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Incredible Journeys of Our Native Tongues

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 11, 1998

When North America was an ice-age tundra, the first Americans were “cooking” their cultures in the tropical south, moving northward and settling as the glaciers retreated, according to new linguistic evidence from indigenous languages throughout the New World.

The evidence suggests that humans have been in the Americas for a very long time, perhaps 40,000 years. It also suggests that most native American languages derived from Ice Age inhabitants who were isolated in the Western Hemisphere for many millennia.

Only along the west coast do languages appear to come from immigrants who arrived after the Ice Age 14,000 years ago, a Berkeley linguist reports.

In an address to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia, Johanna Nichols, professor of Slavic studies, turned the story of the first Americans upside down.

Rather than migrations from north to south, Nichols maintains that the interior of North America was colonized not directly from Siberia but almost entirely from the south. Even the Athabaskan language family, now centered in northern Canada and Alaska, is more likely to have moved up from the south than to have entered directly from Siberia.

Nichols’ work on indigenous American languages corresponds with genetic evidence suggesting a long human presence in the New World. New findings from the Monte Verde site in southern Chile have been dated at 12,500 years ago, a date so early that it points to Ice Age habitation.

Nichols said the Monte Verde people would have needed at least 6,500 years to travel from Alaska to Chile, based on known rates of early language spread. So even if they traveled in a beeline south, the first Americans would have had to enter the New World no later than 19,000 years ago. In fact, they probably came earlier, said Nichols.

Her research has shown that language diversity is so great in the Americas that the approximately 150 distinct Native American language families would have required at least 35,000 years to develop.

Now she has found that most of those languages share common diffused traits with no evidence of outside influence for many thousands of years – except on the west coast which shows signs of more recent influence from Asia.

“From the Sierras and the Andes mountains all the way to the Atlantic, American languages share distinctive endemic features,” said Nichols. “This indicates a common history of a people so ancient that we cannot hope to trace their linguistic descent.”

Many linguists, noting the number and variety of language families in the New World, have concluded that human habitation is older than archeological evidence would suggest. With traditional comparative methods, however, linguists cannot trace language descent much beyond 6,000 years or, at most, 10,000 years.

Nichols, however, traces certain hallmark grammatical features that are distributed unevenly among world languages. The frequency of these features across an entire continent can indicate the age and amount of linguistic mixing. Languages of the Americas share grammatical features that are rare elsewhere, which gives the hemisphere a distinctive “signature,” said Nichols.

One such trait, called “head marking,” describes languages in which the verb carries most of the important information in a sentence. It is an opposite feature to the noun cases that are characteristic of the classical languages of Greek and Latin.

Head marking languages are common throughout North, Central and South America, but relatively rare everywhere else in the world, said Nichols. A cluster of head-marking languages occurs in eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Other than the head-marking feature, however, nothing in American languages east of the Sierras points to an Asian origin, said Nichols. The immigration happened so long ago, signs of an Asian relationship have disappeared, she said.

Another sign of the great age of interior American languages is that they are extraordinarily well mixed. Normally with recent migration, grammatical traits are regionally clumped. In the Americas such traits are spread out evenly across the continent. This suggests a long period of diffusion, interaction and internal migration, said Nichols.

In sharp contrast to this picture of interior American languages, those scattered up and down the Pacific coast share traits with Asian languages, creating a distinctive Pacific linguistic group, said Nichols.

One feature of this linguistic group is a pronoun system with “n” in the words for “I” and “we” and “m” in the words for “you,” found on both the American Pacific coast and the south Asian Coast. Another feature is a word order in which the verb is the first word in the sentence.

A sharp linguistic break between languages east and west of the Pacific mountain ranges leads Nichols to conclude that post-glacial migrations from Siberia created a Pacific rim linguistic population that is distinct from the rest of the American languages.

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