How Many Germans Does It Take to Classify Amerindian Languages?

In his recent presentation on correlations between genes and myths in Eurasia and North America (see video in Russian, from 53:50 on), Vladimir Napol’skikh expressed a strong opinion on Amerindian linguistic diversity and several proposals of genealogical kinship between Amerindian and Eurasian languages. Napol’skikh is one of Russia’s foremost specialists on Uralic languages, cultures and folklore. He published mostly in Russian, and he is not widely known in the U.S. I remember Johanna Nichols, who may have a soft spot for Russian linguists, called Napol’skikh “very sharp.” This is what Napol’skikh has to say about Amerindian historical linguistics:

“American historical linguistics is behind European historical linguistics. No, it’s more than behind – it’s non-existent. This is because no normal German has ever worked on the reconstruction of North American Indian proto-languages. Only Americans have been doing the work, and hence Amerindian historical linguistics is still at a very primitive stage there. What is, for example, the Siouan language family? If we look at them from our Eurasian point of view, its antiquity is that of Balto-Slavic. This is the maximum depth of reconstruction that they [American historical linguists] are capable of today. It means that it’s likely that there are not as many language families in the Americas as American linguists are presently portraying. In 2005, Lyle Campbell wrote an overview of all of comparativist work on American Indian languages and arrived at hundreds of language families. That’s a huge amount of languages that are of the same order as Indo-European. It’s likely that in reality American Indian language families are not as numerous; it’s just American historical linguistics is underdeveloped.”

This assessment is both amusing and intriguing. It’s amusing because, if we apply the same logic to archaeology, we would say that American archaeology is primitive and underdeveloped because American archaeologists can only dig as deep as the Clovis horizon, and if the British and the French were doing the digging, then they would have already found another Olduvai Gorge somewhere in Kansas. In fact, this may not be a joke after all, as the foremost British archaeologist, Louis Leakey, worked on the Calico Hills site in California from 1963 to 1972 and he was convinced that the site furnished evidence of human activity that dates back to 100,000 YBP. Interestingly enough, Leakey was motivated in his search for ancient Americans by the phenomenal degree of Amerindian linguistic diversity which he thought took a long time to accrue. The same can be said of such notable French archaeologist as Niède Guidon who has been excavating the Pedra Furada site in Brazil and who tends to blame “American archaeologists” for their lack of professional integrity when it comes to discovering and accepting older sites in the Americas.

There does seem to be a “cultural difference” between American and Russian historical linguists in their degree of acceptance of long-range linguistic comparison. In Russia, Nostratic linguistics (a body of theory and actual raw comparative work called to prove that the majority of Eurasian languages belong to the Nostratic macrofamily) is mainstream and well-regarded. The school has its origin in Soviet Russia and it continues to grow and multiply. A number of Russian luminaries of Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic and Afroasiatic studies, including Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, Vladimir Dybo, the late Sergei Starostin and Alexander Militarev, are/were firm supporters of Nostratic and other macrofamilies. If we take Dybo, Starostin and, say, a young but well-known Hittologist, Alexei Kassian, their gullibility threshold is so high that they refuse to accept “laryngeal theory” (which is considered well-established among Western Indo-Europeanists), but still believe that Nostratic is a valid language family. In his talk, Napol’skikh spoke about the relationship between Uralic and Penutian (most likely, he had the work of Viitso and von Sadovszky in mind) and Na-Dene and Sino-Caucasian as if those proposals were widely accepted.

On the contrary, in the U.S., the American breed of long-range comparativism know as Greenbergian multilateral comparison and such outcomes of this methodology as “Amerind,” “Eurasiatic,” “Indo-Pacific,” “Khoisan,” and other macrofamilies are almost universally faced with critique and derision by historical linguists who specialize in the first-order language families that form the components of those larger units. I remember Indo-Europeanist Phil Baldi referred to the work of Merritt Ruhlen, the only supporter of Joseph Greenberg of any note, as “non-science.” Despite the fact that Greenberg carried the mantel of a linguistics prodigy thanks to his ground-breaking work in typology, American historical linguists unanimously shot down his “Amerind” proposal and did not include it into the Languages volume of the authoritative Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant and published by the Smithsonian in 1996.

Napol’skikh’s statement does bring up the puzzling nature of Amerindian linguistic diversity. Let’s list some of the hypotheses advanced by scholars to explain this phenomenon (the names in brackets cover only some of the more notable supporters of these hypotheses):

1. Amerindian linguistic diversity is the function of poor knowledge of Amerindian languages and the methodological flaws in the way American historical linguists apply comparative method (Vladimir Napol’skikh).

2. Amerindian linguistic diversity may be the function of the unique structure of Amerindian languages (head-marking, polysynthetic, etc.) which is conducive to the quicker loss of the formal traces of relatedness (Johanna Nichols).

3. Amerindian linguistic diversity is a sign of great antiquity of Amerindians in the New World (Louis Leakey, Johanna Nichols, German Dziebel)

4. Amerindian linguistic diversity is a sign of the recency of Amerindians in the New World because languages diversify at a faster rate during the initial colonization process but then they enter a slow and long homogenization phase (R. M. W. Dixon).

5. Amerindian linguistic diversity compared to the Old World is the function of the fact that the New World was spared of the homogenizing effect induced by massive population movements and demographic growth that took place in the Old World in the Neolithic (Robert Austerlitz).

What’s noteworthy is that, judging from this list, the very same phenomenon can receive absolutely polar interpretations (no. 3, 4 and 5) and that the puzzle seems to be so acute that it causes scholars to fall into the extremes of both objectivism (no. 2) and subjectivism (no. 1) in order to come to terms with the observed reality. Another interesting possibility is that the phenomenon of Amerindian linguistic diversity and the phenomenon of New World archaeological shallowness are highly correlated along the dimensions of subjectivism vs. objectivism and presumed slow- vs. fast evolutionary dynamics.