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Language as a time machine

By studying language you can reconstruct the history of different communities, even when no other historical sources, such as written documents, are available. In the coming years, researchers Willem Adelaar and Marian Klamer will be carrying out this kind of reconstruction in areas of great linguistic diversity.

The riddle of the Americas

To this day, researchers still do not know when North and South America were first populated. While archaeologists claim that there were no humans in this area until 15,000 years ago, linguistic research seems to suggest otherwise. This conclusion is based on the more than 175 genetic linguistic lines that have been identified by researchers throughout the region. These lines must have taken longer than 15,000 years to develop and spread. A thorough analysis of the linguistic lines can tell us much more about how the Americas were populated.

Comparing languages

Professor Willem Adelaar is working on the enigma of the Americas by comparing languages from Mesoamerica and the Andes. He has chosen these two regions because there are indications that the languages of the Andes region may have developed from languages that were once spoken in North and Central America. These are languages of which it is as yet unclear whether they are genetically related to one another or whether the two nations that spoke them were simply in contact with one another.

Relation between nations in Mesoamerica and the Andes

Adelaar has split his research into two parts. First he wants to identify the similarities between the languages of Mesoamerica and the Andes that can be traced to the earliest migratory flows between the two regions. To do this, all the available linguistic, archaeological and genetic knowledge on the peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes will first be collected in a subproject. Armed with this knowledge, Adelaar and his colleagues can scan the anguages in search of evidence of the relationship between the different communities. This vast investigation will be made possible through the knowledge of the regions and their languages that is amassed within Leiden University and through collaboration with geneticists. The researchers will also make use of the rapid advances in technology that now make it possible to compare ever greater datasets.

The Harakmbut, an Indian tribe from Peru of which William Adelaar examines the language.

Searching for evidence of contact

Adelaar will also be searching language for evidence of later contact between the peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes, roughly until the time of Columbus’ discovery of America. We know from archaeological sources that such contacts took place because of highly complex metalworking techniques that found their way from Peru to Mexico. Researchers have also found remarkable similarities in artistic expression between the peoples of the two regions. It seems unlikely that these meetings would have left no trace in the language. Adelaar is searching for evidence of these contacts, for instance through studying the external relations of the Purépecha (Mexico) and the Mochica (Peru). The former seem to display similarities with languages from the Andes region (such as Quechua or Aymara), and the latter with languages from Mesoamerica (such as Mayan).

Borrowing and inheriting in East Indonesia

It is not immediately clear why the Dutch word ‘goed’ resembles German ‘gut’ or English ‘good’. Is it because these languages share the same ancestor language, or is this word a loanword, like ‘sowieso’ or ‘computer’? It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between what languages ‘inherit’ and what they ‘borrow’, especially when looking at neighbouring languages that also happen to share the same ancestor language.

Forty languages on three small islands

In order to map the difference between ‘borrowing’ and ‘inheriting’ in language evolution, we have to study a situation in which borrowing takes place between unrelated languages, so that ‘inheriting’ can irrefutably be separated from ‘borrowing’. Such situations are rare in the world, but an example can be found in East Indonesia. On East Flores, Pantar and Alor, the local languages either belong to the Austronesian or to the Papua language family. These three islands jointly cover an area that is smaller than the Netherlands. Nonetheless, no fewer than 40 different languages are spoken in this region. In addition, the languages in question are so diverse that some speakers who live only a few kilometres apart are utterly unable to understand each other. This has been the case for thousands of years, and speakers of these language families have been in contact with each other for a very long time, for instance through trade or marriage. Nowadays, most speakers use Indonesian as a relay language.

Marian Klamer in conversation with Teiwa-speakers from Lebang village (Pantar, Indonesia)

Reconstructing history and migratory flows

Professor Marian Klamer and her group of five researchers work in the region, studying a variety of linguistic contact contexts and trying to establish which words and structures have been borrowed and which inherited. Her team studies the circumstances in which these processes unfold and creates a reconstruction of the history and migrations of the different groups of people. All this provides information on the evolution of language in general, and the history of the people of Flores, Pantar and Alor in particular. 'We cannot rely on written sources to find out about their history, because these sources only go back a hundred years,' Klamer explains. 'And the deeper history requires archaeological research, which has not yet taken place here. We therefore have to rely on finding information in the languages themselves. Take kinship terminology (‘cousin’, ‘grand-child’), for example. These terms are strongly traditionally determined, but they also change form or meaning through contact, for example when the women of one language group marry into another group, and raise their children there. In addition, place names in language A form a link between a geographical location and the speakers of language A, even when these speakers live elsewhere. For example: what would it mean if we found Frisian place names in Drenthe?'

Research results useful for other disciplines

The results of this research are important not only for linguists; it can also be used as a starting point for research by historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The project runs until 2019 and is supported by a VICI grant from the Dutch research institute NWO.

Insight into history

Not only is Adelaar and Klamer’s research interesting from a linguistic perspective, it also immediately impacts the local people. The researchers have many contacts within the communities they study. Their research also provides the local inhabitants with insights into their own history, language and culture. In addition, the languages studied in these two research projects are being properly documented, which means they will be preserved for posterity.


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