Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
California Indian Languages
California Indian Languages
Victor Golla
University of California Press, 2011
400 pp., 100.00

Buy Now

John H. McWhorter

Awesomely Alternate Randomnesses

What we learn from California Indian languages.

When Europeans encountered what is today California, that area contained 78 different languages. Not "dialects" of some single "Indian tongue," or even just three or four, but 78 languages as mutually unintelligible as French, Greek, and Japanese.

Victor Golla's California Indian Languages is a lush and handy primer on what is known about all of these languages, but a volume like this is as much an elegy as a survey. Not a single name of any of these languages would ring a bell to laymen—Pomo? Miwok? Wiyot?—and this is partly because almost all of them will be extinct within another generation. As of 2010, for only a few dozen were there were fluent speakers alive, and most of them are elderly. European languages, especially English, intruded upon Native Americans' linguistic repertoire starting centuries ago, and eventually were often forced upon them on the pain of physical abuse in schools. Today, English is the everyday language for almost all Native Americans.

Once even a single generation grows up without living in a language, it is almost inevitable that no generation ever will again. The ability to learn a language well ossifies after the teen years, as most of us can attest from personal experience. If we do manage to wangle a certain ability in a language as adults, the chances are remote that we would use this second language with the spontaneous intimacy of parents and children at home. The generation of, say, Miwoks who only know a few words and expressions of their parents' native language—or enough to manage a very basic conversation but that's all—will not pass even this severely limited ability on to the next generation.

Yes, there are programs seeking to revivify these fascinating languages. Some groups have classes. In others, there are master-apprentice programs, in which elders teach younger people the ancestral language within a home setting. One reads about such efforts in the media rather frequently nowadays, in the wake of various books over the past twenty years calling attention to how many of the world's languages are on the brink of disappearing. By one estimate, only 600 of the current 6,000 will exist in a hundred years.

Golla's book, unintentionally, suggests that happenstance aspects of linguistic culture in indigenous California made the task of reviving these languages even harder than it might be otherwise. Ironically, one of the factors was something that many would find rather romantic in itself: Native Americans in California considered languages to be spiritually bound to the areas they were spoken in. This seemingly innocuous aspect of cosmology had a chain-reaction impact on the future of the languages.

First, in this world it was considered culturally incorrect to speak any but the local language when in its territory. This meant that those who traveled to another place—and few did, given this strong sense of local rootedness—made use of interpreters rather than learning the other language themselves. Hence California Native American languages were rarely learned by adults.

As it happens, when adults learn a language in large numbers and there is no written standard or educational system enshrining its original form, it becomes less complex. English lacks the three genders of its sister language German because large numbers of Vikings invaded and settled the island starting in the 8th century and married local women. They exposed children to their approximate Old English to such an extent that this kind of English became the norm. I am writing, then, in a language descended from "bad" Old English.

That this kind of thing happened so rarely in indigenous California had a secondary effect: the languages tend to be more complex than anything an English speaker would imagine. Taking lessons in Yokuts, spoken in the southern Central Valley, you would learn that the past tense ending is -ish. So: pichiw is "grab," and pichiw-ish is "grabbed." But it turns out that grab is unusual in Yokuts: not just some but most Yokuts verbs are irregular. Add -ish to ushu "steal," and it morphs into osh-shu, with a new o instead of u and a double sh. Add -ish to toyokh "to doctor" and it's tuyikh-shi. You have to know precisely how each verb gets deformed—and that's just two verbs.

In Salinan over on the coast, there's no regular way to make a plural: every noun resembles the handful in English like men and geese. House is tam, houses: temhal. One dog: khuch. More of them: khosten—and this is how it is for all nouns. All of the California languages are like this in various ways. A grammatical description of any one of them is, in its way, as awesome as a Gothic cathedral.

But this means that, past childhood, learning these languages is really tough. English speakers find it hard enough to get past Spanish putting adjectives after nouns and marking its nouns with gender. But when we get to languages where instead of just saying go or put you have to also append one of several dozen suffixes indexing exactly what the goer or putter was like and the material nature of what was gone or put—e.g., in Karuk, putting on a glove requires a suffix marking that what happened was "in through a tubular space"—we are faced with a task few busy adults will be in a position to master.

Many years ago I was assigned to spend a few weeks helping speakers of one of the varieties of Pomo recover their language. We had a good time. However, here was a language in which to say "She didn't stay very long and came back," you have to phrase it as, roughly, "Long time it wasn't, she sat and back here-went," putting the verb at the end instead of in the middle and also mouthing sounds unfamiliar to speakers of English or even Spanish (or Russian or Chinese!). I couldn't help thinking that for them—or me—to actually breathe life into this language now surviving only on the page was not going to happen. And they knew it. One told me that she was just hoping to be able to know enough of the language that her descendants could feel a connection to the past and their place in the world.

This struck me as a healthy and achievable goal. Books like Golla's, demonstrating the amazing complexity of these languages, also show that we must alter our sense of what it is to "know" a language. When someone says they play the piano, we do not assume they play like Horowitz. In the same way, in a new world there will exist languages that thrive as abbreviations of what they once were, useable by modern adults who seek a cultural signpost rather than a daily vehicle of communication. Anecdotally, this is already effectively the case with revived languages such as Irish Gaelic and Maori. Their new speakers, using the languages in cultural activities and even in the media to an extent, nevertheless use English much more. They are rarely speaking the language in as full a form as their ancestors did. Yet no one would suppose that this invalidates the effort.

It is unlikely that 6,000 languages will continue to be passed down in fuller form than this, and they will often survive in an even more restricted sense: flash cards, expressions, songs, perhaps some strictly "101" grammar. The difficulty of mastering languages beyond childhood is but one reason why. Amidst globalization, a few widely spoken languages dominate in print, media, and popular music and are necessary to economic success. In this, they inevitably come to be associated with status and sophistication.

The educated Westerner, and especially the anthropologist or linguist, cherishes the indigenous as "authentic" and as a token of diversity in its modern definition. These are laudable perspectives in many ways but are not always shared by those to whom an indigenous language is simply the one they learned on their mother's knee, as ordinary as English is to us. Such a person may not feel especially authentic or diverse to themselves. Often they prioritize increasing their income and embracing the wider world—especially for their children.

The flourishing of 6,000 languages points us back to a much earlier stage of humankind in which all people were distributed in small groups like those in indigenous California, where the basic unit was the "tribelet" of a few hundred people. In the modern world, for better or for worse—and quite often worse—people are coming together. The only question would be why there wouldn't be fewer languages. However, if most of the world's languages cannot continue to be spoken, surely we must utilize the advantage of writing to document what once was.

The fashion is to justify this on the basis of the languages recording the unique worldviews of their speakers. But that notion is more fraught than often supposed. Say we celebrate Karuk for showing that its speakers were especially sensitive to things like tubular insertion. Is the American white kid somewhere in Indiana really less attuned to the snug feeling of getting his fingers into gloves than a Karuk kid in California once was, even if English doesn't have a suffix with that meaning?

Rather, languages randomly mark some things more than others. Call California Native Americans fascinatingly connected to space and direction, but then be prepared to call them blind to the difference between the hill versus just a hill—most Native American languages leave that particular distinction largely to context. We assume Native Americans felt that nuance as deeply as we do even if their grammars do not happen to explicitly mark it with words or suffixes. Just as obviously, for Yokuts to have almost no regular verbs says nothing about how its speakers process existence.

Dying languages should be documented not as psychological templates but as awesomely alternate randomnesses from what European languages happen to be. Golla's book is valuable also, then, in its diligent chronicle of the researchers over the centuries who have dedicated themselves to the task of simply getting on paper how these languages work. One of the most resonant photos in the book—from almost a hundred years ago—is of founding California language scholar Alfred Kroeber, longtime anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who got down the basic structure of dozens of California languages during his career. The snapshot, unusually for an era in which smiling for photographs was not yet common coin, captures a man grinning in the great outdoors—a man who clearly relished his mission.

And quite a mission it was. A language is a markedly huge business. First there is the basic grammatical machinery of the kind described above—but then there are the wrinkles. In English, we say one fish, two fish, okay—so fish is irregular: no two fishes. But then what about the Catholic Feast of the Seven Fishes? Try explaining that to a foreigner—such as to a Japanese one I know who also, despite her very good English, mentioned an obese man whose "meat" was hanging over the edges of a chair. We natives would say "flesh"—but why? "Meat" makes perfect sense: that we happen to prefer to say "flesh" or "flab" is just serendipity. You can say I'm frying some eggs, or I'm frying up some eggs. They don't mean the same thing—note that the version with up implies that the eggs will be ready for you to eat soon. But if you were teaching someone English, how likely would you be to get to that nuance?

To speak a language in full is to have full control over little things like that, and it's the rare outsider whose grammatical research can get down to details this fine. Even when well documented with a grammatical description and a dictionary, a great deal of what a language was has still been lost, just as a cat's skeleton cannot tell us that cats hold their tails in the air and curl up when they sleep.

For reasons of this kind, some insist that all efforts be made to keep such languages actually spoken, as "living things" rather than archival displays. However, Golla's book gives ample coverage to revival efforts, and the sad fact is that there is not a single report of a language that was once dying but has now been successfully passed on to a new generation. For all but a few lucky cases where happenstance has kept the language alive to the present day, documentation may be the best we can do.

In this light something bears mentioning that linguists traditionally step around. It is often implied that a great diversity of languages being spoken in the world is beneficial in the same way that genetic diversity is within a population. This, however, is more stated than demonstrated. If there had only ever been one language among all of the world's peoples, and all people could converse wherever they went, how commonly would people have regretted that there weren't thousands of mutually unintelligible languages? All humans could converse—who would have deemed that a disadvantage? Or, who would have said that it would be better if all humans had some other language alongside the universal one that only some people knew?

That is, amidst the downsides of language loss—including that most of those that die will be the smaller, indigenous ones—there are some benefits to there being fewer. A statement like that is understandably difficult to embrace for people watching generations of their own people grow up without something as central to cultural identity as their own language, as well as for scholars and activists who are equally dismayed at same. However, at least we have the technology to get on record a good deal of what the lost languages were like, and California Indian Languages is a perfect introduction to this record as it currently exists for 78 vastly different ways of talking.

John H. McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is the author most recently of What Language Is (Gotham).

Most ReadMost Shared