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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T21


Introduction International Journal of
American Linguistics 1

The International Journal of American Linguistics will be devoted
to the study of American aboriginal languages. It seems fitting to
state briefly a few of the problems that confront us in this field of

It is not necessary to set forth the fragmentary character of our knowledge
of the languages spoken by the American aborigines. This has been
well done for North America by Dr. Pliny Earle Goddard, 2 and it is not
saying too much if we claim that for most of the native languages of
Central and South America the field is practically terra incognita. We
have vocabularies; but, excepting the old missionary grammars, there is
very little systematic work. Even where we have grammars, we have no
bodies of aboriginal texts.

The methods of collection have been considerably improved of late
years, but nevertheless much remains to be done. While until about
1880 investigators confined themselves to the collection of vocabularies
and brief grammatical notes, it has become more and more evident that
large masses of texts are needed in order to elucidate the structure of the

The labors of Stephen R. Riggs, James Owen Dorsey, and Albert S.
Gatschet marked a new era in the development of linguistic work. Besides
these should be mentioned the “Library of Aboriginal Literature,”
edited and published by Daniel G. Brinton, which contains largely older
material of a similar character. During the following decades, texts
were published on a quite extended scale, but largely brought together
by the same methods. They were obtained by dictation from a few
informants, and taken down verbatim by the recorder. In later years
the example of James Owen Dorsey, who published texts written by
natives, has been adapted to the recording of aboriginal literature; and
quite a number of collections of folk lore have been published in Indian
199languages, the originals of which have been written by the natives themselves.

Marked differences in stylistic character exist between tales thus recorded
and those written by investigators who are not in perfect command
of the language, who often have to acquire it by means of the collected
text material. The slowness of dictation that is necessary for
recording texts makes it difficult for the narrator to employ that freedom
of diction that belongs to the well-told tale, and consequently an
unnatural simplicity of syntax prevails in most of the dictated texts.
When, on the other hand, a native has once acquired ease in the use of
the written language, the stylistic form becomes more natural, and
refinements of expression are found that are often lost in slow dictation.

Nevertheless the writing of single individuals cannot replace the dictated
record, because the individual characteristics of the writer become
too prominent, and may give a false impression in regard to syntactic
and stylistic traits; even the variability of grammatical form may be
obscured by the one-sidedness of such records. Whenever it is possible to
train several writers, many of these difficulties may be overcome. Where
a native alphabet exists, as among the Cherokee, Fox, and Cree, and
where for this reason many persons write with ease, a serviceable variety
of stylistic and syntactic expression may be secured. Excellent examples
of native texts recorded naively by natives are contained in the Eskimo
publications printed in Greenland, which are devoted both to topics of
daily interest and to ancient folk lore. Similar conditions prevail in the
Cherokee material collected by James Mooney, and in some of the daily
papers printed in aboriginal languages. Even when good written records
are available, control by means of the spoken language is necessary,
because the expression of the written language may differ considerably
from the spoken form.

Up to this time too little attention has been paid to the variety of expression
and to the careful preservation of diction. We have rather been
interested in the preservation of fundamental forms. Fortunately, many
of the recorded texts contain, at least to some extent, stereotyped conversation
and other formulas, as well as poetical parts, which give a certain
insight into stylistic peculiarities, although they can seldom be taken as
examples of the spoken language.

An added difficulty in the use of texts written by natives is that most
are written by Indians who have had a modern school education. It
may be observed in all parts of America that the native languages are
200being modified by the influence of European languages, not only in
vocabulary, but also in phonetics and grammar. The far-reaching influence
of these causes may be observed in a most striking manner in modern
Mexican and other Central American languages that have been
under Spanish influence for centuries, and which not only have lost
large parts of their vocabularies that have disappeared with the ancient
ideas, but which have also developed a new syntax, and, in part at least,
new morphological forms. Modifications of this type are common in
those regions where the intercourse between Indian and White is intimate,
and particularly where the children are segregated from the parents.
On the Pacific Coast, for instance, the articulation of the glottalized
consonant loses much of its strength, old words disappear, and new syntactical
forms develop. Even the old facility of composition of stems
tends to disappear. It is therefore necessary to obtain text material also
from the older generation, because it is required for the study of the
recent development of the languages.

On account of the difficulties and expense involved in the collection
of texts, collectors have not only hesitated to obtain similar material from
different individuals, but they have also confined themselves largely to
the collections of native traditions. In some cases, native poetry has
been included in the collections. Albert Gatschet recognized the need of
varied material and collected texts on diverse topics in his studies of the
Klamath, and J. Owen Dorsey published a collection of letters. The
contents of the Eskimo publications and the native newspapers previously
referred to also form a notable exception to this rule. Among
later collectors, Drs. Goddard and Sapir have given particular attention
to the collection of texts of varied contents. On the whole, however, the
available material gives a one-sided presentation of linguistic data, because
we have hardly any records of daily occurrences, everyday conversation,
descriptions of industries, customs, and the like. For these
reasons the vocabularies yielded by texts are one-sided and incomplete.

Notwithstanding the progress that during the last few decades has
been made in the character of the material recorded, both as regards the
accuracy of phonetic transcription and the character of the matter recorded,
there is ample room for improvements of method.

With the extent of our knowledge of native languages, the problems
of our inquiry have also assumed wider and greater interest. It is quite
natural that the first task of the investigator was the registering and the
rough classification of languages. It appeared very soon that languages
201are more or less closely related, and that comparison of brief vocabularies
was sufficient to bring out the most striking relationships. The
classification of North American languages, that we owe to Major J. W.
Powell, which will form the basis of all future work, was made by this
method. Further progress on these lines is beset with great difficulties
that are common to America and to those continents in which we cannot
trace the development of languages by means of historical documents.
The results of the historical and comparative studies of Indo-European
languages show very clearly that languages that have sprung from the
same source may become so distinct that, without documents illustrating
their historical development, relationships are difficult to discover;
so much so, that in some cases this task might even be impossible. We
are therefore permitted to assume that similar divergences have developed
in American languages, and that quite a number of languages that
appear distinct may in a remote period have had a common origin.

Here lies one of the most difficult problems of research, and one in
which the greatest critical caution is necessary, if we wish to avoid the
pitfalls that are besetting the path of scientific inquiry. The method of
investigation has to take into account possibilities of linguistic growth,
in regard to which generalized data are not available. Modern languages
have developed by differentiation. In so far as this is true, the establishment
of a genealogical series must be the aim of inquiry. On the
other hand, languages may influence one another to such an extent
that, beyond a certain point, the genealogical question has no meaning,
because it would lead back to several sources and to an arbitrary selection
of one or another as the single ancestral type. Our knowledge of
linguistic processes is sufficiently wide to show that lexicographic borrowing
may proceed to such an extent that the substance of a language
may be materially changed. As long, however, as the inner form remains
unchanged, our judgment is determined, not by the provenience of the
vocabulary, but by that of the form. In most Indian languages etymological
processes are so transparent that borrowing of whole words will
be easily detected; and, on the whole, the diffusion of words over diverse
groups does not present serious difficulties, provided the borrowed
material does not undergo radical phonetic changes.

The matter is different when we ask ourselves in how far phonetics
and morphological features may have been borrowed. In these cases
our experience does not permit us to give a definite answer. The system
of sounds of a language is certainly unstable; but in how far inner
202forces and in how far foreign influence mould its forms is a question
not always easy to answer. In America we can discern various areas
that have common phonetic characteristics; like the areas of prevalence
of nasalization of vowels, of glottalization, of superabundant development
of laterals, of absence of bi-labials or of labio-dental spirants, or
of trills. These areas do not coincide with any morphological groupings,
and are apparently geographically well defined. If we are dealing here
with phenomena of late assimilation, a disturbing element is introduced
that will make it more difficult to assign a language to a definite genealogical
line, much more so than is the case in the borrowing of words.
The conditions favoring such phonetic influence must have been much
more frequent in primitive America than they were in the later development
of European languages. The number of individuals speaking any
given American dialect is small. Many women of foreign parentage
lived in each tribe, and their speech influenced the pronunciation of
the young; so that phonetic changes may have come about easily.

Still more difficult is the problem presented by the distribution of
morphological traits. Even with our imperfect knowledge of American
languages, it may be recognized that certain morphological types have a
wide continuous distribution. This is true of morphological processes as
well as of particular psychological aspects of American languages. Thus
the incorporation of the nominal object, which in former times was
considered one of the most characteristic features of American languages,
is confined to certain areas, while it is foreign to others. The
tendency to qualify generalized verbal terms by means of elements
which express instrumentality is characteristic of some areas. The occurrence
of various specific elements that define locality of an action, as
affecting objects like “hand,” “house,” “water,” “fire,” or other special
nominal concepts, is characteristic of other regions. Classification of
actions or of nouns according to the form of the actor or of the object
also belong to several groups of languages. Nominal cases are present in
some languages, absent in others. In a similar way we find present in
some regions, absent in others, processes like that of reduplication or of
vocalic or consonantic modification of stems.

Attempts to classify languages from these distinct points of view do
not lead to very satisfactory results. Not only would the purely morphological
classifications be contradictory, but in many cases where a close
morphological agreement exists, it remains highly unsatisfactory to coordinate
vocabularies and the phonetic equivalents of similar morphological
203ideas. On the basis of Indo-European experience, we should be
inclined to seek for a common origin for all those languages that have
a far-reaching morphological similarity; but it must be acknowledged
that, when the results of classifications based on different linguistic
phenomena conflict, we must recognize the possibility of the occurrence
of morphological assimilation. The problem is analogous to that of the
relation between Finnish and Indo-European languages, which Sweet
assumed as established, while the observed relations may also be due to
other causes.

Owing to the fundamental importance of these questions for the solution
of the problem of the historical relationship between American
languages, it seems particularly important to attempt to carry through
these classifications without prejudging the question as to the genealogical
position of the various groups. It is quite inconceivable that similarities
such as exist between Quileute, Kwakiutl, and Salish, should
be due to a mere accident, or that the morphological similarities of
Californian languages, which Kroeber and Dixon have pointed out,
should not be due to a definite cause. The experience of Aryan studies
might induce us to agree that these must be members of single linguistic
stocks; but this assumption leaves fundamental differences unaccounted
for, and neglects the possibility of morphological assimilation, so that
at the present time the conclusion does not seem convincing. We ought
to inquire, first of all, into the possibility of mutual influences, which
will be revealed, in part at least, by lack of correspondence between
lexicographic, phonetic, and detailed morphological classifications.

We do not mean to say that the investigation may not satisfactorily
prove certain genealogical relationships; but what should be emphasized
is that, in the present state of our knowledge of primitive languages,
it is not safe to disregard the possibility of a complex origin of
linguistic groups, which would limit the applicability of the term “linguistic
family” in the sense in which we are accustomed to use it. It is
certainly desirable, and necessary, to investigate minutely and carefully
all suggestive analogies. The proof of genetic relationship, however, can
be considered as given, only when the number of unexplained distinct
elements is not over-large, and when the contradictory classifications,
to which reference has been made before, have been satisfactorily accounted

It is quite evident that, owing to the lack of knowledge of the historical
development of American languages, convincing proof of genealogical
204relationship may be impossible to obtain, even where such relation
exists; so that, from both a practical and a theoretical point of view,
the solution of the problems of genetic relationship presents a large number
of attractive problems.

Considering the complexity of this question, and the doubts that we
entertain in regard to some of the principles to be followed in our inquiry,
it seems probable that a safer basis will be reached by following
out dialectic studies. Very little work of this kind has been done on our
continent. James Owen Dorsey was able to point out a few phenomena
pertaining to the interrelation of Siouan dialects. Similar points have
been made in regard to the Salish languages and in a few other cases,
but no penetrating systematic attempt has been made to clear up the
processes of differentiation by which modern American dialects have
developed. It is fortunate for the prosecution of this study that quite a
number of linguistic families in America are broken up into numerous
strongly divergent dialects, the study of which will help us the more in
the investigation of the relations between distinct languages, the more
markedly they are differentiated. Siouan, Algonquian, Muskhogean,
Salishan, Shoshonean, Wakashan, Caddoan, are languages of this type.
They present examples of divergence of phonetic character, of differences
in structure and vocabulary, that will bring us face to face with
the problem of the origin of these divergent elements.

The more detailed study of American languages promises rich returns
in the fields of the mechanical processes of linguistic development and of
the psychological problems presented by languages of different types.
In many American languages the etymological processes are so transparent
that the mechanism of phonetic adaptation stands out with
great clearness. Contact-phenomena, and types of sound-harmony that
affect more remote parts of words, occur with great frequency. Phonetic
shifts between related dialects are easily observed, so that we can accumulate
a large mass of material which will help to solve the question
in how far certain phonetic processes may be of more or less universal

Remotely related to this problem is the question that was touched
upon by Gatschet, in how far the frequent occurrence of similar sounds
for expressing related ideas (like the personal pronouns) may be due to
obscure psychological causes rather than to genetic relationship. Undoubtedly,
many hitherto unexpected types of processes will reveal themselves
in the pursuit of these studies.205

The variety of American languages is so great that they will be of
high value for the solution of many fundamental psychological problems.

The unconsciously formed categories found in human speech have
not been sufficiently exploited for the investigation of the categories
into which the whole range of human experience is forced. Here, again,
the clearness of etymological processes in many American languages is
a great help to our investigation.

The isolation of formal elements and of stems, or of co-ordinate stems
— whichever the case may be — is easily performed, and the meaning of
every part of an expression is determined much more readily than in the
innumerable fossilized forms of Indo-European languages.

Lexicographic differentiation corresponds to the morphological differentiation
of languages. Where ideas are expressed by means of separate
stems or by subordinate elements, generalized stems will be found
that express a certain action regardless of the instrument with which it
has been performed; while, in languages that are not provided with
these formal elements, a number of separate words will take the place of
the modified general stem. In languages that possess a full equipment
of adverbial and locative formative elements, generalized words of motion
may be qualified by their use; while, wherever these elements are
absent, new stems must take their place. The same is true of grammatical
elements that designate form or substance. Where these occur, the
languages may lack words expressing predicative ideas relating to objects
of different form and consisting of different substances (like our words
“to lie,” “to sit,” “to stand,” “to tear,” “to break”).

A lexicographic analysis based on these principles of classification
promises important results, but requires a much more accurate knowledge
of the meaning of stems than is available in most cases.

No less interesting are the categories of thought that find expression
in grammatical form. The older grammars, although many of them
contain excellent material, do not clearly present these points of difference,
because they are modelled strictly on the Latin scheme, which
obscures the characteristic psychological categories of Indian languages.
Thus the idea of plurality is not often developed in the same sense as in
Latin, but expresses rather the idea of distribution or of collectivity.
The category of gender is rare, and nominal cases are not common. In
the pronoun we find often a much more rigid adherence to the series of
three persons than the one that we apply, in so far as the distinction
206is carried through in the pronominal plural and in the demonstrative.
Furthermore, new ideas — such as visibility, or position in regard to the
speaker in the six principal directions (up, down, right, left, front,
back), or tense — are added to the concept of the demonstrative pronouns.
In the numeral the varied bases of numeral systems find expression.
In the verb the category of tense may be almost suppressed or may
be exuberantly developed. Modes may include many ideas that we
express by means of adverbs, or they may be absent. The distinction
between verb and noun may be different from ours. In short, an enormous
variety of forms illustrates the multifarious ways in which language
seizes upon one or another feature as an essential of expression
of thought.

Besides the greater or lesser development of categories that are parallel
to our own, many new ones appear. The groups of ideas selected for
expression by formative elements are quite distinctive, and they belong
to the most important features in the characterization of each language.
In some cases they are poorly developed, but most American languages
possess an astonishing number of formative elements of this type.

In some cases their number is so great that the very idea of subordination
of one element of a word under another one loses its significance
; and we are in doubt whether we shall designate one group as
subordinate elements, or whether we shall speak of the composition of
co-ordinate elements. While in some languages, as in Algonquian or
Kutenai, this may be a matter of arbitrary definition, it involves a problem
of great theoretical interest; namely, the question whether formative
elements have developed from independent words, as has been
proved to be the case with many formal suffixes of European languages.

The objectivating tendency of our mind makes the thought congenial,
that part of a word the significance of which we can determine by analysis
must also have objectively an independent existence; but there is
certainly no a priori reason that compels us to make this assumption. It
must be proved to be true by empirical evidence. Although the history
of American languages is not known, and therefore cannot furnish any
direct evidence for or against this theory, the study of the etymological
processes will throw light upon this problem, because in many cases the
very phonetic weakness of the constituent elements, their internal
changes, and the transparency of the method of composition, make it
clear that we. are performing here an analytical process that does not
207need to have as its counterpart the synthesis of independent elements.
The same question may also be raised in regard to phonetic modifications
of the stem, which may be secondary, and due to the influence of
changing accents in composition or to vanished component elements,
while they may also be primary phenomena.

This problem is in a way identical with the whole question of the
relation between word and sentence. Here also American languages
may furnish us with much important material that emphasizes the view
that the unit of human speech as we know it is the sentence, not the

The problems treated in a linguistic journal must include also the
literary forms of native production. Indian oratory has long been
famous, but the number of recorded speeches from which we can judge
their oratorical devices is exceedingly small. There is no doubt whatever
that definite stylistic forms exist that are utilized to impress the hearer;
but we do not know what they are. As yet, nobody has attempted a
careful analysis of the style of narrative art as practiced by the various
tribes. The crudeness of most records presents a serious obstacle for this
study, which, however, should be taken up seriously. We can study the
general structure of the narrative, the style of composition, of motives,
their character and sequence; but the formal stylistic devices for obtaining
effects are not so easily determined.

Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory character of the available material,
we do find cases in which we may at least obtain a glimpse of the
intent of the narrator. In many cases metaphorical expressions occur
that indicate a vigorous imagination. Not much material of this character
is available, but what little we have demonstrates that the type of
metaphor used in different parts of the continent shows characteristic
differences. It would be interesting to know in how far these expressions
have become purely formal without actual meaning, and in how far
they reflect an active imagination.

Evidence is not missing which shows that the sentence is built up with
a view of stressing certain ideas or words by means of position, repetition,
or other devices for securing emphasis. There are curious differences
in the tendency to fill the discourse with brief allusions to current
ideas difficult to understand for anyone who is not versed in the whole
culture of the people, and the enjoyment of diffuse, detailed description.
Collectors of texts are fully aware that in the art of narrative there are
artists and bunglers in every primitive tribe, as well as among ourselves.
208At present there is hardly any material available that will allow us to
characterize the tribal characteristics of the art of narrative.

The most promising material for the study of certain aspects-of artistic
expression are the. formal elements that appear with great frequency in
the tales of all tribes. Most of these are stereotyped to such an extent
that little individual variation is- found. Even in poorly recorded tales,
written down in translation only, and obtained with the help of inadequate
interpreters, the sameness of stereotyped formulas may sometimes
be recognized. Conversation in animal tales and in other types of narrative,
prayers and incantations, are probably the most important material
of this character.

Attention should also be paid to the existing forms of literature. The
narrative is of universal occurrence, but other forms show a much more
irregular distribution. The psychological basis of the trivial American
anecdote is not easily understood. The connotation of meaningless
syllables that occur in songs, the frequent use of distorted words in
poetry, and the fondness for a secret language, including obsolete, symbolic,
or arbitrary terms, deserve the most careful attention. Here belong
also the peculiar modes of speech of various personages, that are re
corded in many tales, and which Dr. Sapir has found so fully developed
among the Nootka, and Dr. Frachtenberg among the Quileute. The
fixity of form of the recitative used by certain animals, to which Dr.
Sapir has called attention in his studies of the Paiute, also suggests an
interesting line of inquiry.

Equally important is the absence of certain literary forms with which
we are familiar. The great dearth of proverbs, of popular snatches, and
of riddles, among American aborigines, in contrast to their strong development
in Africa and other parts of the Old World, requires attentive
study. The general lack of epic poetry, the germs of which are
found in a very few regions only, is another feature that promises to
clear up certain problems of the early development of literary art. We
are able to observe lyric poetry in its simplest forms among all tribes.
Indeed, we may say that, even where the slightest vestiges of epic poetry
are missing, lyric poetry of one form or another is always present. It
may consist of the musical use of meaningless syllables that sustain the
song; or it may consist largely of such syllables, with a few interspersed
words suggesting certain ideas and certain feelings; or it may rise to the
expression of emotions connected with warlike deeds, with religious
feeling, love, or even to the praise of the beauties of nature. The records
209which have been accumulated during the last few years, particularly by
students of primitive music, contain a mass of material that can be utilized
from this point of view.

Undoubtedly the problems of native poetry have to be taken up in
connection with the study of native music, because there is practically
no poetry that is not at the same time song. The literary aspects of this
subject, however, fall entirely within the scope of a linguistic journal.

Let us hope that the new journal may be able to contribute its share
to the solution of all these problems!210

1 International Journal of American Linguistics, vol. 1 (1917),p. 1.

2 Anthropology in North America (New York, 1915), pp. 182 et seq.