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Na-Dene Etymologies - на-дене этимологии

About the classical Na-Dene hypothesis

Particularly controversial in linguistic taxonomy during the 1980’s was the so-called “Na-Dene Problem”. The problem was whether Haida, a language spoken on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the western coast of Canada, was a member of the Na-Dene family, as Edward Sapir had originally claimed in 1915, or was, rather, unrelated to the other branches of Na-Dene (i.e. Tlingit, Eyak, and Athabaskan). When Sapir’s Na-Dene family was attacked by Pliny Goddard (1920), a leading Athabaskanist of his day, Sapir, weary and disgusted by a similar taxonomic dispute with the Algonquianist Truman Michelson (see Chapter 6), chose not to respond to Goddard’s criticism.

This controversy was renewed in the 1960’s and 1970’s in a dispute between Heinz-J¨urgen Pinnow, who maintained, with evidence even more abundant than that in Sapir’s original material, that Haida was indeed a member of Na-Dene, and Michael Krauss, who argued that Haida had not been shown to be related to the Na-Dene family (for references to this dispute, see Pinnow 1990).

In 1979 Robert D. Levine claimed that “the evidence offered in support of the ‘classical’ Na-Dene hypothesis (i.e., as set up by Sapir in his 1915 statement) is spurious, and that there is currently no empirical basis for including Haida in the Na-Dene grouping” (Levine 1979: 157). That same year Krauss (1979) also maintained that “there is no detectable genetic relationship between Haida and the others in the group, Tlingit and Athabaskan-Eyak” (p. 838) and thanked Levine “for debunking once and for all the claim that Haida has been demonstrated to be genetically related to Tlingit, etc.” (p. 841).

Other scholars who have examined the evidence, however, have tended to side with Sapir and Pinnow rather than with Krauss and Levine. Sergei Nikolaev (1991: 43) noted that “certain doubts have been expressed regarding the inclusion of Haida in the Na-Dene family, but they should be considered unsubstantiated.”

Greenberg’s opinion to the “Na-Dene Problem”

In his book on the classification of New World languages, Joseph Greenberg (1987: 321–30) devoted an entire chapter to the “Na-Dene Problem,” arguing that Levine’s method of dismantling Na-Dene could just as easily be turned against Indo-European. Even if one were to ignore the new evidence adduced by Pinnow, and even accepting Levine’s mostly erroneous strictures on methodology, Greenberg showed that Sapir’s original evidence connecting Haida with the rest of Na-Dene was more than sufficient: “Even after Levine’s unreasonable attack (1979), what survives is a body of evidence superior to that which could be adduced under similar restrictions for the affinity of Albanian, Celtic, and Armenian, all three universally recognized as valid members of the Indo-European family of languages” (p. 331).

During the data-gathering stage, in preparation for his work on the classification of New World languages, Greenberg assembled a Na-Dene comparative wordlist (Greenberg 1981). These data, however, were not used in Language in the Americas (1987), where Greenberg simply defended Sapir’s original evidence. The present study is intended to show that had Greenberg chosen to use his Na-Dene wordlists, he could easily have strengthened Sapir’s case, and in fact, as the etymologies given below indicate, the “Na-Dene Problem” was based on a misunderstanding of methodology, not on a lack of evidence. Can anyone really believe that Haida shares as many, or as precise, similarities with the Khoisan family (or any other family) as it does with the other Na-Dene languages? The etymologies in this chapter, based on my interpretation of Greenberg’s Na-Dene notebook (a copy of which may be found in Stanford University’s Green Library), argue to the contrary.

It should be noted that Greenberg’s notebook includes information from 16 different Haida sources, 11 different Tlingit sources, and six different Eyak sources. Consequently, there is a certain fluctuation in the transcriptions for words in these languages that reflects dialectal differences, differing transcriptional abilities on the part of the linguists who produced the various works, and different systems of phonetic transcription. With a few exceptions I have not sought to impose uniformity on the varying transcriptions, which would be a daunting and not wholly feasible task. I have, however, consistently rendered [c] as [ts], and glottalized consonants are always indicated by a following apostrophe (e.g. p’, t’, k’).

Furthermore, all morphological boundaries cited in these etymologies are actually posited in the sources, as shown in Greenberg’s notebook. Quite often, however, morphologically unanalyzed forms are compared, where a certain morphological break is implicit in the comparison. Usually the portion of unanalyzed words being compared is clear, even without the specification of morpheme boundaries.

After assembling the set of Na-Dene etymologies on the basis of Greenberg’s notebook, I compared these etymologies with those originally suggested by Sapir in 1915. In cases of overlap (roughly 25 examples), I have indicated the number of the Sapir etymology at the end of the etymology (e.g. [S44]). The other Sapir etymologies were then added to the list, again with an indication of their number in each case. Finally, some Na-Dene etymologies from a letter of Heinz-J¨urgen Pinnow (pers. comm.) were added to the list; they, too, are identified at the ends of the appropriate etymologies (e.g. [P18]).

The etymologies follow:


























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