Conservative dilemma

Dr. John E. McLaughlin mclasutt at
Fri Aug 27 05:38:02 UTC 1999

Just to set the record straight on the origin of the Wiyot-Yurok-Algonkian
language family (Algic) that Lloyd Anderson has mentioned recently.

The grouping of Wiyot and Yurok together was the work of Dixon and Kroeber,
whose methodology was primarily lexical similarities (not thorough sound
laws, but something closer to Greenberg's methodology).  By Kroeber's own
statement, lexical similarity supersedes grammatical similarity when there
is a discrepancy.  Sapir related these two to Algonkian.  Sapir's
methodology was classical, however.  I don't know exactly what Lloyd is
talking about when he says that the comparative method doesn't work in
comparing the three parts of Algic.  Sapir himself wrote (in his article in
1913), "There is good lexical, morphological, and phonological evidence to
genetically relate Algonkin to Wiyot and Yurok".  He stressed the importance
of regular sound correspondences.

Much of Truman Michelson's (1914) opposition to Algic was geographic at its
core, although he also noted a number of morphological traits that were
un-Algonkian and quite Californian.  (We'd call that a Sprachbund effect
today.)  Michelson's opposition to Algic was also a result of the tenor of
the times.  Sapir, Dixon, Kroeber, et al. were combining Powell's 58
families right and left.  It's not surprising that a correct proposal was
labelled as false in the contemporary climate.

The issue lay dormant until the superior linguistic materials on Wiyot and
Yurok of Teeter and Robbins and Bloomfield's thorough reconstruction of
Proto-Algonkian showed that Sapir had been right after all in all
areas--lexical, morphological, and grammatical.  The final nail in the
coffin of nonrelatedness was in the comparison of certain features in
Algonkian and Wiyot and Yurok that were irregular.  The irregularities in
each were "regular" when compared across the board.  For example, a -t- is
inserted in Proto-Algonkian between a possessive pronominal prefix and a
vowel-initial root, whereas in Wiyot a -t- is inserted between possessive
prefixes and a root beginning with hV (with the subsequent loss of the h).
Algonkian *ne + *ehkw- = *netehkw- 'my louse', Wiyot du- + hikw = dutikw 'my

This is all part of the Comparative Method.  I looked at the index of Lyle
Campbell's "American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native
America" and saw four lines of references each to Yurok and Wiyot.  I looked
at these and found absolutely no evidence for Lloyd's implication the
Comparative Method wasn't used to establish this relationship.  Sapir used
it, Kroeber and Dixon didn't.  But Kroeber and Dixon didn't relate W & Y to
Algonkian--Sapir did, using classical Comparative Methodology.  I don't hang
around too many Algonkianists, so if Lloyd has some inside scoop that isn't
in the literature, I'm unaware of it.

John E. McLaughlin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
mclasutt at

Program Director
Utah State University On-Line Linguistics

English Department
3200 Old Main Hill
Utah State University
Logan, UT  84322-3200

(435) 797-2738 (voice)
(435) 797-3797 (fax)

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