CTLF Corpus de textes linguistiques fondamentaux • IMPRIMER • RETOUR ÉCRAN
CTLF - Menu général - Textes

Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T22


The Classification of American
Languages 1

Ever since Major Powell completed his classification of American
languages, which was published in the seventh volume of the Annual
Reports of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology, and a revised
edition of which is contained in the first volume of the Handbook of
North American Indians, students of American languages have paid
more attention to a better understanding and a more thorough knowledge
of the single languages than to classification. Much of the material
on which Major Powell's work is based is exceedingly scanty, and it
is obvious that more accurate studies will show relationships between
linguistic stocks which at the time could not be safely inferred. The
classification is largely based on vocabularies. Many of these were contained
in old literature and are very inadequate. Others were hastily
collected in accordance with the exigencies of the situation and neither
Major Powell nor any of his collaborators, like Albert S. Gatschet and
James Owen Dorsey, would have claimed that their classification and
the map of distribution of languages could be considered as final.

Of late years, largely through the influence of Dr. Edward Sapir, the
attempts have been revived to compare, on the basis of vocabularies,
languages which apparently are very distinct, and Drs. Sapir, Kroeber,
Dixon, and particularly Radin, have attempted to prove far-reaching

Since for many years I have taken the position that comparison between
American languages should proceed from the study of fairly
closely related dialects towards the study of more diverse forms, it seems
desirable to state briefly the theoretical points of view upon which my
own attitude has been and is still based. As early as 1893 I pointed out
that the study of the grammar of American languages has demonstrated
the occurrence of a number of striking morphological similarities between
211neighboring stocks which, however, are not accompanied by
appreciable similarities in vocabulary. At that time I was inclined to
consider these similarities as a proof of relationship of the same order
as that of languages belonging, for instance, to the Indo-European
family. While further studies, particularly in California, have shown
that we may generalize the observations which I made based on the
languages of the North Pacific Coast, I doubt whether the interpretation
given at that time is tenable.

When we consider the history of human languages as it is revealed
by their present distribution and by what little we know about their
history during the last few thousand years, it appears fairly clearly that
the present wide distribution of a few linguistic stocks is a late phenomenon,
and that in earlier times the area occupied by each linguistic
family was small. It seems reasonable to suppose that the number of
languages that have disappeared is very large. Taking our American
conditions as an example, we may observe at the present time that many
languages are spoken by small communities, and while there is no proof
of the recent development of any new very divergent language, there are
numerous proofs showing the extinction of some languages and the
gradual extension of others. As the area occupied by the Indo-European
family has gradually extended and as foreign languages have
become extinct owing to its expansion, so we find that Chinese has gradually
expanded its area. In Siberia, Turkish and other native languages
have superseded the ancient local languages. In Africa the large expansion
of Bantu is rather recent. Arabic is superseding the native speech
in North Africa. In America the expansion of Algonquian speech has
been continuing during the historic period, and several of the isolated
languages of the Southeast have been superseded by Creek and related
languages. I have discussed this question in another place and have
explained my view that probably at a very early time the diversity of
languages among people of the same physical type was much greater
than it is now. I do not mean to imply by this that all the languages
must have developed entirely independently, but rather that, if there
was an ancient common source of several modern languages, they have
become so much differentiated that without historical knowledge of
their growth, the attempts to prove their interrelation cannot succeed.

It should be borne in mind that the problem of the study of languages
is not one of classification but that our task is to trace the history of the
development of human speech. Therefore, classification is only a means
212to an end. Our aim is to unravel the history of the growth of human
language, and, if possible, to discover its underlying psychological and
physiological causes. From this point of view the linguistic phenomena
cannot be treated as a unit, but the manifestations of linguistic activity
must be studied first each by itself, then in their relations to other linguistic

The three fundamental aspects of human speech are phonetics, grammar,
and vocabulary. When we turn to their consideration separately,
we find, at least in America, a curious condition. The study of phonetics
indicates that certain features have a limited and well-defined distribution
which, on the whole, is continuous. To give an example: the
extraordinary development of the series of k sounds and of laterals (l
sounds) is common to the most diverse languages of the North Pacific
Coast, while in California and east of the Rocky Mountains this characteristic
feature disappears. In a similar way nasalization of vowels is
absent in the northwest part of America, but it is very strongly developed
on the central and eastern plains. The labialization of k sounds following
an o or u is widely spread in the extreme Northwest, and infrequent
outside of that territory. The study of the phonetics of America is not
sufficiently developed to describe in detail areas of distribution of characteristic
sounds or sound groups, but it may safely be stated from what
we know that similar phonetic traits often belong to languages which
are morphologically entirely distinct; and that on the other hand, very
great phonetic differences develop in the same linguistic stock.

The study of the morphology of American languages illustrates also
definite areas of characterization. It is, for instance, most striking that
reduplication as a morphological process occurs extensively on the Great
Plains and in the Eastern Woodlands, as well as in that part of the
Pacific Coast south of the boundary between British Columbia and
Alaska. Among the great families of the north it is entirely unknown.
Incorporation, which in earlier times was considered as one of the most
characteristic traits of American languages, is also confined to certain
definite groups. It is characteristically developed in the Shoshonean
group, Pawnee, Kutenai, and Iroquois, while north of this region it is
either absent in its characteristic form, or only weakly developed. The
use of instrumentals, which indicate the; manner of action as performed
with parts of the body, or by other instruments, shows also on the whole
a continuous distribution. It is a fundamental trait of Kutenai, Shoshonean,
and Sioux, and in all of them it is expressed in a similar manner.
213The use of true cases and of locative and similar noun forms occur
among the Shoshonean and some of their neighbors, while in other regions
it is rather rare. Of even greater importance is the differentiation
between nominal and verbal concepts, and between neutral and active
verbs, the distribution of which is somewhat irregular.

Although our knowledge of these phenomena is not by any means
adequate, it appears fairly clearly that, when the various features are
studied in detail, the areas of their distribution do not coincide.

The study of the vocabulary presents similar conditions. It would
seem that the number of loan words in American languages is not as
great as in European languages. At least, it is difficult to recognize loan
words in large numbers. It is, however, striking that the word categories
which appear in neighboring languages are sometimes quite similar.
This appears, for instance, in the case of terms of relationship. The
remarkable extent to which the use of reciprocal terms of relationship
is found on the western plateaus is a characteristic example. It is intelligible
that nomenclature and cultural states are closely related, and,
therefore, it seems plausible that similarities in underlying categories of
vocabularies will occur where cultural conditions are the same or nearly
the same.

This remark has no direct bearing upon the stems that underlie word
formation. To a certain extent they are dependent upon morphological
characteristics, at least in so far that nonexistent grammatical categories
must be supplied in other ways. When, for instance, some languages,
like the Eskimo, lack those adverbial elements which correspond to our
prepositions (in, out of, up, down, etc.), these must be supplied by special
verbs which do not need to exist in languages that abound in locative
verbal elements. On the whole, a certain correlation may be
observed between the lexicographical and morphological aspects of a
language. The more frequently “material” concepts (in Steinthal's
sense) are expressed by morphological devices, the more generalized are,
on the whole, the word stems, and words are generally formed by limitation
of these stems. When we find similar structure, we find, therefore,
also a tendency towards the development of similar categories of stems.
There are, however, others that are not so determined. It is, for instance,
characteristic of many American languages that verbal ideas are expressed
by different stems according to the form of the object in regard
to which the verb predicates. This feature occurs particularly in verbs
of existence and of motion, so that existence or motion of round, long,
214flat, etc., objects, are differentiated. This feature is prominent, among
others, in Athapascan, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Sioux.

While I am not inclined to state categorically that the areas of distribution
of phonetic phenomena, of morphological characteristics, and
of groups based on similarities in vocabularies are absolutely distinct, I
believe this question must be answered empirically before we can undertake
to solve the general problem of the history of modern American
languages. If it should prove true, as I believe it will, that all these
different areas do not coincide, then the conclusion seems inevitable
that the different languages must have exerted a far-reaching influence
upon one another. If this point of view is correct, then we have to ask
ourselves in how far the phenomena of acculturation extend also over
the domain of languages.

Considering the conditions of life in primitive society, it is intelligible
how the phonetics of one language may influence those of another one.
Many of the American tribes are very small, and intertribal marriages
are, comparatively speaking, frequent, either owing to peaceful intercourse,
or to the abduction and enslavement of women after warlike
raids. There must always have been a considerable number of alien
women in each tribe who acquired the foreign language late in life and
who, therefore, transmitted the foreign pronunciation to their children.
It is true that we cannot give definite observations which prove the
occurrence of this phenomenon, but it can hardly be doubted that these
processes were operative in all those cases where the number of alien
women was considerable in proportion to the number of native women.
The objective study of languages also shows that phonetic influences
do spread from one people to another. The most characteristic example
probably is that of the southern Bantu who have adopted the clicks of
the Bushmen and Hottentots, notwithstanding the hostility that prevails
between these groups.

It is not so easy to understand the development of similar categories
of words in neighboring languages. It is undoubtedly true that forms
of social and political organization, as well as religious life, have become
alike among neighboring tribes owing to a process of acculturation. The
similarity in forms of life creates the necessity of developing terms expressing
these forms, and will thus bring about indirectly similarity in
those ideas that are expressed by words. When we apply this- assumption
to such concepts as terms of relationship, in which we remain in doubt
as to whether the term creates the feeling accompanying the subsummation
215of an individual under a category, or whether the feeling creates
the term, it seems difficult to understand the psychological process that
led to the similarity of classification, although the facts of distribution
make it perfectly clear that the similarities are due to diffusion. This
difficulty is still greater when we deal with the fundamental concepts
contained in the ancient stems that underlie the modern words. How,
for instance, should the habit of mind to classify all motion according
to form spread from one language to another?

Equally difficult to understand is the spread of morphological traits
from one language to another. Nevertheless, I am very much inclined to
believe that such transfers do occur, and I even consider it possible
that they may modify fundamental structural characteristics. An example
of this kind is the intrusion of nominal cases into the upper
Chinook dialects, presumably due to Sahaptin influence. I believe that
the peculiar development of the second third person in Kutenai, which
is so characteristic of Algonquian, is also due to a contact phenomenon,
because we find hardly anywhere else a similar development of this
tendency. Still another case of peculiar parallelism is found among the
Eskimo and Chukchee. Notwithstanding the fundamental differences
between the two languages, the modern development of the verb with
its numerous semi-participial forms, shows a peculiar parallelism. The
traits in question are entirely absent in neighboring languages, and for
this reason it is difficult to abstain from the conclusion that these similarities
must be due to historical reasons.

The distribution of these phenomena the world over is so irregular
that it would be entirely unwarranted to claim that all similarities of
phonetics, classification of concepts, or of morphology, must be due to
borrowing. On the contrary, their distribution shows that they must be
considered as due to psychological causes such as the unavoidable necessity
of classification of experience in speech, which can lead to a limited
number of categories only, or the physiological possibilities of articulation
that also limit the range of possible sounds which are sufficiently
distinct to the ear for clear understanding.

To give a few examples: it would hardly be possible to claim that the
numerous instrumental prefixes of the Haida and those of Shoshonean,
Kutenai, and Sioux, are historically related. It is true that Shoshonean,
Kutenai, and Sioux form a continuous group to which might be added
many of the Californian languages. Considering the continuity of this
area and the absence of analogous forms outside, I am strongly inclined
216to believe that some historical reason must have led to their peculiar
development, but it would be difficult to connect historically the Haida
with this district. In the same way, it would be rash to associate the
strong development of glottalized sounds in Chile with the analogous
sounds on the Northwest Coast of America; the distinction between
neutral and active verbs among the Maya, Sioux, and Tlingit; or the
occurrence of three genders in Indo-European and in Chinook.

Our experience in Indo-European and Semitic languages shows
clearly that extended borrowing of words may occur and that borrowed
words may undergo such changes that their origin can be understood
only by historical study. That similar phenomena have occurred in
American languages is indicated by the distribution of such words as
names of animals and of plants which are in some cases borrowed. Other
classes of nominal concepts are not so subject to borrowing on account
of the extensive use in many American languages of descriptive terms.
Nevertheless, in mixed settlements considerable numbers of borrowed
words may be found. An example of this kind is presented by the
Comox of Vancouver Island who speak a Salish language with a strong
admixture of Kwakiutl words, or by the Bella Coola, another Salish people,
who have borrowed many Kwakiutl and Athapascan terms. There
is no particular difficulty in understanding the process which leads to the
borrowing of words. Intertribal contact must act in this respect in a
similar way as international contact does in modern times.

If these observations regarding the influence of acculturation upon
language should be correct, then the whole history of American languages
must not be treated on the assumption that all languages which
show similarities must be considered as branches of the same linguistic
family. We should rather find a phenomenon which is parallel to the
features characteristic of other ethnological phenomena — namely, a
development from diverse sources which are gradually worked into a
single cultural unit. We should have to reckon with the tendency of
languages to absorb so many foreign traits that we can no longer speak
of a single origin, and that it would be arbitrary whether we associate a
language with one or the other of the contributing stocks. In other
words, the whole theory of an “Ursprache” for every group of modern
languages must be held in abeyance until we can prove that these languages
go back to a single stock and that they have not originated, to a
large extent, by the process of acculturation.

It is true enough that in a comparison of modern Indo-European
217languages, without any knowledge of their previous history, it might be
very difficult to prove releationship — let us say, between Armenian and
English — and we might be compelled to adopt a conclusion similar to
the one suggested here. Partially this inference would be correct, because
our modern Indo-European languages contain much material
that is not Indo-European by origin. The fundamental question is
whether this material may become so extensive and influence the morphology
so deeply that the inclusion of a language in one group or
another might become arbitrary.

To sum up. it seems to my mind that a critical attitude towards our
problem makes it necessary to approach our task from three points of
view. Firstly, we must study the differentiation of dialects like those of
the Siouan, Muskhogean, Algonquian, Shoshonean, Salishan, and
Athapascan. Secondly, we must make a detailed study of the distribution
of phonetic, grammatical, and lexicographical phenomena, the
latter including also particularly the principles on which the grouping of
concepts is based. Finally, our study ought to be directed not only to an
investigation of the similarities of languages, but equally intensively
towards their dissimilarities. Only on this basis can we hope to solve the
general historical problem.218

1 American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 22 (1920), pp. 367-376.