Maybe you are wondering where I’ve been. I’ve been working on a classification of all of the Indian languages of the Americas, which is at least 900 languages. Actually it’s a lot more than that! It is an expansion of the Amerindian classification I did in this article here, in which I, unbelievably, tried to classify most of the language families in the world! I still can’t believe I actually completed such a Herculean feat, but apparently I did!
Now that I am redoing this, I am finding out just how difficult it really is. There were serious problems with my classification of Latin American, particularly South American languages in the article. The problem is that the classification of South American languages is sort of like a group of blind men leading each other through a cave and not much being accomplished along the way. It looks like, more than anything else, “linguistic chaos.”
I don’t mean to get racist about this, but it’s clear that our understanding and classification of North American Indian languages is vastly superior to that of South American languages. Mostly Whites (Hey, let’s face it) got an early start on North American Indian classification with the work of Edward Sapir and Arthur Kroeber at the turn of the century which revolutionized the field. Their work inspired many followers and students of theirs to engage in similar work on the last remaining speakers of many of these languages.
The genocide of the North American Indians came later and was not as extensive as in South America, and there were still many competent first language speakers of North American languages in the first few decades of the 20th Century. In fact, many of these last remaining speakers lived on after the 1930’s, and some of them are dying right now.
Hence, most of these languages were described quite well with exceptions on the East Coast, in Texas, and to a lesser extent in the Southeast where Indian-colonist interactions began very early, as soon as the 17th and 18th Century. The Texas Indians were genocided and missionized by the Spaniards very early on, as in in the 1600’s and 1700’s.
By the time the very late 1800’s rolled around and actual linguists like John Swanton went out to study them, there were hardly any of these Indians left. Many tribes had been nearly exterminated or civilized into extinction, with the remnants of many others joining larger surviving tribes to stay alive and hence losing their original languages.
The languages of the Interior Northeast and the Middle West are a lot better documented, as those areas were not colonized until later on, and the Indians held on there, as in upstate New York, a long time.
The areas west of the Mississippi were not even colonized until after 1850, and many of these tribes were not genocided and instead were herded onto reservations, where at least their languages survived for quite some time under the rubric of self-rule. There are very few large Indian reservations east of the Mississippi, but many Midwestern and Southeastern Indians ended up on reservations in Oklahoma.
The Western Indians also fought vicious wars with the colonists, and these wars lasted for quite some time. Quite a few tribes were not pacified until the 1870-1890, by which time they still had many surviving members on reservations.
Missionization happened early on in California too, as early as 1800, but not as early as it did in the Texas and the Southeast. California was not truly colonized until after 1850, and the genocide was not complete, as many Indians survived. Indeed, when J. P. Harrington was doing his incredible salvage linguistics on the West Coast, especially in California, from 1910-1930, he was still able to find many first language speakers of even the rarest California Indian tribes. They were still around because as I said, the colonization happened later here.
As a result, North American language classification has been undergoing a smoothing-out and intense editing and criticism project for over 100 years now with the involvement of many scholars. Most Americanists in North America have worked on North American languages. Only a few have worked to the south, and even there, there seemed to be a preference for working in Mexico and Central America as opposed to South America.
In recent years, more are working in South America, but not much is happening in the way of classification, as this work is being done under the present regime of extreme conservatism in historical linguistics. And in many cases, there is barely even salvage linguistics going on, as so many tribes are vanished altogether.
There were few linguists, either North Americans, Europeans, or even South Americans, working on South American languages before 1950. An incredible number of South American languages had gone extinct even at that early date.
To this day, there have only been a few excellent linguists from South America. Those who exist are very good, but as I said, there are not many of them. Their numbers are dwarfed by the number of linguists who have worked or are working on North American languages.
Furthermore, attitudes towards Indians were much more cruel and backwards for a long time in South America and continued even after North America started to clean up its act. South Americans were engaging in actual, literal genocidal projects worse than North American had ever done in the late 1800’s until the 1910’s. Many Indians were enslaved or kept on various forms of bondage, including debt bondage, and were only liberated from these conditions as late as 1912.
By this time attitudes in North America had already softened quite a bit towards Indians. Indians in North America were not much hated in the 20th Century. I was born around the mid-century, and all I remember was a veneration and near-worship of the North American Indian from fellow Whites, including an intense feeling of guilt for how we treated them and took their land.
We did give some of their land back as reservations on which Indians were largely under self-rule. North American Whites’ feelings of contrition towards the behavior of their ancestors towards Indians have resulted in various schemes to advantage Indians such as allowing them to form gambling casinos.
Also, the idea of the nobility of the Indian and the near-veneration of Indian culture by North American Whites has led to a renaissance of cultural and linguistic rebirth in Indian lands in North America, whereas in South America, extreme racism, including mass murder as in Brazil, continued far into the 20th Century and in fact, is still prevalent today.
The ruling class of Peru is very racist towards Indians. In Brazil, Indians are to this day simply massacred with little more of a shrug from the state in Brazil.
I have spoken with Chileans, including ostensible leftwing ones, and I was stunned at their completely unashamed contempt for and ridicule of the local Indians. These highly civilized Chileans (considered among the most cultured people in South America) make brutal fun of Peruvians for the fact that they have a lot of Indian blood, whereas Chileans reassure themselves that they are either pure or mostly White, both of which are perhaps more dubious than you might think.
Indians were simply exterminated in Argentina and Uruguay and to some extent in Chile in the far South quite early on. Vicious wars of extermination were fought, particularly in Argentina. Hence little is known of Argentine and Uruguayan Indians.
The rape of the Amazon by colonists who are foresters, jewel-hunters, and land-clearers to create lands for grazing economies continues to ravage Brazil to the present day, and many Indians are still being murdered every year in significant numbers. Even in their reserves, they are killed and their lands are stolen. Everywhere their lands are set aflame to create pasture for ranching. The weak Brazilian state, which is controlled by a brutal, primitive, and racist ruling class, barely lifts a finger to stop the murders of Indians by colonists.
In addition, disease epidemics ravaged many Amazonian Indians around the turn of the century. These exterminating epidemics continued far into the 20th Century past the time when epidemics were a faded memory in North America. For a vast number of these tribes, few if any are left, and of those who remain, only a few or perhaps none speak their ancestral language.
In much of the continent, being Indian continues to cause a sense of shame, and acculturation to Spanish or Portuguese-speaking culture is seen as a way to move up in the world and in many cases to rid one of the shame of being “Indio.”
Nevertheless, many of the less, barely, or even non-contacted tribes in Brazil and many more heavily-interaced tribes in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, and Chile yet retain a strong sense of pride which is apparently a new feature. I am personally stunned at the pride local Mexican Indians in my city have in their Indian cultures and languages.
Consequently, South American Indian classification is a massive mess with over 100 language families and isolates with purportedly no relationship to each other. This silliness is being cemented in by the reigning fad, and it is a fad after all, of bullheaded and nihilistic conservatism that now reigns supreme in our field.
Thus, this project of mine is a gigantic clusterfuck. It’s chaos X 100. There are as many as 10-15 different names for some languages, and of course I need to write them all down, alphabetize them and try to figure out if they are correct or are names for other languages that somehow snuck in. What might seem like four different languages might actually be one language spelled four different ways because the documentation of these languages has been so scattershot and poor.
There have been a few brave forays into classification of these languages, but these are still in their initial phases, and the ruling conservatives are of course shooting them all down. I’ve had to change my classification over and over, and the names and the whole gigantic mess makes me want to tear my hair out. My head often feels like it is spinning.
Nevertheless, I love work like this. You start working on a project like this, and you laugh and think, “There’s no way that any human could possibly figure this mess out.” A computer, maybe, but even that might be hard. I’m always finding out that I classified something incorrectly or under the wrong name, and I’m having to go back and redo a lot of my work as I get a better and more “holistic” feel for it.
Still, I love jobs like this! The very idea of an “impossible job” which I can nevertheless probably manage to “do the impossible” and complete somehow anyway is an incredible rush. If I thought it was hopeless, I would throw in the towel. But I love the challenge of an insanely difficult task which I nevertheless can probably figure out if I stick at it long enough.
Furthermore, the fact that I am always solving little puzzles here and there and coming up with better solutions to things I thought I figured out earlier means that in the midst of the insane frustration (which I actually like), there are victories sprouting up all the time. The feeling of accomplishment every time you put another piece of the impossible puzzle together can hardly be exceeded in words.
Hopefully this piece may be published at some point in an academic journal, as one of the editors at a journal I recently published in encouraged me to go ahead and write this article when I suggested it to him. Without probable publication, I probably wouldn’t be driving myself nuts like this.
Maybe I’ll put up a working copy on my website if any of you want to look at it.