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Darwin-L Message Log 3:105 (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.


<3:105>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Mon Nov 29 15:57:00 1993

Date: Mon, 29 Nov 1993 13:52:50 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Re: Language history and biogeography
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Sun, 28 Nov 1993 GOLLAV@axe.humboldt.edu wrote:

> 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 think there's a more specific problem that affects the attractiveness
to linguists of this hypothesis.  The dates involved just don't jibe
with linguists' ideas about dating.  Rogers' hypothesis entails, for
example, that the Algonquian family began to diverge something like
10,000 years BP.  But Algonquian is not nearly as linguistically
divergent as linguists would expect in a 10,000-year-old family.  In
fact, many comparativists are openly dubious that after 10,000 years
of divergence there will be enough detectable resemblance remaining among
daughter languages to show common descent.
   This need not be a fatal objection to Rogers' hypothesis--linguists'
approaches to dating are notoriously impressionistic and imprecise, and
in any case we don't know enough about the sociolinguistics of dispersed
hunter-gatherer communities to know for certain that the expected rates
of linguistic divergence should always be comparable to those that we
see in larger-scale sedentary populations.  But the discrepancy between
Rogers' suggestions and linguists' normal expectations is pretty gross.

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403

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