Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Babel of languages

I’ve always thought that Alvin’s Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, was extraordinary in its examination of the Americas before contact. He started with languages. Ironically, it was often missionaries, intent on Christianizing and changing people, who learned indigenous languages, intent from that day through today’s Moody Bible Translators on giving them back scripture.

But some missionaries were captivated by language itself, as were some army officers, adventurers, and a few academics who described themselves as “ethnologists.” In 1891, Major John Wesley Powell—of Colorado River fame but then Director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian—submitted the seventh annual report to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, in which he described attempts at learning the proper names of North American Indian tribes and the classification of their languages. The volume published the field work of 1885-86, including the first classification of North American Indian languages. (see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Langs_N.Amer.png for a current language map)

Alvin picked up their work, and began Indian Heritage with detailed maps and accompanying “updated” classification tables of language groups (Powell had grouped them into 56 linguistic families).  “The study of Indian languages,” Alvin said, “can be extremely valuable in the knowledge it provides of the backgrounds and historic origins, movements, and cultural developments of individual tribes and bands.” This, in a time before DNA analysis, was a remarkable way of marrying biology and history.

The number of languages—Alvin quotes one source suggesting over 2200 mutually unintelligible pre-Columbian languages in the Americas—was fuel in the debate over the length of habitation and the number of migrations from Asia. Some have proposed three major migrations related to three language parent stocks, but as far as I can tell, this is still an open field. Estimates on times of migration vary greatly as well, but increasingly, the first are thought to have been more than 30,000 years ago.

Language, for similar reasons, also enters into the argument between “long counters” and “short counters” as regards pre-contact populations (languages have “half-lives,” and linguists estimate the time it takes for languages to grow and change). According to Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the gap on this score was huge: short counters arguing that there were probably fewer than 10 million people on the continents when Columbus hit shore; long counters suggested as many as 112 million.  In 1968, Josephy thought some high middle number the best current estimate; in a radio interview 30 years later he upped his numbers to 90 million or more.

And here we come to cataclysmic events—diseases, it is agreed, decimated huge numbers of indigenous Americans, often before the affected Indians saw a European. Slavery and violence took huge tolls on Indian populations as well—some Caribbean peoples were exterminated in Columbus’s quest for gold.

1492 was a signal year in the history of the planet, and the movement of its peoples and languages. Not too far on either side of that date were major disease epidemics in Europe—and climate change.  The Great Warming brought the Norse to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and multiplied Europe’s population; warming and drought killed civilizations and thousands of people in Africa and the Americas. The plague, poxes, typhus and a myriad of diseases hit and killed millions in Europe before they were brought to the Americas. Mann says that a world population of 500 million at the beginning of the sixteenth century might have been reduced by one-fifth by the early seventeenth century. Maybe the greatest die-off in human history!

History is full of such catastrophes. In recent memory, WW II and its fallout killed millions, created other millions of “stateless” people, and scattered refugees around the globe. The Little Ice Age and accompanying droughts and freezes sent Europeans to the New World; slavery sent Africans in all directions; the Inquisition scattered European Jews; the Potato Famine scattered the Irish. In all cases languages traveled, collided, morphed, and joined as well.

We might now be in the middle of something as significant as any of the above. The pretty plans of the WW I victors for nation states cooperating on oil and speaking English as a strong second language are fast disintegrating in the Middle East. The European Union is being stretched by African and Middle Eastern refugees as some of its members and member citizens cling to cultural and religious identities. Refugee camps bulge—old ones dating to the 1947 Palestinian War; new ones in Turkey, Jordan, and Africa.

And language is again a measure of movements and adjustments. There is little talk now of English as “the world language,” and Spanglish and Arab hip-hop are in the media. As Syrians, speaking in English to reporters, describe hopes of learning German, one is reminded of an older Middle Eastern dispersion, described in Genesis:

“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Syrian refugees LA Times




Other Powells and Josephys will trace these movements 500 years from now.

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