Any living language is constantly changing. If a group of people
speaking the same language, call it P, breaks up into smaller groups, say
A & B, without extensive communication between the groups, the changes
which occur will, to some extent, be different in each group. After a period
of time, perhaps as little as a generation, members of one group may be able
to recognize a visiting member of the other group by his "accent", i.e.,
they recognize that he doesn't speak exactly the same way they do.
At this point we have the beginnings of a dialect situation. And when
these dialects A & B at a later point in time are so different that speakers
of A are unable to communicate with speakers of B, we say that A and B are
related but different languages, descended from a common "parent", language
P. Where historical records are available, genetic relationships such
as that between hypothetical languages A & B are easily documented.
But historical documentation in the Americas goes back only a short way.
How can we establish that two or more native languages are genetically related,
i.e. descended from a common, unattested, proto-language?
Before discussing this, it is important to clarify certain things about our
model of linguistic relationships. In saying two languages are 'descended
from a common parent', we are using a kinship metaphor. Thus the model
we end up with is a 'family tree' model. Models can be misleading unless
we are fully aware of their limitations. In this case, we must remember that
the 'parent' language doesn't "die"; it has changed into its 'daughter' languages.
Furthermore, the model reinforces the convenient fictions that groups such
as A and B were homogeneous speech communities, separated suddenly, and had
little if any linguistic effect on each other after separation, whereas in
actuality none of these is likely to be true.
Establishing genetic relationships
Returning to our questions of how we can establish pre-history linguistic
relationships, we consider words from some current native languages.
Looking over vocabulary of Zuni and Southern Tiwa languages of New Mexico,
one finds the following words:
So. Tiwa bakade
These words are similar enough that we might suspect that they are descended
from a common parent; i.e., we might hypothesize that they are cognates which
developed from a single word of a proto-language which is the progenitor
of both Zuni and So. Tiwa. Finding the next pair of words could reinforce
kolta 'law court'
So. Tiwa kurti
Such a relationship between these languages would seem reasonable,
since these two groups of people have similar cultures and are relatively
close geographically (about 200 kilometers). But we require much more
evidence than this. The similarity seen in the pairs of words for 'cow'
and for 'court' could have explanations other than genetic relationship between
the languages. In the case of the first pair, knowledge that cattle
were not indigenous to North America should make us suspicious, and comparison
with Spanish vaca 'cow' and vacas 'cows' indicates that the similarity between
the Zuni and So. Tiwa words for cow is due to borrowing by both languages
from Spanish. Similarily the words for 'court' in both languages are
suspiciously like the English word, so borrowing again seems likely.
So we need a way to rule out borrowing between languages, either from one
another or from a third language, before we can accept similarity as evidence
for genetic relationship.
There is another possible source of similarities such as those shown above:
pure coincidence. This is evidently the case for the following words
from Eskimo and Blackfoot:
Blackfoot akihsii 'bed'
We want a method to rule out such chance similarities as well, in our
attempt to reconstruct linguistic history.
The method to be illustrated here was developed by philologists and linguists
working with Indo European languages, where there were many historical records
to serve as checkpoints to confirm the adequacy of the method. It is
based on the premise that sound change is regular; i.e., that if a given
proto-language sound, e.g. t, in a given word turns up in a daughter language
as another sound, e.g. s, then every word of the proto-language containing
t will have a corresponding s in the daughter language. Any exceptions must
be accounted for by additional explanations such as the presence of neighboring
sounds in the exceptional word that will affect the change.
To illustrate why regularity of sound change enables us to establish that
languages are genetically related, we now compare some words of our hypothetical
languages A and B to their earlier form in the parent language P. See
table 1. First, compare A with P.
otip osep ucip
ipen epen ipen
In the word for 'man', the t of P shows up as s in A. If sound
change is regular, we should find s in every word of A if that word had t
in P. And we see this to be true in the words meaning 'leg', 'owl',
and 'moon'. We can state this as a "sound law": P t becomes A s.
Comparing now B with P, we find that t regularly shows up as c in B, giving
us sound law P t becomes B c. We can also state other sound laws
for the development of A and B from P as follows: P a becomes A a;
P a becomes B o; P i becomes A e; P o becomes B u; etc. Table 2 summarizes
P A B
t s c
a a o
i e i
n n n
o o u
p p p
e e e
Now, suppose we had no record of language P, but only data from A and
B. Comparing only the A and B words of Table 1 we could discover that
wherever A has s, B has c; i.e. there is a regular correspondence of A s
to B c. Similarily, wherever A has a, B has o. If we summarized
all the correspondences, and put them in a table, it would look like the
A and B columns of Table 2. We could be sure that such regularity of
correspondence was not due to chance, and if it holds up when a larger sample
of vocabulary is used, then it is also unlikely that the similarity between
these languages is due to borrowing.
We are ready to apply the method to some real data. To make things
more interesting, we will use five languages rather than just two. Because
of space limitations, we will use only eight words from each language, whereas
we would normally want a much larger sample. The sets of words with
nearly identical meanings and similarity of shape are listed in Table 3.
Looking first at the words for 'my sibling in law', 'my louse', and
'three' we observe that they all start with n in all five languages.
This qualifies as a regular correspondence; however, by itself it proves
nothing. But if these same words contain other regular correspondences, and
all of these correspondences are found in other words, then we have established
a genetic relationship. When we look for other regular correspondences
in our first three words, we find that the third syllable of the first word
has m in all five languages; and 'my louse' also has an m in all five
languages. (This matching of m's can also be seen in a number of other
words). Looking at the first vowel of 'my louse' and 'three' we see
the following correspondence set in both columns: e;i;e;i;a.
This same set is found in the second syllable of 'my sibling in law', in
the first syllable of 'ten', and in the third syllable of the stem in 'he
ten he gives to him
ineniwa anemwa meta:swi
Menomini enE:niw anE:m
Cheyenne hetáne hotáme
my sibl. in law my louse
The regularity of the correspondences we have pointed out thus far is enough
to make a good case for a genetic relationship here. But since each
correspondence we have discussed is a hypothesis that a certain (unknown)
sound of the unrecorded parent language ended up as a certain sound in each
of these languages, we must deal with certain apparent counterexamples to
the regularity of our correspondences. Notice that in 'man' we find an <n;y;n;n;t>
set, in addition to the <n;n;n;n;n> we observed earlier. Does
this mean that either our hypothesis is wrong, or that we must conclude that
the set of words for 'man' are not cognate; i.e. not descended from a common
proto-word? It evidently means neither of these things, because not
only does 'man' show other correspondences that are regular, but the <n;y;n;n;t>
correspondence set is found also in 'he gives to him' and 'he trusts'. So
this is simply a different set of regular correspondences, presumably because
this set of sounds reflects a different proto-language sound. The same
is true of the <n;t;n;n;t> set seen in 'dog' and 'my sibling in law'.
We can symbolize these unattested sounds of the proto-language as L and D,
being aware that these are simply symbols for the correspondences, and do
not necessarily reflect the actual sounds of the proto-language.
There is much more we could say about correspondences in this set of words,
but this much should suffice to illustrate how genetic relationships can
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