Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Mexican colony in Louisiana before Columbus?

In the latest issue of the International Journal of American Linguistics, Cecil Brown, Soren Wichmann, and David Beck announce a rather interesting finding: that Chitimacha [is] A Mesoamerican Language in the Lower Mississippi Valley. I don't know much about any of the languages involved, but insofar as I can judge it, it strikes me as quite convincing. They find 91 cognates between Chitimacha, a language of southern Louisiana, and Totozoquean, a language family of southern Mexico consisting of Totonacan and Mixe-Zoquean. Most of these cognates are very straightforward, with identical meanings and obviously similar, regularly corresponding sounds, and 36 of them involve words basic enough to be on the 100-word Swadesh or Leipzig-Jakarta lists. The grammatical similarities are rather less extensive, but there are a few. So, pending other specialists' comments, it looks like Chitimacha was brought to Louisiana by a migration across the Gulf of Mexico, from somewhere around the Isthmus area.

There is some useful shared cultural vocabulary, including "paper", "to write", "lime", "maize (corn)", "leached corn", and "to shell corn", and it looks like Caddo - spoken just upriver - in turn borrowed much of its maize-related vocabulary from Chitimacha. In combination with archeological evidence, this leads the authors to favour a migration date either some time around 850 AD, when the Caddo began low-level maize cultivation, or sometime around 1200-1450 AD, when they intensified it. Such a late date seems a little troubling, given how few cognates are to be found; Korandje separated from Songhay around 1200 AD, and there are well over 200 shared items there, mostly belonging to basic vocabulary. The ancestor of Chitimacha would have to have already been rather different from any other Totozoquean language even before they reached Louisiana; but then why did they apparently leave no trace in Mexico itself? Perhaps a study of southern Mexican place names could shed some light on the question.

This looks like historical linguistics at its best: a surprising long-distance connection affecting both language and culture. Now it's up to the historians and archeologists to fill in the gaps: why did southern Mexicans find it worth while to cross the Gulf to Louisiana in significant numbers?

20 comments:

David Marjanović said...

Intriguing fact from the paper: the authors got the idea from that program for automated protolanguage reconstruction.

Jim said...

The whole proposal is plausible. Corn cultivation is a Mexican import and the torture cult associated with it is too in all likelihood. The distances involved look great, but they are over water, so they aren't that great.

And it helps that Chitimacha is an isolate in the region. Mary Haas mentioned it in passing in a class on Tunica with kind of a hand wave "...and then there are Chitimcah and Atakapa...." dismissing them like problem foster children.

This may be the first of several such discoveries. The Gulf Cost had a lot of these oddlets, sadly often too poorly documented for any real work. There are persistent rumors that the Karankawa were a colony of Caribs, but the language wasn't really recorded in enough detail or precision to settle the matter

Anthony said...

It's a nice paper, but the cognac rate between Chit and any Totonacan, MZ or Totozoquean language is rather low and has some surprising omissions (no lower numerals, for instance). There may be Chit forms that John Swanton got and that Morris Swadesh didn't reelicit. Caddo and Chit also share a word for chicken. Karankawa is certainly not Cariban, despite what Herbert Landar suggested in 1968. At least it wasn't when I wrote my MPhil about it in 1991 (now on the Web.) We know enough about the lexica of the various Cariban languages to be certain about this.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Yes, the low cognacy is definitely weird. If it is correct, then the branch immediately ancestral to Chitimacha must be extinct in Mexico, which raises a few questions.

Jim said...

"It's a nice paper, but the cognac rate between Chit and any Totonacan, MZ or Totozoquean language is rather low and has some surprising omissions (no lower numerals, for instance). There may be Chit forms that John Swanton got and that Morris Swadesh didn't reelicit. "

That's one possibility. Another might be relexification in those Mexican languages from some source in Mexico. Ockham's Razor wouldn't like it, but then again why did English need a new word for "family" or "stomach" or have to invent one out of nothing for "oats"?

OTOH, why would advanced agricultural societies need or accept new words for numbers? Those are the kind of societies where numbers first become indispensable, for record keeping. Numbers seem a poor candidate for borrowing.

David Marjanović said...

OTOH, why would advanced agricultural societies need or accept new words for numbers? Those are the kind of societies where numbers first become indispensable, for record keeping. Numbers seem a poor candidate for borrowing.

Contact and trade sometimes does it. Borrowed Arabic numerals are all over the Berber family; I think some languages have borrowed all numerals.

And while German hasn't borrowed "stomach", it has borrowed "family" and "oats" (though the latter has a phonetic motivation).

Jim said...

david,
"And while German hasn't borrowed "stomach", it has borrowed "family" and "oats" (though the latter has a phonetic motivation)."

Time for a little linguistic archeology. Do you know what terms were used in English and German for family groupings that were superseded by borrowing, and how they differed enough, fell short enough, semantically to motivate that borrowing?

And "oats"? Really? Learn something new every day. I thought the word was "Hafer". So that's out now in favor of "oats"?

David Marjanović said...

Do you know what terms were used in English and German for family groupings that were superseded by borrowing, and how they differed enough, fell short enough, semantically to motivate that borrowing?

There's Sippe, cognate to sib- in sibling and meaning "extended family"; then the Nazis discovered that obsolescent word, liked it, and thus poisoned it – it's pretty much gone now.

And "oats"? Really? Learn something new every day. I thought the word was "Hafer". So that's out now in favor of "oats"?

Sorry for the misunderstanding – I meant to say that a word was borrowed for that meaning. Hafer is a borrowing from Low German; the native version had /b/ and survives for instance in the surname Haberkorn. The phonetic motivation for borrowing may have been the closeness to haben "have", as it was for another Low German borrowing, Hafen "port/harbor", Middle High German haben.

David Marjanović said...

"Family" is, unsurprisingly, Familie.

Jim said...

Thanks, David. Further question: "Sippe" sounds like it refers to a mother, father and their kids in common. If it does, is there some other word that refers the kin group, such as a patrilineal family? The English word "family" is vague, so oyur answer was still on point.

The Irish equivalent is "fine" more often "dearbhfhine". It was a legal unit for assessing legal responsibilities.

David Marjanović said...

"Sippe" sounds like it refers to a mother, father and their kids in common.

Why do you think so? ~:-| It referred to larger entities with kith & kin.

Jim said...

"Why do you think so? ~:-| It referred to larger entities with kith & kin."

Only because the cognate in English forms "sibling", and siblings are the children of the two same parents. So that would exclude cousins, half-sibs and so on.

Cognate terms, with some semantic shift.

David Marjanović said...

and siblings are the children of the two same parents. So that would exclude cousins, half-sibs and so on.

By no means necessarily. When my siblings and I attended our cousin's wedding in Serbia, we were introduced (in English) as "my brothers and sisters from Austria". There are plenty of languages left that haven't imported the word and concept of cousin.

Jim said...

"There are plenty of languages left that haven't imported the word and concept of cousin."

David, "sibling" is a specific word in a specific language. That language is English. Its cognates don't play any role in its actual semantic load. and in English the word "sibling" means "the children of the same two adults" and no one else. Whether some other language has or lacks a word or concept of "cousin" is beside the point.

"When my siblings and I attended our cousin's wedding in Serbia, we were introduced (in English) as "my brothers and sisters from Austria".

By a native English speaker? A lot of people use English, or a close facsimile.

petre said...

The word 'sibling' was "borrowed" into general English from the technical vocabulary of ornithology.

Thanks to Anthony for pointing out "the low cognac rate". There's no more effective block to innovative new linguistic theories than running low on the cognac!

petre said...

Whoops, "innovative new", well colour me pleonastic!

David Marjanović said...

By a native English speaker?

No.

petre said...

Entirely off-topic, but I hope somebody can advise me. My brother-in-law told me yesterday that I "speak French like an Arab". He is Algerian by origin, but born and raised in Belgium. I am English, but have also lived most of my life in Belgium. What does he mean, and how should I feel about it?

protouralic said...

On closer reading: it's interesting that the lateral obstruent correspondences in TZ are not matched to anything at all in Chitimacha. Perhaps they are too shuffled by conditional developments for B, W & B to have located any recurring correspondences, and hence they've left out the items that could have involved these.

As usual, you can also see the sibilants being relatively well-shuffled. None of the three groups involved (Ch, Tn, MZ) has more than four, and yet Proto-Ch-TZ is here reconstructed with six. The Chitimachan /č : c/ and /š : s/ contrasts however seem be almost entirely orthogonal to the TZ data.

It would seem to be possible to propose e.g. that there was only one proto-affricate *c, which becomes Ch /č/ stem-initially, *c medially (including compounds/prefixed forms such as #71 'heavy', #72 'ant').

The vowels have some interesting stuff going on too. Charting the Ch-Tn-MZ correspondences (and ignoring what has been previously reconstructed for Tn-MZ) reveals a fairly symmetric system with several paired correspondence sets such as *a : *i : *i (their *e₁) and *a : *u : *u (their *u₁).

David Marjanović said...

As usual, you can also see the sibilants being relatively well-shuffled. None of the three groups involved (Ch, Tn, MZ) has more than four, and yet Proto-Ch-TZ is here reconstructed with six. The Chitimachan /č : c/ and /š : s/ contrasts however seem be almost entirely orthogonal to the TZ data.

Nothing against your alternative hypothesis; however, such reductions in the sibilant system have happened elsewhere, often in different ways in different dialects, leading to orthogonal contrasts. The histories of Iberian Romance, German and French in the last 1000 years come to mind.