large landmass of North America lies in cold, high latitudes, where populations tend to be smaller and more widespread – and, with them, their languages. In contrast, only a narrow strip of land in the Southern Cone lies in high latitudes, most of the continent being in the tropics – where mosaics of small language families seem to be the rule.

Major language families and language isolates from North America

I need to mention that this will be a quick post, just pointing out some major trends in North America, as I will soon move, in a next post, to a discussion about Greenberg’s Amerind proposal. First, it is obvious from the map above that a smaller number of families accounts for most of the continent than in the case of South America, even though North America occupies a larger area. Thus, the linguistic situation is a bit more similar to Eurasiama non troppo. Although, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, a simple matter of population density could explain the distribution of some families, the extremely diffused ones in Eurasia like Indo-European have hardly anything to do with that, and historical factors should come into play. Another important thing are the disparities in language diversity: the southwestern coast of North America has a disproportionate number of isolates and small language families (numbers 3 to 6 on the map). We noticed something similar in South America, with an equally astonishing diversity in the western flanks of the Amazon basin.

Before examining those patterns, let’s do the basic exercise of comparing the major language families of the continent:

Seven words in North American languages

Compared basic vocabulary in the major language families of North America. The selected seven words are the same as for the South American example, and are pretty stable in the languages of that continent. Notation is, again, a relaxed form of the IPA with y instead of j as is usual in the Americas. There might be some affixes that I failed to analyse: e.g. Pawnee nouns all end with an -uʔ, whereas many Cherokee body parts start with a ga-.

It seems to me that the broad similarities noticed among the South American families cannot be found here, even with wishful thinking (except perhaps for ‘water’). The supposed uniqueness of Eskimo and Na-Dene in the Amerind context is also not justified, at least in terms of vocabulary (they are as different as any two other families are from each other). However, the evidence of widespread areal features, as noticed in South America, also holds true for North America. For example, consonant inventories tend to be very complex in the western coast (see the Sliammon word list above and the Shuswap examples below) compared to eastern families like Iroquoian or Caddoan. Curiously, the South American ‘Andean-Patagonian’ group that I tentatively identified in a previous post, also concentrated on the western part of the continent, has larger consonant inventories than the typical ‘Amazonian’ (eastern) languages. Even more surprising is the distribution of suffixes vs. prefixes in North America:


We can see that, in verb morphology, languages of the southwestern coast (Shuswap, Siuslaw [an isolate!]) tend to cross-reference the arguments with suffixes, whereas the others tend to rely on prefixes. It must be said, of course, that exceptions exist. Actually, many ‘eastern’ languages make use of both prefixes and suffixes – such is the case with Cree, or with Lakhota. Languages like Shuswap actually use prefixes for marking the possessive pronouns. Thus, the picture is a bit mixed, but I believe that two groups can still be clearly discerned. Eskimo-Aleut, evidently, is an outlier: it is separated from the southwestern coast by Na-Dené, which is heavily prefixing. Perhaps the proximity of Eskimo-Aleut to Eurasia accounts for that. Another lesson that can be derived from this example is that isolates, as in South America, tend to acquire areal features from their neighbours (see Siuslaw above).

The fact that the same east-west division in phonological and morphological features exists in North and South America is, in itself, extremely puzzling. That might be explained by geography alone: I have been mentioning a few studies that link language and climate, for example suggesting a connection between the warm, humid climate of the tropics and the emergence of tones, or proposing a relationship between dry, cold regions and large consonantal inventories. Whether we believe them or not, it must be pointed out that the western part of both North and South America has a similar mountainous, dry landscape in comparison to their eastern forested lowlands.

Clovis points were widespread in North America around 13,000 years ago.

However, as you might have guessed by now, I prefer a historical explanation – either common genetic inheritance or diffusion in linguistic areas – and will propose an archaeological correlate for the west-east division. I have previously mentioned that there is genetic evidence for a colonisation of the Americas using a western, Pacific route. If the western coast of North America has a greater antiquity of occupation, that might explain the huge linguistic diversity of this region (including the cluster of isolates in the map at the beginning of this post). Furthermore, this western region seems to have been left out of the Clovis horizon ca. 13,000 years before present. This truly continental horizon (for which we have no parallel in South America) was once thought to represent the first settlers of the New World, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that people were here long before. Whether we see Clovis as the expansion of new people or just the diffusion of new technology, the fact is that it represents interactions at a continental scale – but, as one can see in the maps of the Paleoindian Database, it’s a phenomenon most frequent in the eastern half of North America. Could that be a correlate for the eastern linguistic area vs. the Pacific one?

The cultural and linguistic ‘hot spots’ of North America

When we examined the distribution of isolates in South America, an interesting pattern emerged that is repeated in North America. First, clusters of isolates appear in areas that appear to be of very ancient colonisation. This is precisely the case with the western coast if we assume a colonisation along the Pacific. This region is not only full of isolates, it also includes several very small language families. In fact, some widespread families like Algic actually have a western origin.

Pueblo Bonito, one of the major archaeological sites that flourished in Chaco Canyon after AD 900.

Second, it is clear that most isolates in the map at the beginning of this post resemble the Eurasian distribution, having been ‘pushed’ to the edges of the continent by later language spreads. However, the location of some isolates also coincides with cultural ‘hot spots’, as was the case in South America. One of them is the Southwest, where we find the isolate Zuni, together with representatives of many families (Uto-Aztec, Keresan, Kiowa-Tanoan, Na-Dené). Archaeologists are increasingly recognising the importance of such multi-ethnic formations and migrations for the prehistoric Pueblo groups that settled in the region around a thousand years ago. These groups are known for their constructions of massive settlements with small squarish rooms and large circular sunken courts (kivas) for ritual (see the Google Earth image of Pueblo Bonito above). Perhaps the existence of Zuni is just a remnant of such great linguistic diversity in the past, precisely at this cultural ‘hot spot’ in North America. Let’s have a look at Zuni in comparison with one of its neighbours, Hopi (Uto-Aztec):


The Southwest is a language area with several diffused features (e.g. phonology). We can see from the examples above that both Zuni and Hopi are nominative-accusative languages: compare the 1st person pronoun hoʔ / niʔ (nominative) and hom / niy (accusative). The nominative form is used for the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs. There is little marking of arguments in the verb through affixes, with Zuni exhibiting an interesting feature: it only specifies whether the subject and object are singular or plural (e.g. ʔi- and -nap for plural object and subject, respectively). Thus, once again we see that in the Americas it is common for isolates to absorb features form the linguistic areas in which they are situated.

Moundville, Alabama, one of the major Mississippian centres in the South.

Another area of interest is the Deep South, where a surprisingly large number of isolates can be found, from Natchez in the Mississippi area to Timucua in Florida. This is also a ‘busy’ region in archaeological terms. The most recent prehistoric developments in the area relate to the Mississippian horizon, with its square mound and plaza centres – of which Cahokia is the largest example. The Mississippian culture extended around a thousand years ago through an enormous territory, over 1,500 km North-South. Although it could have been associated with the diffusion of a single language, the sheer linguistic diversity of the region today means that it probably was not. In fact, the Mississippian is only the latest development in a long trajectory of cultures devoted to building earthen monuments in Southeastern United States: this uninterrupted trajectory goes back to over 3,000 years before present with Poverty Point and other monuments of Louisiana during the late Archaic period. In summary, linguistic diversity in North America, which can be mapped by the concentration of isolates and small families, coincides with 1) areas of potential early colonisation, and 2) ‘hot spots’ of cultural diversity, thus confirming the pattern that we noticed in South America.

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