Linguistic Perspectives on Early Population Migrations to the Americas

Friday, February 17, 2017: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Room 309 (Hynes Convention Center)
Mark Sicoli, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
The two greatest challenges for Linguistics to contribute to dialogues on Pleistocene America is the loss of vocabulary and the loss of languages to history. Historical linguistic methods based on regular sound correspondences between cognate vocabulary has an upper limit of about 9000 years by which time related languages have completely replaced inherited vocabulary. Language extinctions also complicate the application of linguistic methods to understanding prehistory. Many languages in the Americas were lost to the extensive epidemics and genocides of colonialism, as well as though language shifts, where speakers in social contact may give up one language to adopt another. In this latter case, the language shifted-to often becomes changed to bear traces of linguistic features of the language shifted-from. In this talk I’ll present on methods for the comparison of structural (non-vocabulary) features for inferring deep historical relations between languages and discuss how the study of Language Contact can help us gain an understanding of extinct languages involved in the sociolinguistic prehistory of Alaska during several waves of human migration. I first review Sicoli & Holton (2014) “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia” in which we applied computational phylogenetic methods using typological linguistic features to compare hypotheses about the dispersal of the trans-Beringian Dene-Yeniseian language family. Then I present new work with Holton in which we focus on typological linguistic evidence for the subgrouping of Dene languages suggestive of multiple routes and phases for Dene migrations in North America. Finally I present findings from a project with Holton and Aleut specialist Anna Berge in which we incorporate Eskimo and Aleut languages into our typological database to better understand language contact in Alaska. Based on integrative analysis of typological features of language structure and of vocabulary in the linguistic inventories of languages documented in historic periods we find support for a deep history of language contact in southern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Pacific Northwest Coast that included language shifts from otherwise unknown languages. I argue in this talk that understanding more about the patterned effects of language contacts during the multiple waves of human migration across Alaska can shine some light on the diverse cultural landscape of terminal Pleistocene Beringia.