Communication in Native North America

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Communication in Native North America


Language Development. As the Paleolithic ancestors of native North Americans spread across the continent in the wake of retreating ice fields after 7000 b.c., they encountered a vast array of new environments and ecosystems. During the next eight millennia free-wandering bands adapted to these new environments, and their movements became increasingly restricted to well-defined territories. As language communities migrated and grew, portions of them split off and moved on. Over time, physical separation, combined with adaptation to different environments and contact with new and unrelated bands, led to increasing linguistic and cultural divergence between subgroups of formerly unified language communities. Together these evolutionary linguistic descendants of a single, common protolanguage constitute a language family and are said to be genetically related to one another. The more closely related two languages are and the higher the degree of mutual intelligibility, the more recent the split between them. Historical linguists, who study and compare languages as they change through time, have grouped native American languages into thirty-four multilanguage families; another thirty or so seem to stand alone without demonstrable genetic relation to any other language. In total, some four hundred distinct languages were spoken in North America on the eve of European contact, at least half of them mutually unintelligible to each other.

Oral Culture. All precontact North American languages were spoken only, without any written elements. Native North American societies, therefore, were almost completely dependent on the collective memory of their members for cultural knowledge. All environmental, historical, political, religious, and social knowledge necessary to ensure a groups survival lived only in the memories of its living members and was passed to future generations by word of mouth. As a result, in most of these oral cultures the spoken word assumed great importance, and the act of speaking took on special significance. To aid memory, cultural information was often transmitted through stories and songs. In formal settings words were not spoken thoughtlessly or in haste but rather with gravity and deliberation. Oratory, laced with meaningful metaphors and allusions, often assumed a central role in political and diplomatic exchanges, where great courtesy and respect were shown to both speakers and listeners to guarantee that all involved could hear, understand, and remember. Finally, without a written record to freeze the spoken word for all time, words took on a life of their own. Consequently, most native peoples focused on the nature of a relationship and the ongoing process of maintaining it through the exchange of words and gifts rather than on a finite, static agreement between two people or groups. The underlying truth or meaning of an ever-changing repertoire of stories, histories, and songs was more important than the specific words through which it was conveyed. Speech, like all of life, was a process, and words, in a real sense, became deeds of great significance and power.

Ritual. An important aspect of the act of speaking and of the significance of the spoken word in native North America was the ritual surrounding them. Rituals are a specialized kind of nonverbal communication. Often rituals legitimize, validate, or solemnize the messages and speech acts they frame. They give the words and acts they accompany special weight and meaning and reinforce the collective cultural identity of those who participate. In addition, rituals usually engage the senses. Instead of merely hearing the words being spoken, the listeners also see accompanying gestures or dances and frequently smell special incense or smoke, taste particular foods or drinks, hear music and singing, and touch each other or significant objects related to the message being conveyed. These sensory experiences make both the experience and the message more memorablean important consideration in oral cultures. For Native Americans an orators pacing and somber visage signaled his gravity and deliberation while emphasizing the importance of his speech; the taste and smell of tobacco reminded partakers of the agreements discussed over a calumet or pipe; and the smoke wafting skyward visually carried the words and prayers of the people to the powerful beings who lived there. Without such rituals and sensory cues speech remained mere discourse, suitable for exchanging information or expressing views and opinions but lacking the force and legitimacy of the more formal speech acts used to solicit and control spiritual power or to establish and maintain advantageous relationships.

Nonverbal Communication. Native North Americans employed a variety of nonspeech communication systems in addition to ritual. By far the most sophisticated was sign language, which probably originated in the communication needs of deaf or mute individuals or in the impromptu signing necessary in particular circumstances such as war or hunting, where silence was required. Whatever its origins, a native sign language was clearly in use in the extreme southern plains by the time of contact as a means of communication between groups speaking different languages. Trade undoubtedly stimulated its spread throughout the plains following European contact and the introduction of the horse. Although sign language was the most sophisticated and complex of native nonverbal communication systems, it was not the only one in use. For long-distance communication, when speech was impossible, American Indians employed other kinds of audible or visual signals. Audible signals were simple and limited primarily to the imitations of birdcalls and animal cries used by war parties and scouts to communicate when stealth was required. When terrain permitted, smoke and fire as well as body, arm, or blanket signaling could convey limited kinds of information regarding the presence of game or enemies across long distances. In such cases, however, meanings had to be either conventional and obvious or quite specific and assigned by prior agreement to particular signals. Finally, Native Americans made widespread use of the physical representation of ideas. Some of these representations were largely symbolic and somewhat stereotypical, such as totems representing clan or tribal affiliation. Others were much more flexible and complex, such as pictography, where anyone capable of recognizing the pictures could deduce at least the subject of the message or representation, though specific details might remain unintelligible outside the cultural context of the artist. All of these nonverbal or nonspeech systems are independent from a particular language. The symbols employed do not stand for particular words but are themselves representations of particular meanings and convey information and ideas directly. As a result these nonverbal communication systems are particularly well suited to communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Historical Linguistics

Languages change constantly in form, pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary, and meaning. The study of these changes through time, and it is called historical linguistics. As they analyze variations in a language between two or more points in time, historical linguists often discover differences across space. Both are of concern to the historical linguist, whose ultimate task is not merely to describe the nature and direction of change within a language but to try to explain it. Migration or isolation of populations, contact with other cultures and languages, and alterations in lifestyle or circumstances can all cause languages to change. Native American languages present special challenges for the historical linguist because knowledge of the precontact history of many groups is incomplete and because the languages had no written component until contact with Europeans. Even after contact, written examples of native languages recorded by European observers were usually fragmentary and influenced by nonnative cultural perspectives and misconceptions. Still, by combining these sources with knowledge gained from archaeology about early American cultures and lifestyles, historical linguists have been able to establish family relationships between many native North American languages and have had some success in reconstructing the hypothetical parent forms, or proto-languages, from which they evolved. This information, speculative as it may be in some instances, when combined with more-recent data on the distribution of Native American languages across the continent, provides important clues to migration patterns, trade and communication networks, and intercultural contact before the arrival of Europeans.

Sources: Ives Goddard, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 17: Languages (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996);

Winfred P. Lehmann, Historical Linguistics; An Introduction, third edition (London & New York: Routledge, 1992).

Intercultural communication. Prior to European contact, native North Americans did not live in isolation from each other. They traded and raided extensively, and by the time the first European explorers arrived on the continent extensive trade, transportation, and communication networks were in place. Given the wide diversity of Native American languages in North America, much of this precontact trade and communication occurred between native groups who spoke different, often mutually unintelligible, languages. Initial contacts undoubtedly involved the use of relatively crude gestures to convey basic information surrounding barter of material goods and regarding local landscapes and peoples. As the nature of contact changed and intensified, however, simplistic gestural systems had to be replaced by more sophisticated means of communicating abstract ideas and the subtleties of diplomacy and alliance. Sign language clearly evolved sufficiently to fill the need for a more advanced communication system on the southern plains. Much more common was the emergence of people knowledgeable in the language and customs of both groups, usually through intermarriage, captivity, slavery, or the intentional exchange of children as hostages and bilingual trainees. These individuals often served as translators and interpreters, facilitating communication at the highest, most complex levels. If interaction between the groups became regular, sustained, and stable, the groups sometimes came to share a common language, or lingua franca, in the sense of general mutual intelligibility among the population. After European contact the newcomers exploited these existing communication networks, and the development of intercultural communication between Europeans and Native Americans followed a similar pattern.

Rituals of Possession

Europeans, like native North Americans, relied on nonverbal rituals to legitimize and reinforce their words and actions in public contexts. Despite the fact that European languages had written components, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the ability to read and write was restricted to the nobility, the higher clergy, and an emerging class of educated professionals and government officials. These groups made up a small, elite portion of the population. The majority of Europeans remained illiterate and lived out their lives within predominantly oral cultures. As a result rituals and ceremonies assumed great importance as nonverbal modes of communicating with the general population. Religious services, for example, were conducted in Latin, and few in the congregation understood the words of the priest or the responses they themselves uttered by rote. Most, however, comprehended the meaning of the rituals that accompanied communion, baptism, and prayer. Similarly, the royal courts of Europe were steeped in pomp and ceremony that symbolized and legitimized the sovereignty and power of monarchs over their subjects. European states created their own authority and communicated it through language and gestures derived from everyday life. Similarly, in America, European powers initiated colonial rule through ceremonies of possessionplanting crosses, banners, and coats of arms; marching in processions; picking up dirt; drawing maps; and reading proclamations. The specific symbolic actions for instituting authority varied dramatically from nation to nation, for every European power defined possession, dominion, lordship, and sovereignty differently and experienced a distinctive lifestyle and language. These symbolic enactments of possession, however, were directed predominantly at the newcomers own countrymen and political leaders in an effort to convince them of the legitimacy of their rule over the new territory and its inhabitants. Such rituals, while strange and incomprehensible to native onlookers, communicated legitimacy and power to countrymen back home and, though perhaps less clearly, to European rivals.

Source: Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europes Conquest of the New World, 14921640 (Cambridge, U.K. &, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).


Michael Coe, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson, Atlas of Ancient America (New York & Oxford: Facts on File, 1986);

Ives Goddard, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 17: Languages (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996);

Susan Wurtzburg and Lyle Campbell, North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence of Its Existence before European Contact, International Journal of American Linguistics, 61 (April 1995): 153167.

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Communication in Native North America

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Communication in Native North America