DenePosted: March 13, 2020
Sapir’s special focus among American languages was in the Athabaskan languages, a family which especially fascinated him. In a private letter, he wrote: “Dene is probably the son-of-a-bitchiest language in America to actually know…most fascinating of all languages ever invented.”
I’ve been doing some work to learn:
- how it was that Navajo got to be classified as an Athabaskan language and
- what linguistic evidence exists for the northern origins of the Navajo.
This is a good journey, but challenging.
Sometimes it leads me to stuff like this:
which: ok, how much can we trust these linguists? Are we sure we’re on solid ground here?
The big categorizing of native American languages was done by Albert Gallatin in the 1830s.
Could he have been wrong? People were wrong a lot back then.
Well, after looking it with an amateur’s enthusiasm, I feel more trusting.
I feel confident Navajo/Dene is connected to languages of what’s now Alaska, British Columbia, and nearby turf.
Navajo / Dene speakers can be understood by speakers of other Athabaskan languages, and most of the words in Navajo seem to have Athabaskan origin.
Edward Sapir wrote a paper about internal evidence within the Navajo language for a northern origin to this people.
Sapir was wrong* about some things, but no one seems to doubt he was a pretty serious linguist.
How about Michael E. Krauss?
After completing a dissertation on Gaelic languages Krauss arrived in Alaska in 1960 to teach French at the University of Alaska.
Krauss’ largest contribution to language documentation is his work on Eyak, which began in 1961. Eyak was then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages, and Krauss’ work is all the more notable considering that it represents what today might be considered salvage linguistics. While some Eyak data had been previously available, they were overlooked by previous scholars, including Edward Sapir. However, Eyak proved to be a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, being equally closely related to neighboring Ahtna and to distant Navajo. With good Eyak data it became possible to establish the existence of the Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit language family, though phonological evidence for links to Haida remained elusive.
If anyone makes any progress on native American language classifications while under precautionary self-quarantine, let us know
* I’m just teasing poor Sapir here, I don’t think it’s fair to “blame” him exactly for the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which maybe isn’t even wrong, and as far as I can tell it was Whorf not Sapir who misunderstood Hopi