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Alfred Kroeber and the Development of Linguistic Anthropology: A Brief Reassessment

James Stanlaw

Illinois State University

2022
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Stanlaw, James, 2022. “Alfred Kroeber and the Development of Linguistic Anthropology: A Brief Reassessment”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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Cet article fait partie d’une série de six communications présentées le 19 novembre 2021, lors d’une session intitulée “Alfred L. Kroeber : The Man, His Work and His Legacy”, organisée pendant la réunion annuelle de l’American Anthropological Association (AAA). Le 27 janvier 2021, l’Université de Berkeley (Californie) a débaptisé le “Kroeber Hall” qui abrite le département et le musée d’anthropologie - institutions fondées par Kroeber. Il nous a semblé intéressant d’offrir en lecture dans Bérose ces six contributions discutées en novembre. Sans prétendre à l’exhaustivité, elle offrent des éclairages complémentaires sur l’oeuvre d’une figure majeure de l’histoire de l’anthropologie états-unienne. Participaient à cette session : Herbert S. Lewis (organisateur, Université du Wisconsin-Madison), Stanley Brandes (Université de Californie, Berkeley), James Stanlaw (président, Illinois State University), Jack Glazier (Oberlin College), Nicholas Barron (Mission College), et Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Université de Californie, Berkeley).

Introduction : The Call for a Retrospective

Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) is largely known today as one of the first founders of modern American anthropology, and as a major contributor to culture theory via such constructs as the “superorganic” (1917a), “culture area” (Driver 1962), or “configurations of culture growth” (1969), as well as his book of definitions of culture with Clyde Kluckhohn (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952). Equally important, however, are his contributions to American linguistics, and what was to become linguistic anthropology. As one of his biographers, Julian Steward—himself one of Kroeber’s students—said of anthropology at that time, “During the first four decades, or perhaps longer, of the twentieth century, language was definitely secondary to ethnological studies and teaching … language skills were definitely incidental.” Kroeber adamantly thought otherwise : “Kroeber’s devotion to linguistics was truly remarkable in view of the history of linguistic studies in the United States …” and anthropology in the early twentieth century (Steward 1973 : 34). However, Kroeber’s recognition as a linguistic anthropologist these days has waned. For example, Floyd Lounsbury (1968)—himself an important figure in the early development of linguistic anthropology, and friend and colleague of Kroeber—did not even mention Kroeber in his 75-page retrospective “One Hundred Years of Anthropological Linguistics” just eight short years after his death in 1960. And Kroeber is rarely mentioned, if at all, in the standard linguistic anthropology textbooks. This paper serves as first attempt to at least mention, though not rectify, some of these glaring omissions.

Arriving at Linguistic Anthropology

It is commonly said that Kroeber was Franz Boas’s first PhD student, though actually that was Alexander Chamberlain at Clark University in 1892. Nonetheless, Kroeber was Boas’s first Columbia University student, receiving his doctorate in 1901, his dissertation being a study of Arapaho decorative symbolism. This was the first anthropology PhD granted by Columbia. Indeed, Kroeber—the “First Boasian,” as the late Ira Jacknis called him (2002)—was probably as instrumental in the development of the new disciple as was his teacher.

Like Boas, Kroeber was bilingual, his first language being German (he was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of immigrant parents). He was literate and accomplished at a young age, and translated Heinrich Heine into English and A. E. Housman into German (Wolf 1981 : 38). He entered Columbia at the age of 16 to study English, but turned to anthropology after taking a class with Boas on Native American languages. Kroeber’s first fieldwork (several trips between 1899 and 1901) took him to Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, and were conducted under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, where Boas was curator. In 1901 Kroeber went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he stayed until his retirement in 1946, though he remained the dean of American anthropology until his death in 1960.

Kroeber arrived in anthropology via the study of language : “I came from humanistic literature, entered anthropology by the gate of linguistics” (1952 : 173). But his linguistic work usually had some larger theoretical goal in mind. For example, when Kroeber began his ethnological and archeological survey of the “tribes” of California (1925 [1976]), he was not just gathering convenient data, for its own sake, in his own backyard ; he was attempting to solve an intriguing linguistic puzzle : why, according to the commonly-accepted classification of Indian languages of the day by John Wesley Powell, did California show almost half of the diversity found in all of North America ? As we will return to later, Kroeber’s examination of typological resemblances based on grammatical and morphological features showed that the California languages actually fell into three broad types, correlated to geographical location or culture areas. This has been called a remarkably original step in the study of languages of North America, inspiring much later work.

The 1940s and 1950s were the heydays among anthropologists endorsing the so-called Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—the argument that language to a large extent determines thought. However, Kroeber—though Boas’s de facto successor as leader of American anthropology—took a contrarian view : The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, while an “intriguing and important problem … will probably prove both ‘true’ and ‘false’ at different levels … I do not believe that at the present time the Whorfian problem can be solved by tests or experiments any more than by analysis : both evidence and argument simply do not meet counterevidence or argument …” (quoted in Hymes 1983 : 262). This ambiguity was perhaps due to his subscribing to a “superorganic” view of culture : that is, that culture is supra-individual and deterministic, and being bound to context and history, cannot be reduced to anything else ; culture derives from culture (Kroeber 1948 : 253-254 ; Steward 1962 : 203-204)—a debate he would carry on with Edward Sapir (Kroeber 1917a, Sapir 1917).

Among the general public, and several generations of undergraduate anthropology students, Kroeber is probably most well-known for his work with Ishi, the so-called “Last Yahi,” the supposed “last wild Indian” remaining in North America, “discovered” shivering in a corral in northern California in 1911. Indeed, Ishi’s family and others of his community (the Yana/Yahi) were annihilated during various massacres. Alone for several years, Ishi was captured and eventually ended up under the care of Kroeber at the University of California. The story has been told in numerous books and films, including an 1961 account by Kroeber’s widow in Ishi in Two Worlds (T. Kroeber 1976), which sold over two million copies. The relationship between Kroeber and Ishi was complex in numerous ways (T. Kroeber 1970 ; Sackman 2010). But if nothing else, much of Yahi/Yana culture and language was documented by Kroeber during the five years Ishi lived at Berkeley. The 148 wax cylinder recordings of Ishi texts made by Kroeber were selected to be part of the Library of Congress’s National Registry in 2010. [1]

But it is not easy to sum up the career of this amazingly accomplished scholar. We are not even sure of the exact number of his publications. Eric Wolf claims (1981 : 36) there are over 700, while Dell Hymes is more conservative at some 400 (1983, 247). An early bibliography in the American Anthropologist (Gibson and Rowe 1961) lists 532, but that is incomplete. Regardless, Kroeber wrote more in a year than many people read. He wrote the first real textbook in anthropology in America (1923, 2d ed. 1948)—the only such text for some time—as well as editing the first book of collected readings for courses and students (Kroeber and Waterman 1920). During World War II Kroeber organized the language programs for the US Army Specialized Training program (Wolf 1981 : 48).

Kroeber as Groundbreaker

In examining the 64 years of Kroeber’s career, and oeuvre, one thing stands out : While Kroeber was probably the last of the great anthropologists who could write competently about any of the four subfields—and he did so—he wrote about and thought about linguistics as much as anything else. His earliest publications were almost exclusively on language topics, a period that lasted from the turn of the century until 1919. There was then a thirty-year hiatus, when singular publications on linguistics ceased ; but even then, in his forays into culture theory, philosophy, art, and history we still find a subtle concern with issues surrounding language, sometimes explicitly so. But from the early 1950s onward we find a resurgence of interest in linguistic problems (e.g., 1959, 1960a, 1960b, 1960c, 1960d, Kroeber and Grace 1960). Indeed, his last series of publications, just before his death, were on language.

The second thing that stands out when reviewing Kroeber’s linguistic publications is how original and prescient he was. While space allows for only addressing one concern at lenght here, the “fundamental problem of California linguistics” for which he probably is most well-known today among cultural anthropologists and Americanists—I want to least mention the following topics. We must remember, too, these were tackled when for the most part, no one else thought to address them. If we can now stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, Kroeber’s shoulders are very wide indeed. These are sixteen areas where I think Kroeber was an innovator :

1) His research using lexicostatistics anticipated Morris Swadesh and later work in computational or text linguistics.

2) Kroeber did significant breakthrough work on kinship analysis, not only contributing much to culture theory, but also helping to establish the basis for what was to become ethnoscience, and the school of cognitive anthropology in the 1960s and 70s.

3) While Kroeber was agnostic on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis per se, he did address the problem of “language and thought” in several places, including his early textbook (1923, 1948).

4) Kroeber wrote about sign language and writing systems long before either topic was commonly studied in linguistics, psychology, or anthropology.

5) Artists know that how you talk about art is in many ways as important as the art itself. Kroeber’s concern with stylistics (1957) and art style second this opinion.

6) Kroeber’s interest in literature as a concern for anthropological and linguistic study foregrounds others like Roman Jakobson.

7) His fictional ethnographic biography (1952 : 233-243) of a Mohave Indian in 1922 anticipates many of the new “experimental” ethnographies we see today like in Anthropology News, and addresses questions that don’t occur again until the 1960s when Clifford Geertz, post modernists, and interpretative anthropologists discover that fieldworkers make their presence felt in a field site, and that all data is by default, something subjective.

8) His work on mythology and folklore often seems to predate the work of the New Folkorists, and Alan Dundes.

9) Kroeber’s 1916 work on child language and language development was one of the first studies done in this vein—research not seen again until Joseph Casagrande in the 1950s and Susan Ervin-Tripp in the 1970s.

10) I would argue that some of Kroeber’s early work Native American phonetic inventory were the basis of the later phonemic theories of Edward Sapir, Nicolai Trubetzkoy, and perhaps even the Prague school.

11) Kroeber did work on Native American number systems and arithmetic, long before the topic of “numbers and culture” became common in linguistics and math education.

12) Kroeber’s search for what today are called “language universals” anticipated not only anthropologists like Joseph Greenberg but also autonomous linguists like Noam Chomsky.

13) Some of Kroeber’s early work was on language origins and language evolution, and he anticipates some of the design features posited by Hockett in the 1960s (to say nothing of, say, Chomsky’s—and others’—increased interest in language origins and evolution today).

14) Eschewing the hesitancy of Leonard Bloomfield (in structuralist linguistics) and behaviorist psychologists of the time to address meaning and problems of semantics, Kroeber was once more ahead of his time ; both universalists (like generative semanticists found in the Chomsky school) and relativists—to say nothing of cognitive scientists—now realize the importance of semantics in their approaches to the study of language.

15) Kroeber’s early work on dialectology in Native American languages no doubt contributed to the development of sociolinguistics at Berkeley, and the field in general.

16) Finally, his work on the classifying the language families of California (to be discussed below), and North America more broadly, contributed to the idea of “culture area” in ethnology.

It is true that many of these issues were not solved by Kroeber, and sometimes they are little more than first steps into areas where later travelers have found the roads to be long, winding, and complex. Nonetheless, the breadth of this mind cannot help but to inspire awe and admiration for his originality. To give a flavor for how Kroeber approached a question, I will now look at one problem in more detail.

“The Fundamental Problem of California Linguistics”

On the North American continent, there were at least 300 or so mutually unintelligible languages spoken north of the Rio Grande at the time of arrival of Europeans (Miyjun 1999 : 1). Comparison of vocabulary items had been the primary basis upon which genetic classifications were made. Following in the style of the European philologists and William Dwight Whitney—perhaps America’s first true linguist—John Wesley Powell, the founder of the Bureau of American Ethnology (as it is later known) and head of the US Geographical and Geological Survey, proposed 58 Native American language families on the basis of 670 available vocabulary lists with additional collected material by his research staff and fieldworkers.

Powell’s 1891 publication (1891 [1966]) and subsequent maps were a significant achievement for the time, and indeed, much of this work has stood up remarkably well. In fact, it has been the point of departure for all subsequent work on the study of the linguistic relationships of the languages of North America. However, there was a rather interesting and perplexing mystery that plagued the Powell scheme : 22 of the 58 families were in California. Powell and others provided little explanation as to why 38% of Native America’s linguistic diversity should be found in only one state. This became even more pronounced when Powell consolidated some families down to a total of 52 (then giving California 42% of the total). As a new professor at Berkeley, it was only natural that Kroeber turned part of his insatiable curiosity to the linguistic garden in his own backyard :

“America as a whole is a region of great linguistic diversity, and this tendency toward diversification reaches its climax in California, where twenty-two distinct stocks of languages are spoken within the boundaries of the state, accord to Powell’s accepted classification. That nearly half of the linguistic families represented in the United States should thus occur within so small an area marks California as perhaps the most remarkable region for linguistic diversity known. The structural similarity of some of these distinct stocks evidently has a bearing on the larger question of the extreme diversity of the region, which is the fundamental problem of California linguistics.” (Dixon and Kroeber 1903 : 2 ; emphasis added)

However, by this time, the Powell classification was so well established and “so rightly valued that the temper of the times was not inclined toward more than incidental tinkering with it” (Hymes 1983 : 251-252). But Kroeber, if anything, was a naturalist, and as his mentee and admirer Julian Steward said, he “approached language as a natural history phenomenon, which is to say that the first task was to characterize it and subsequently classify it” (1973 : 35). And to Kroeber, things didn’t quite add up.

Speaking in very broad stokes, when doing historical or comparative linguistics, there are three main approaches. The most well-known is to seek out so-called genetic relationships, whereby one might collect pairs of words to see if any turn out to be cognates. That is, if two or more words from different languages are of similar phonetic shape and mean the same (or similar) thing, this is likely due to the two languages sharing a common ancestor, making them genetically related. For example, finding cases like English three, Latin trēs, German drei, and Hindi teen allowed philologists to successfully posit the existence of an Indo-European language family. These kinds of relationships are often drawn as “trees,” with different families and sub-families branching out showing the connections between all the language/leaves. But there are other ways to compare languages. Those investigating language typologies, for example, might classify languages by the sharing of certain salient structural features, like word order, syntactical properties, or morphology (the way words are constructed). Another way to look at language connections is through areal relationships. Here, language resemblances based on geography—rather than genetic or typological relationships—are examined. As Murray Emeneau—the founder of the linguistics department at Berkeley—said (1980 : 124), a “linguistic area” is a space which includes languages belonging to more than one (genetic or typological family) but “show traits in common which are not found to belong to the other members of (at least) one of the families.” Things like borrowing, diffusion, “waves,” and language contact—and the history of such distributions— naturally lend themselves to areal linguistic analysis.

Powell’s approach to constructing his linguistic families of North America was unabashedly genetic :

“It must be remembered that extreme peculiarities of grammar, like the vocal mutations of the Hebrew or the monosyllabic separation of the Chinese, have not been discovered among Indian tongues. It therefore becomes necessary in the classification of Indian languages into families to neglect grammatic structure, and to consider lexical elements only.” (1891 [1966] : 87)

Kroeber, however, found that among the California languages that there were several groups of geographically contiguous languages that shared numerous characteristics, but were not otherwise demonstrated to be genetically related. For example (Dixon and Kroeber 1913a : 647), consider following words for “bow” in languages from what Kroeber and Dixon call the Penutian family :

Kroeber and Dixon point out that these candidate-cognates do not easily lend themselves to a phonological reconstruction of some hypothetical Proto-Penutian word for “bow” : “Such a list, far from being convincing, is not even promising” (p. 647). However, there is enough other compelling evidence to successfully posit and prove the existence of a Penutian family. For instance, the verb in Penutian languages “does not express instrumentality or location as it does in so many other American languages” (p. 650), but is conjugated to express intransitiveness, inception, voice, mode, tense, and person. Nouns all have the same seven case suffixes (objective, possessive, instrumental, locative, ablative, terminative, and comitative), and demonstrate a remarkably similar structure, e.g.,

Thus, they conclude, “there is available enough information on the structure of these five languages to prove genetic affinity beyond a doubt without recourse to lexical similarities” (p. 649). Earlier, Kroeber argued (Kroeber 1911a : 277) : “So far everything shows that kindred languages in California are very similar in structure, however much they differ in a large proportion of their vocabulary.” And Kroeber later says,

“This is the real inference to be drawn from the qualification of the Californian families into groups. To conclude from the grouping certain languages are related in origin, is not only without warrant, but misleading ; whereas the deduction which can be made, and in fact should not be avoided, is that distinct linguistic families gradually affect and alter each other’s structure and form if they are brought into contact. Characteristics not only often are territorially continuous ; they always must tend to be so. That such interinfluences exist in the California region is not only not surprising but to be expected when the geographical conditions are considered. … Each dialect was … spoken, on an average, by 1000 persons holding a territory about 30 miles in each direction or 35 miles in diameter. Each linguistic family averaged an area of 7000 square miles and a membership of 7000 souls. These tremendously small numbers not only render it a priori highly probable that much borrowing and infection have taken place, but impress on the mind as almost obvious the existence of these processes.” (1913 : 396)

Kroeber concludes that the problem with the Powell classification was not that most of the work was done by Henry W. Henshaw—a geologist and zoologist (1960c [1993]), and not a “philologist.” Indeed, they might have followed the tenets of later 19th-century philology too religiously. Instead, the real problem of the relationships of the languages of California was

“… a different one from that current in Europe. … In short, the European methods of discussing and establishing linguistics relationship are based on theoretical assumptions of philologists ; the American methods were worked out by ethnologists for practical ethnological rather than philological purposes.” (Kroeber 1913 : 390)

In the end, Kroeber and Dixon (Dixon and Kroeber 1903, 1912, 1913a, 1913b ; Kroeber 1904, 1907a, 1907b, 1909a, 1909b, 1911a, 1911b) found that the California languages fell into seven groups on the basis of morphology, four groups on the basis of phonology, three groups on the basis of pronominal incorporation, two groups on syntactic cases (e.g., pure or relational ; subjective or objective) and appositions, and two groups on the basis of plurality (see maps in Dixon and Kroeber 1903). The result of all this is summed up nicely by Dell Hymes :

“With the data and analyses available, the apparent resemblances among languages were in structural outlines and subsystems, and these were the lines pursued in search of further ordering. Since the connections that appeared were traced typologically in space rather than genetically in time, the correlative principle of explanation was diffusion, convergence through areal contiguity … [That is, Kroeber’s] classification according to these features was one that the data could support, and the results made sense : the California languages fell into three broad types correlated with geographical location, cultural groupings seemed more or less to coincide, and comparison with languages outside California showed the types to be indeed distinctive. Interpretation of the typology was carefully restrained, … Moreover, it was a remarkably original step in the study of New World languages … (Kroeber 1913 : 396).” (1983 : 252)

Hymes goes on to say that (as of his writing his memoir of Kroeber in 1961) this work “has never been adequately followed up” (ibid.). Today, this is really not true (e.g., Miyjun 1999, Greenberg 1987, Campbell 1997, Shipley 1979 to mention only a few). Though not without debate and disagreement in details (e.g., Callaghan 2001 ; Goodard 1996), much of the general outline of the work of Kroeber on the “fundamental problem of California linguistics” has remained basically sound and intact.

Honors and Allocates

The place of Alfred Kroeber in anthropology and linguistics is prominent and secure (e.g., Darnell 2021 ; Harris 1968 : 319-342 ; Steward 1961). Kroeber, along with Boas, was a founding member of the American Anthropological Association in 1902 (becoming president in 1917). He became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1912, and was president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1940. As early as the 1930s, tribute volumes were published in his honor (Lowie 1936). In 1956, the Linguistic Society of America honored Kroeber by dedicating a special issue of their journal Language to him in honor of his eightieth birthday (Bloch 1956 ; Loundsbury and Goodenough 1956). This issue contained 18 papers from some of the most accomplished anthropologists and linguists of the mid-twentieth century, including Morris Swadesh, William Bright, Harry Hoijer, Mary Haas, Joseph Greenberg, Harold Conklin, Clyde Kluckhohn, Floyd Lounsbury and Ward Goodenough (the latter two instrumental in organizing the project).

Kroeber was the recipient of five honorary degrees (from Yale, California, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago) and two gold medals (the Viking Medal of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Huxley Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute), and held honorary memberships in sixteen scientific societies (Hymes 1983 : 246 ; Steward 1962 : 193). Dell Hymes called Kroeber “perhaps the greatest general anthropologist that American anthropology has known” (1983 : 246). But Kroeber remained a linguistic anthropologist until the very end of career : His last four publications—in the year before his death and just after—were in linguistics : “Semantic Contributions to Lexicostatisics” in the International Journal of American Linguistics (Kroeber 1961a), “Three Quantitative Classifications of Romance” in Romance Philology (Kroeber 1961c), “Comments” on Clyde Kluckhohn’s notes on aspects of communication, in the American Anthropologist (Kroeber 1961b), and the “Yokuts Dialect Survey” in the University of California Anthropological Records (Kroeber 1963).

References

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Darnell, Regna. 2021. The History of Anthropology : A Critical Window on the Discipline in North America. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

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[2See also ; “Alfred Louis Kroeber.” Language 37-1-28, 1961 ; “Alfred Louis Kroeber.” In Language in Culture and Society : A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes, 689–710. New York : Harper & Row, 1964 ; “Alfred Louis Kroeber.” in Portraits of Linguists : A Biographical Source Book for the History of Western Linguistics, Vol. 2. Thomas Sebeok, ed. pp. 400–437. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1966.