Powell’s Thesis: 58 Basic Indian Languages

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Map Code: Ax01396

The US soldier John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) compiled the first extensive classification of Native American languages in his 1891 work based upon an assessment of their lexical similarities. Following a lengthy process of data collection and analysis, Powell came to distinguish 58 distinct linguistic stocks or families across North America, which could be categorized into a number of larger, more weakly linked groups. Powell’s research was itself inspired and influenced by the prior work of Albert Gallatin (1820–40) who had postulated that Native Americans had reached North America from Asia at some point in prehistory. The classifications set out in Powell’s Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico were mainly arranged based upon an analysis of similarities in the vocabulary used in each language, a reasonably basic technique by modern standards. Nevertheless, Powell’s linguistic stocks have stood the test of time well and have remained largely representative of the smaller classifications, which are considered accurate by modern standards.

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