- California Indian Languages by Victor Golla
“Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the aboriginal languages of California knows that there were a lot of them.” This is the lead sentence to page 1 of the introduction to this excellent and comprehensive book. Its scope is far greater than its title suggests. By “California,” Victor Golla means “the California area.” Geographically, this comprises those languages spoken from approximately 31° 30′ N in Baja California to 43° N in south-central Oregon—a region considerably larger than California, since it includes all those language families which may have had a toehold in the state, such as Takelma, usually considered an Oregon language. This was one of the most linguistically complex regions in the world, encompassing an area nearly a thousand miles long and sometimes more than two hundred miles wide where at least seventy-eight mutually unintelligible languages were spoken. This number represents nearly a third of the languages of North America north of Mesoamerica.
Part 1, “Introduction: Defining California as a Sociolinguistic Area,” focuses on the consequences of the tribelet as the basic political unit. The tribelet consists of the chief’s village plus a few smaller settlements. Common language was sometimes a unifying factor between tribelets, but it was secondary since villages speaking the same language were occasionally enemies, as was the case among some of the Eel River Athabaskan tribelets.
Part 2, “History of Study,” details the documentation of California Indian languages in full historical context from European contact to the present, including information on where surviving documents are housed, and parts of this section will make the linguistic scholar weep. The Jesuits were originally in charge of missions in Baja California. It was their policy to learn, record, and preach in local languages. Most of their extensive records were lost when King Carlos III of Spain expelled the order in 1767, with the result that we know little of the languages around the lower part of the peninsula except for a sketch of Waikuri, which was probably a language isolate. Other languages spoken nearby included Monqui and Pericu, but so little data on them have survived that we can say almost nothing about them.
As far as the languages are concerned, things fared better in Alta California, where the Spanish missions were established by the Franciscans, some of whom ignored orders from the King of Spain and translated prayers and catechisms into aboriginal languages. A few went even further, most notably Fray Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, a missionary from 1808 to 1840 who wrote extensively on these languages. His crown jewel was a grammar and phrase book of Mutsun, the language of San Juan Bautista. A century later, J. P. Harrington was able to reelicit Arroyo’s surviving corpus from Ascención Solorsano, the last fluent Mutsun speaker. Father Geronimo Boscana, a missionary at San Juan Capistrano, wrote a lengthy scholarly treatise on the aboriginal religion and culture as well as material on the language.
As we progress through time, additional historical figures connected with California languages come alive under Golla’s skilled pen. We learn that the Frenchman, Alphonse Pinart, who collected extensive vocabularies of Mission Indian languages during the nineteenth century, devoted much of his fortune to the project and died in poverty. We also learn that the naturalist Clinton Hart Merriam, who collected the Indian names for [End Page 295] plants and animals throughout a good part of California in the early twentieth century and listed them with their English and Latin identifications, had earlier helped found the American Ornithologists’ Union and had traveled on an expedition to Alaska with John Muir. Unfortunately, Merriam insisted on transcribing Indian words in an orthography based on that of Webster’s dictionary, to the dismay of contemporary linguists. However, his Miwok transcriptions were accurate enough to trigger my consultants’ memories for forgotten items. Consequently, I was able to list the words in my dictionaries with both phonemic accuracy and Merriam’s precise Latin definitions.
The most significant of...