American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America

American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America

American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America

American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America


Native American languages are spoken from Siberia to Greenland, and from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego; they include the southernmost language of the world (Yaghan) and some of the northernmost (Eskimoan). Campbell's project is to take stock of what is currently known about the history of Native American languages and in the process examine the state of American Indian historical linguistics, and the success and failure of its various methodologies.

There is remarkably little consensus in the field, largely due to the 1987 publication of Language in the Americas by Joseph Greenberg. He claimed to trace a historical relation between all American Indian languages of North and South America, implying that most of the Western Hemisphere was settled by a single wave of immigration from Asia. This has caused intense controversy and Campbell, as a leading scholar in the field, intends this volume to be, in part, a response to Greenberg. Finally, Campbell demonstrates that the historical study of Native American languages has always relied on up-to-date methodology and theoretical assumptions and did not, as is often believed, lag behind the European historical linguistic tradition.


This book is intended as a general survey of what is known about the history of Native American languages. I hope that it will resolve certain outstanding issues, contribute generally to understanding of the history of Native American languages, and stimulate further research. True to tradition in Native American linguistics and due to the dynamic nature of research in this field, this book should by no means be taken as a static statement of “That’s how it is”; rather it is intended as a working model, representative of a changing and progressing enterprise. Since this is an enormous field, encompassing by some counts more than one-quarter of the world’s languages, clearly no individual (even with abundant help from friends and colleagues) could hope to provide a complete, up-to-date, and unflawed treatment of the historical linguistics of Native American languages. Moreover, research in this field has involved certain highly publicized controversies in recent years, which are best taken as indicative of unresolved historical questions and as proof that the field is developing, in some areas at a rapid pace, making it a moving target—exciting, but hard to hit squarely in every detail in a broad survey of this sort. For that reason, perhaps, a warning (or even an apology) is in order here: Readers should be aware of possible omissions or inaccuracies that specialists may find. The vastness of the topic and the limitations of the available information make it almost certain that some such infelicities will be found in this book. Still, 1 hope these will be few. I have consciously chosen to attempt broader coverage, despite the attendant risks.

Lest this warning leave the wrong impression, let me hasten to add that I believe the coverage in this book is probably as generally representative and as accurate as can be hoped for, given current circumstances, and that the inevitable errors will be minimal in relation to the book’s overall contribution as a reasonably detailed survey, and as an updating of this large field.

As advances are made in the field, some of the tentative, incomplete, and inaccurate aspects of this book will likely be completed and improved. The present state of Native American historical linguistic knowledge, the presentation of which is the major goal of this book, is exciting, and future research, some of which this book may help to foster, promises abundant and significant advances that are perhaps at present barely imaginable.


Christchurch, New Zealand July 1995

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