Darwin-L Message Log 3:102 (November 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<3:102>From GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu  Sun Nov 28 23:37:24 1993

Date: Sun, 28 Nov 1993 21:40 PST
From: GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: Language history and biogeography
To: Darwin-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Bob O'Hara writes:

>  I'd be interested to know from any of our linguists ... whether there are
>  any other papers in historical linguistics that make explicit comparisons
>  to historical biogeography.

I can cite at least one other recent paper that attempts a correlation of
linguistic diversity with biogeographical areas:

Richard A. Rogers, Larry D. Martin & T. Dale Nicklas, "Ice-Age Geography
and the Distribution of Native North American Languages" Journal of
Biogeography 17.2 (March 1990), 131-143. [The authors argue that many
modern native North American language families have distributions remarkably
similar to those of the biogeographic zones that existed during the last
(Wisconsinan) glaciation.  Glacial ice appears to have been an important
isolating agent, leading to linguistic divergence.]

To date, this paper has had little influence on American Indian historical
linguistics.  My own impression is that Rogers et al. work on too broad a
canvas - i.e., all of North America over the last 10,000 years.  I suspect
that meaningful biogeogpahical correlations are possible with a few language
familes whose spread has occurred more recently - e.g., Athabaskan and Eskimo
- although the real correlations are between bioregions and the adaptive
strategies (only secondarily the languages) of specific migrating  peoples.
Thus, there seems little doubt that the Athabaskans migrated southward from
an Alaskan or Yukon starting point, beginning around 500 AD, through the
boreal forest areas of B.C., the Cascades, and the Rockies.  However, after
settling in to areas at the extremes or edges of this bioregion--Northwest
California, the southern Rockies in Colorado/New Mexico, the front range of
the Rockies adjacent to the Plains--a number of Athabaskan-speaking groups
moved out of the forest and took up quite different lifestyles in markedly
different environments. These included, for example, the acorn-gathering
Hupa of California, the steppe-herder Navajo, and the mounted bison-hunting
Sarsi and Plains Apache.  The lesson seems to be that, while some language
spreads are correlated with bioregions, languages (and cultures) can also
quickly and easily cross deep biogeographical boundaries. So the older and
more diversified a language family is, the less likely it will meaningfully
correlate with a bioregion.

--Victor Golla
  Humboldt State University
  gollav @ axe.humboldt.edu

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