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July 11, 2012

The first, second, and third nations

By now you’ve probably read about the paper which reports that there seem to have been three waves of humans migrating into the New World prior to the arrival of Europeans. A major aspect of this result is that it does not emerge out of a vacuum, but rather comes close to settling an old question in linguistics. The late Joseph Greenberg generated a series of audacious phylogenies of languages of the world. Greenberg’s attempts received mixed reviews. It seems that there is little controversy about some of his classifications of African languages, but linguists of American native dialects rejected his division of the languages of the New World into three broad families, Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind. Eskimo-Aleut is rather self-evident. Na-Dene encompasses a group of languages in northwest North America, along with some significant outliers such as Navajo. Amerind seems to roughly be a grab-bag of everything else. The linguistic trichotomy also lent itself to a narrative of three migrations. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza gave his support to Greenberg’s framework in The History and Geography of Human Genes, and it seems most non-linguists are particularly congenial ...

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