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The Native Languages of the Southeastern United States
by Nicholas A. Hopkins
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Table of Contents

The Southeast as a Cultural and Linguistic Area
The Native Languages of the Southeast
Muskogean Languages
Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan Languages
The Languages of the Lower Mississippi
The Languages of Peninsular Florida
The Prehistory of the Languages of the Southeast
The Comparative Method of Historical Linguistics
The Southeastern Linguistic Area
Muskogean and the Southeast
List of Figures
Sources Cited

The Southeast as a Cultural and Linguistic Area

The Southeastern region of the United States is an area within which the aboriginal cultures and languages were quite similar to one another, as opposed to cultures and languages which lay outside the area. Within such a "culture area", languages and cultures have developed along similar lines due to shared circumstances and intergroup contact, and it is possible to make general statements which apply to all of the native groups, as opposed to groups which lie outside the area. Other such "culture areas" of North America include the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest (Kroeber 1939).

The core of the Southeast culture area (Kroeber 1939: 61-67, Swanton 1928) is the region that stretches from the Mississippi River east to the Atlantic, from the Gulf Coast to the border between Kentucky and Tennessee (or North Carolina and Virginia). The periphery of the Southeast includes territory as much as 200 miles west of the Mississippi (into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and East Texas), and as far north as the Ohio and Potomac rivers (including Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia).

In archaeological terms (Willey 1966: 246 ff), the Southeast is part of the Eastern Woodlands area, which includes most of North America east of the Great Plains. This area is (or was) generally wooded, with mixed oak-pine woods predominating in the Southeast. Soils are reasonably good, and rivers and streams abound. The climate is temperate, even subtropical in its southern extremes (e.g., south Florida).

The Eastern Woodlands experienced some four major cultural traditions before European contact: Big-Game Hunting, the Archaic, the Woodland, and the Mississippian cultural traditions. Big Game hunting prevailed at the time of the earliest known human remains, and involved a dependence on Pleistocene mega-fauna (mammoths, etc.), as its name implies. In the early post-Pleistocene (after about 8000 BC), with the extinction of the mega-fauna, economies shifted to greater reliance on small game and increased utilization of wild plant foods (the Archaic tradition). About 1000 BC, the appearance of pottery and ceramic figurines, mortuary mounds and other earthworks, and especially plant cultivation (including maize) marks the transition to the Woodlands cultural tradition. Finally, around 500 AD, maize agriculture intensified large permanent towns were established, and the construction of organized complexes of large mounds around plazas-along with new vessel forms and decorations-marks the onset of the Mississippian culture. This tradition originated along the central and lower Mississippi River Valley (hence its name), and spread out from there over the next 1000 years, so that by 1400 AD centers of Mississippian culture were found throughout the Eastern Woodlands.

Not all of these cultural traditions were manifested in exactly the same way across the entire region, and at a given time neighboring societies might be practicing different traditions. One population might already have adopted Mississippian culture, but its neighbors had not. Since the cultural traditions do not define strict chronological periods, archaeologists prefer to use a distinct set of terms for the chronology of the region (Willey 1966):

Paleo-Indian (before 8000 BC), Big-Game Hunting;

Archaic Period (8000-1000 BC):
Early (8000-5000 BC), transition to Archaic culture;
Middle (5000-2000 BC), only Archaic culture;
Late (2000-1000 BC), only Archaic culture.

Burial Mound Period (1000 BC-AD 700):
Burial Mound I (1000-300 BC), transition to Woodland culture;
Burial Mound II (300 BC-AD 700), Woodland culture except in marginal areas.

Temple Mound Period (AD 700-AD 1700):
Temple Mound I (AD 700-1200), transition to Mississippian culture;
Temple Mound II (AD 1200-1700), Mississippian except in marginal areas.

The last of these archaeological stages, Temple Mound II, includes the period of early European contact, which begins in the Southeast in the first half of the sixteenth century with the expeditions of Ponce de León (1513), Narváez (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539-1542). By 1700, the native societies of Florida and the Gulf Coast had been transformed by contact with the Spanish and the French, and English colonization had disrupted much of the rest of the Southeast. Some of the Europeans who visited Indian societies during this contact period left detailed accounts of Indian cultures (e.g., Le Page du Pratz published an eye-witness account of a Natchez funeral in 1758; du Pratz 1956). However, the rapid spread of Old World diseases – even ahead of the visitors – had altered many societies well before they were observed by Europeans, and even the earliest reports apparently do not do justice to the nature of aboriginal society.

Millennia of shared cultural development had resulted in fairly uniform culture across the Southeast by 1700 (except that there was a distinction between the culture of Mississippian towns and isolated rural populations that still followed Woodlands ways). There was no corresponding linguistic convergence. The known populations of the Southeast spoke languages of at least six distinct language families, as different from each other in their structures as English and Chinese. The core of the Southeast was occupied by speakers of the Muskogean languages, but other languages were spoken around the periphery and along major trade routes. The language families reported are the following (Crawford 1975: 5-6; locations given here are grossly simplified):

Algonquian Family
Pamlico (northern Virginia)
Powhattan (Tidewater Virginia)
Shawnee (Kentucky and Tennessee)

Caddoan Family
Caddo (Oklahoma, Arkansas, and East Texas)

Iroquoian Family
Cherokee (western North Carolina)
Nottoway (southeastern Virginia)
Tuscarora (North Carolina)

Muskogean Family
Alabama (central Alabama)
Apalachee (Tallahassee area)
Chickasaw (northern Mississippi, western Tennessee)
Choctaw (central Mississippi)
Creek (central Alabama and Georgia)
Hitchiti (central Georgia)
Koasati (northern Alabama)
Mikasuki (southern Georgia)
Seminole (central Georgia)

Siouan Family
Biloxi (Gulf Coast Mississippi)
Catawba (South Carolina)
Ofo (western Mississippi)
Quapaw (eastern Arkansas)
Tutelo (western Virginia)
Woccon (tidewater North Carolina)

Unclassified Languages
Atakapa (Texas-Louisiana coasts)
Chitimacha (Mississippi delta, Louisiana)
Natchez (western Tennessee)
Tunica (northwestern Mississippi)
Yuchi (Georgia-North Carolina border)

Languages spoken in adjacent areas could be very different from one another, to the point of mutual unintelligibility, and it is surely the case that many dozens of languages died out before they were reported. To compensate for this great diversity in languages, there were several widely used trade languages, spoken as a second (or third) language by many people. The most famous of these is Mobilian (or Mobilian Jargon), a trade language based on Choctaw-Chickasaw, used up the Mississippi River and across the Gulf Coast as the language of commerce and travel. In the inland Southeast, Creek was the language preferred for the same purposes, and speakers of other Muskogean languages were likely to be bilingual in Creek. Around the Chesapeake Bay, other trade languages probably existed; Jersey and Delaware jargons developed to deal with the incoming Europeans, and something similar may have been used before contact.

Despite their gross differences, the languages of the Southeast share many characteristics which lead linguists to treat the area as a "linguistic area," analogous to a "culture area" (Campbell 1997: 341-344), and similar in nature to other linguistic areas, such as Mesoamerica, or the Indian subcontinent. Some of the features that define this area are phonological, having to do with the pronunciation of the languages. Some are grammatical (verb conjugations, etc.) and some are lexical (similar vocabularies and patterns of word formation). In any case, the defining features of the area are common to most of the languages within the area, and rare elsewhere in North America.

In phonology, bilabial and labiodental fricatives ([Φ] and [f]), and the lateral spirant or "voiceless l" ([£]) are characteristic Southeastern markers of speech. In grammar, "classificatory" verbs abound; a verb like ’to lie down’, for instance, would have many distinct forms, one used for long, stick-like objects, another for round objects, another for flat sheet-like objects, and so on. Nouns are divided between those that are inalienably possessed (like body parts) and those that are not, and the inflection of these nouns for possession has parallels in verb conjugations that distinguish between degrees of "control" by the subject over the action. Some of these features are reported from other North American Indian languages, but the predominance of their presence and the specific ways they are manifested in the languages is typically Southeastern. Linguists have been able to pinpoint the areas of origin of some of these features, and treat their widespread occurrence across the area as the result of diffusion, the result of borrowing of language patterns, a process similar to the development of shared culture that is seen in the archaeological and ethnographic evidence.

In summary, the Southeast is an area of rather similar geography that has been occupied for a long time by societies that have developed along the same lines, in direct or indirect contact with one another. These societies speak a large number of languages that were originally much less like each other than they are now. In both language and culture, then, it is proper to treat the Southeast as a distinct area, within which societies all share a large number of traits that collectively distinguish them from the societies of other areas.

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The Native Languages of the Southeastern United States  (1.03 MB)
by Nicholas A. Hopkins

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