LINGUIST List 32.1901

Tue Jun 01 2021

Review: Anthropological Linguistics; General Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Güldemann, McConvell, Rhodes (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 09-Dec-2020
From: John Mansfield <>
Subject: The Language of Hunter-Gatherers
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Tom Güldemann
EDITOR: Patrick McConvell
EDITOR: Richard A. Rhodes
TITLE: The Language of Hunter-Gatherers
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: John Mansfield, University of Melbourne


This is a substantial edited volume focusing on a topic that has always been in the background of anthropological linguistics, but has rarely received such sustained attention in its own right: the linguistic and sociolinguistic dynamics of hunter-gatherer peoples. The volume grew out of a workshop, ‘Historical linguistics and hunter-gatherer populations in global perspective’, held at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in 2006. Thus the gestation of the volume, which contains 23 chapters, has taken 14 years, perhaps a fitting timescale for the subject matter of the book.

The book is arranged into seven parts. The first part includes general discussions of hunter-gatherer languages, while each of the remaining six parts focuses on a particular geographic region: Africa, tropical Asia, New Guinea and Australia, northeastern Eurasia, North America, and South America.

Part I, the Introduction, presents background discussion on the anthropological concept of ‘hunter-gatherers’ (henceforth HGs), their genetic distinctiveness, and the question of whether HGs are linguistically distinctive. The first chapter is by the editors Güldemann, McConvell and Rhodes, and provides a general discussion of HG anthropology and linguistics, while dispelling any notion that HGs are somehow “backwards” or “relics” of history. On the contrary, HGs are mobile, adaptive, and responsive to intercultural dynamics with both food-producers and other HG groups. Furthermore, cultural evolution is not a “one-way street” of progress from foraging to food production: the authors note various instances where groups have shifted from food production to foraging in response to ecological changes and/or social pressures. Either food production or foraging can be adaptive, depending on circumstances. This chapter also highlights some key dynamics in the interaction of HGs and food producers, in particular the tendency of food producers to push HGs into more marginal areas such as mountains and forests, contributing to the patchwork of linguistic “spread zones” and “residual zones” covering the earth (Nichols 2003; Nichols 2015).

Gunnrsdottir and Stoneking give a brief primer of genetic anthropology methods, and explain why HG groups tend to be more genetically distinctive and less internally diverse than other social groups. This genetic distinctiveness is predominantly in the Y chromosome, because HG groups tend to be patrilocal with a stable male core, while women more frequently marry into other groups, including neighbouring food-producers.

Bickel and Nichols ask whether HG languages are typologically different from those of food producers. They investigate this by running a statistical analysis of 228 typological variables documented in two major databases, checking for differences between the two subsistence types, while controlling for language family and geographic area. Essentially, they do not find any evidence for systematic differences in these typological features. However the next chapter, by Brown, does report a difference, namely that agriculturalists are more likely to use binomial species names, while HGs are more likely to use atomic names. For example, Tzeltal swidden farmers have a generic name for oak trees, hih te’, and binomial species names like bac’il hih te’ ‘Quercus peduncularis’, sakyok hih te’ ‘Q. candicans’. By contrast, Diegueño has atomic names such as semtaay ‘Q. chrysolepis’ and kuphall ‘Q. kelloggii’. This difference is argued to derive from the extra attention that agriculturalists must pay to manipulating related-but-distinct plant varieties.

Part II, on Africa, presents two case studies of specific HG groups. Savà and Tosco discuss the Ongota people of southwest Ethiopia, a small group who rely on a mixture of farming and fishing, but are surrounded by cattle-herding peoples. Ongota oral history suggests that they once lived some distance away to the north, but were forced to move several times due to conflicts over cattle theft. The Ongota language is unclassified, though relationships to several language families have been tentatively proposed. It is also much more isolating, with fewer inflectional categories than other languages in the area. The authors suggest that this linguistic profile is consistent with a history of forced migration, in which the Ongota have been in (generally subordinate) relationships with a series of other groups, adding successive lexical layers to their language, and tending to reduce inflectional morphology.

Güldemann discusses the Khoe-Kwadi languages of Southern Africa, which were once spoken by sheep herders who moved into the area from the north-east some 2000 years ago, when there was more rainfall. Subsequent migrations by Bantu speakers, together with desertification, forced the Khoe-Kwadi people either to join Bantu groups or to become HGs in more marginal regions. This opened their languages to the influence of Kx’a and Tuu languages spoken by other HG groups in the marginal regions, leading to typological convergence between these language families. The purported Khoisan language family is thus argued actually to consist of three distinct lineages (Khoe-Kwadi, Kx’a, and Tuu), which have been misidentified as a family due to contact-based convergence.

Part III, on tropical Asia, presents five case studies. Rischel discusses Mlabri (Mon-Khmer) languages spoken by HGs in the forests of the Thailand/Laos border. He discusses genetic, linguistic, and oral-history evidence that the Mlabri split off from food-producing Tin people some centuries ago, shifting to a forest-bound foraging lifeway.

Burenhult discusses the Aslian (Austroasiatic) languages spoken in the interior forests of the Malay penninsula. He focuses on Northern Aslian languages, spoken by Semang HG peoples. He outlines evidence suggesting that Semang people have been continuously resident in these forests for around fifty thousand years, and that they shifted to Austroasiatic languages due to trading with farmers who arrived around five thousand years ago, leading to the present-day Aslian languages. However Burenhult rejects any notion that the Semang people can be seen as historical relics, arguing that instead they should be seen as an “economic and genetic success story”, a people who have been highly successful in maintaining an ecological niche in rich tropical forests.

Blevins discusses the people of the Andaman islands, who until recently were HGs. A salient local distinction is between coastal fishing people and inland forest-dwellers. There are two discernable language families, Greater Andaman and Ongan, and while Greater Andaman has many reconstructible words relating to the ocean and fishing, Ongan instead has reconstructible forms for forest foraging. This suggests that the two language families derived from distinct coastal and inland ancestors.

Reid describes “Negrito” HGs of the Philippines, all of whom speak Austronesian languages, though their habitation of the archipelago long pre-dates the Austronesian arrival some 3500 years ago. HG languages in the Philippines tend to reflect conservative features of the Philippine branch of Austronesian, suggesting that they shifted to Austronesian languages fairly soon after the Austronesians arrived.

Soriente describes HG peoples of Borneo, who speak Austronesian languages that are all fairly similar to one another, though it remains unclear whether they constitute a distinct phylogenetic language group. It is also unclear whether their ancestors inhabited Borneo before food-producers arrived or whether they are groups who split off and became foragers. The chapter also presents an extensive historical discussion of one Borneo HG language, Penan Benalui.

Part IV, includes two chapters on New Guinea and three on Australia. Ross discusses the spread of farming across New Guinea and nearby islands. He describes the transition of some New Guinea groups from mobile foraging to sedentary foraging, some twenty thousand years ago, which formed the precondition for some groups to transition to food production in the New Guinea highlands around nine thousand years ago. Much later, Austronesian farmers arrived in the area, but gained a greater foothold in the Bismarck islands (where there wasn’t already farming), compared to New Guinea itself. Ross also briefly discusses how the highly independent villages of New Guinea, subsisting from various mixtures of foraging and food production, maintain high levels of linguistic diversity.

Donohue provides three case studies of pairs of neighbouring New Guinea languages, where one group is more oriented to food production and the other to foraging. Across the three pairs, he does not find any clear pattern of linguistic differences between HG and food-producing groups.

Sutton discusses the historical distribution of languages in Australia, where until recently all groups subsisted largely by foraging. He emphasises the tendency for languages to be spoken by small numbers of people, estimating an average of around 500-1000 individuals per language. However, he makes this calculation for “language-owning” groups, while noting that traditional social groups were highly multilingual, mobile bands made up of owners of several languages. Sutton argues that small, multilingual speech communities have typically diversified in situ over many thousands of years in Australia, while a few rare punctuation events have periodically spread larger language families, such as Pama-Nyungan in the mid-Holocene and Western Desert in the last couple of thousand years. Harvey continues this theme in his chapter, going into more detail on how Pama-Nyungan may have spread across the continent, as well as the much smaller spread of the Mirndi language family. McConvell rounds out this part of the book with some more detailed reconstructions of Pama-Nyungan word histories. He focuses on meaning changes, arguing that some Pama-Nyungan words seem to have spread from the north-eastern part of the continent, based on semantic plausibility and ecological relevance.

Part V, on northeastern Eurasia, consists of two chapters discussing Siberia. Vajda discusses the Yenisean language family spoken by HGs of central Siberia, who are surrounded by other language families (especially Turkic and Uralic) spoken by pastoralists. He outlines evidence suggesting that Yeniseans have been in the area for a long time and once occupied a larger territory, based on place names and ecology-based borrowings into neighbouring languages. He also describes structural differences between Proto-Yenisean languages (prefixing) and neighbouring languages (suffixing), while noting some degree of convergence in the Yenisean language Ket, which has developed some suffixes, while avoiding lexical borrowings from neighbouring languages.

Anderson and Harrison describe the Tofa and Todzhu languages spoken by southern Siberian peoples, who subsist from foraging assisted by their reindeer herds. They speak Turkic languages, but these show signs of substrate influence from an earlier language. Anderson and Harrison discuss possible histories of language contact involving Samoyedic (Uralic) and Yenisean languages, though the evidence available is too sparse to draw firm conclusions.

Part VI, on North America, consists of three quite different chapters. De Reuse revisits the “eskimo words for snow” trope with a discussion of morphology in Central Siberian Yupik. He focuses on how “bases” and “postbases” combine to produce word-like constructions, with the large range of postbases accounting for the proliferation of purported words for snow.

Rhodes discusses Cree and Ojibwe sub-families of Algonquian, both spoken in the Great Lakes region by peoples who lived primarily by foraging until Europeans invaded. He focuses on how relocations forced by both the US and Canadian governments led to language shifts, with some groups shifting from one Ojibwe language to another. For example, some Potawatomi speakers were moved to a reservation where Ottawa was the dominant language, and subsequently shifted to Ottawa. He also highlights the spread of innovations among these languages over the last century or so.

Hill discusses Takic and Numic branches of Uto-Aztecan, spoken by HG peoples in southern California and the Great Basin, respectively. She notes that both these groups were probably maize cultivators in an earlier period (as evidenced by shared words for maize cultivation), but later shifted to foraging when they moved into new ecological niches. She reviews previous work suggesting that these two subfamilies exemplify distinct types of language history: Takic peoples moved into an already-populated southern California, and their languages diversified under contact influence from the people already resident there; Numic peoples moved into the unpopulated Great Basin, thus undergoing less contact and remaining more typologically homogenous. Hill quantifies the diversity of typological traits in the two subfamilies and does not find any difference, thus concluding that the previous proposal is unsupported. One possible explanation is that the Great Basin was not in fact unpopulated when the Numic people arrived.

Part VII, the final part, is on South America. Epps discusses the Nadahup language family spoken by forest-bound foragers in the Amazonian Vaupés, focusing on their interaction with food-producing neighbours who live along the waterways. Nadahup people do in fact practice some light cultivation (especially of manioc, the regional staple), and Epps examines linguistic evidence as to the antiquity of these practices. She finds that Nadahup languages share more words for useful wild plants and have more unrelated words for cultivated plants, suggesting that they have taken on food production after their language family split up, perhaps stimulated by contact with Tucanoan and Arawakan food producers. However, there are also some shared cultivation words in Nadahup sub-branches, suggesting that horticulture may have been gradually integrated over a long period, rather than being a sudden recent cultural borrowing.

Vidal and Braunstein discuss the Gran Chaco, a very sparsely documented linguistic area in the southern part of the continent. Populations seem to have spread into this area around six thousand years ago, and there are some eighteen indigenous languages attested, with relations between them being rather uncertain. The authors suggest that the standard tree model of historical linguistics does not seem to fit these languages well, proposing instead a “fusion/fission” model, with shared innovations suggesting a dynamic network structure rather than discrete branching.


Rather than evaluate the individual chapters on their own merits, I will instead evaluate how well the volume fits together as a whole.

Overall, this is a fascinating volume that presents many inter-related case studies of how language histories are shaped by HG lifeways, and especially their interaction with neighbouring food producers. The collective force of this volume comprehensively dismisses any notion of HGs as stagnant, “backwards” relics of history. HGs are not frozen in time, but instead change their economic and cultural practices in response to their ecological and social circumstances. This includes some instances in which food producers become HGs, if foraging becomes a more advantageous mode of subsistence. Foraging may also be considered preferable by some groups or individuals, as opposed to being a forced “last resort”. This is nicely illustrated in Epps’s chapter, where she reports that Hup people actively enjoy “knocking about” in the forest, as opposed to cultivating fields which is seen as “work”. Another interesting illustration comes from Rischel’s chapter, where he reports that the Mlabri people have developed a moral proscription against practicing food production, which they say would anger their protective spirits.

Another recurrent theme is that HG and food-producer should not be misinterpreted as mutually exclusive categories. Many of the groups described in this volume employ some mixture of foraging and cultivation, for example, the Ongota people’s subsistence is based on a mixture of hunting and fishing, as well as maize cultivation and some domesticated animals (Savà and Tosco’s chapter). Plant subsistence also involves different degrees of cultivation, as illustrated by Papuan groups who rely heavily on sago palm carbohydrates, which require some intervention in the life-cycle of the tree, but not to the extent of fully fledged horticulture (Ross’s chapter). As mentioned above, the balance of foraging/food-production also changes over time for each group of people, and to fully understand foraging it must be seen as part of a broader human ecology in which foragers occupy a niche and often interact with cultivators. For example, the Pnan people (Soriente’s chapter) and Negrito people (Reid’s chapter) trade their foraged products with agriculturalists, as is found in many other such instances.

At the same time, this book richly illustrates the degree of prejudice to which HG peoples are subjected. This ties together the dehumanising anthropological discourses criticised by the editors in their introduction and more localised prejudices found between HGs and their food-producing neighbours. Dayak farmers sometimes claim to “own” their Pnan neighbours, who are obliged to pay them a tithe of forest products (Soriente’s chapter). Tukanoans farmers consider Hup HGs to be animal-like (Epps’s chapter). The alienation of HG groups from their lands in many places, including North America (Rhodes’s chapter) and Australia (Sutton’s chapter), has often been justified by invading Europeans claiming that they do not have the level of “civilisation” to be worthy of their own lands. This volume contributes to the dismantling of these malicious untruths, and does so by linking the literature on linguistic diversity to a more worthy depiction of HG societies.

The volume has a wide scope, comprising twenty-three chapters and 723 pages. As such, at times it does not quite hold together as a cohesive text. The most cohesive threads holding the volume together are those that relate HG vs food-production to the history and structure of languages. But some chapters have sections that depart substantially from this theme, and would probably be more at home in some other volume. Some of these involve detailed discussion of historical reconstruction, which is highly relevant if it tells us something about HG history, but is otherwise not always relevant to the volume. Overall it can be said that the majority of content in these pages does contribute to the theme of HGs and language, but a more rigorous editorial approach may have produced a somewhat shorter and more focused book.

Another notorious issue of edited volumes is how long they take to be published. As mentioned above, this volume has had a long gestation, having originated in a 2006 workshop (it can be seen as “historical linguistics” in an unintended sense). The downside of this is of course the missed opportunities to respond to literature that has appeared in the intervening period. While some chapters do cite more recent work (having been written or revised long after the workshop), others do not (quite understandably, if they were written soon after the workshop). The last decade has seen a flourishing of research into how the evolution of language is shaped by social structures, and the interaction of social groups (e.g. Bowern 2010; Lupyan & Dale 2010; Trudgill 2011; François 2014 inter alia). Within the more specific field of each chapter, there may also be more recent work that has not been considered. In sum, this volume illustrates the valuable contribution that can be made by an edited volume on a well-chosen topic, while also highlighting the need to find more efficient ways of collecting papers on a topic.


Bowern, Claire. 2010. Correlates of language change in hunter-gatherer and other “small” languages. “Language and Linguistics Compass”4(8). 665–679.

François, Alexandre. 2014. Trees, waves and linkages: Models of language diversification. In Bowern, Claire & Evans, Bethwyn (eds.), “The Routledge handbook of historical linguistics”, 161–189. London: Routledge.

Lupyan, G. & Dale, R. 2010. Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PLoS ONE 5(1). 1–10.

Nichols, Johanna. 2003. Diversity and stability in language. In Joseph, Brian D. & Janda, Richard D. (eds.), “The handbook of historical linguistics”, 283–310. Oxford: Blackwell.

Nichols, Johanna. 2015. Types of spread zones: Open and closed, horizontal and vertical. In De Busser, Rik & La Polla, Randy J. (eds.), “Language structure and environment: Social, cultural, and natural factors”, 261–286. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. “Sociolinguistic typology: social determinants of linguistic complexity”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


John Mansfield is a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on linguistic typology and language change, with a particular regional focus on northern Australian Aboriginal languages.

Page Updated: 01-Jun-2021