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Reconstructing Proto-Muskogean Language and Prehistory

Recent years have seen an upsurge in interest in Muskogean linguistics, and considerable progress has been made in understanding the prehistory of these languages and in reconstructing a vocabulary for proto-Muskogean.1 This paper will argue that this reconstructed vocabulary provides us with information about the branching order of the languages within the family, tentative dates for language separation, and evidence about the environment of the Proto-Muskogeans.

1. The classification of the languages
The Muskogean family contains four groups of closely related languages.2 Those spoken in this century are

a.) Choctaw and Chickasaw
b.) Alabama and Koasati
c.) Hitchiti (now extinct) and Mikasuki
d.) Creek and Seminole
Classification above this level is controversial. [Page 2]

1.1 Theories of classification
The most generally known classification of the Muskogean languages is due to Haas (1941), who argued that the family contains two large groups — Western Muskogean (consisting of Choctaw and Chickasaw) and Eastern Muskogean (composed of the other languages of the family). She was not explicit about the sub-grouping of the Eastern Muskogean languages, but her remarks are generally interpreted as supporting the following tree:

Note that one of the subgroups, Creek-Seminole and Hitchiti-Mikasuki, has no generally accepted name in the literature. For ease of discussion, I suggest that we call this suggested subgroup Georgia Muskogean, since all of the languages in it were spoken in the modern state of Georgia (along with adjacent areas of Alabama and S. Carolina). [Page 3}

Munro (1987, 1993) discusses evidence for another classification, which is essentially the mirror image of Haas’s classification. It is shown below:


Figure 1 Munro’s proposed classification of the Muskogean languages.

A disclaimer with respect to the labels is perhaps needed here. The terms Northern and Southern Muskogean are from Swanton3, and are used because they have a prior history in the literature. These geographical terms are inappropriate for some of the languages involved (e.g. Koasati, which was spoken to the north of the other languages). They are merely intended as convenient ways to discuss the groups. Note that nothing in this argument hinges on the particular names assigned to the groups.4

The two classifications differ most in their treatment of the `central groups’, Alabama/Koasati and Hitchiti/Mikasuki, so arguments for one or the other of [Page 4] these classifications hinge on finding ways in which these groups resemble or fail to resemble the two most peripheral groups, Western Muskogean5 and Creek/Seminole.

A third suggestion for the classification of the family has been offered by Kimball (1989), who proposes that the Alabama-Koasati and Hitchiti-Mikasuki groups form a subgroup which he calls Central Muskogean. Kimball suggests that Proto-Muskogean split into three branches: Western Muskogean, Central Muskogean, and Eastern Muskogean.6

I will argue below that this hypothesis is less successful than either the Haas or Munro proposal. [Page 5]

Nicklas (this volume) argues that the theory underlying such family tree models (or stammbäume) has been shown to be invalid, and thus argument about which of the classifications is correct is pointless.

However, it is a clear overstatement to claim that family tree models are discredited in historical linguistics. A glance at any textbook of historical linguistics shows that such models are widely accepted and used in the discipline7.

The true historical relationships between languages are always complex; our diagrams can only selectively model certain aspects of this history. Family tree models of the [Page 6] sort shown above emphasize the relative chronology of change, and they are of course idealizations of linguistic history. When chronology is not the paramount consideration, other models of change may be more appropriate.


  1. I thank Emmanuel Drechsel, Penelope Drooker, Heather Hardy, John Justeson, Geoff Kimball, Pat Kwachka, Jack Martin, Pamela Munro, Dale Nicklas, Dean Snow, and the audiences at the Southern Anthropological Society and University at Albany for their comments and suggestions on this paper. All mistakes are my own.

    The following abbrevations are used: : Al = Alabama, Ap = Apalachee, Cr = Creek, Cs = Chickasaw, Ct = Choctaw, H = Hitchiti, K = Koasati, MCt = Mississippi Choctaw, Mk = Mikasuki, OS = Oklahoma Seminole, S = Seminole. The following orthographic conventions are used in the citation of data from Muskogean languages: nasalized vowels are indicated with a tilde; <ch> (in Western Muskogean) and <c> (in other languages) represent […]; <lh> represents [“] (a voiceless lateral fricative); and <sh> (in Western Muskogean) represents [ð].

    The financial support of the Departments of Anthropology and Linguistics and Cognitive Science at the University at Albany, State University of New York is gratefully acknowledged. 

  2. In general this discussion omits the extinct Muskogean languages Apalachee (Kimball 1987, 1988), Guale and Yamasee (Broadwell 1991), since the available data are fragmentary. Haas (1949) argues that Apalachee is most closely related to [Page 42] Alabama and Koasati. Broadwell (1991) suggests that Guale and Yamasee are most closely related to Creek. 

  3. Early history of the Creek Indians and their neighbors 

  4. Thus Kimball’s (1989) objection to Munro’s classification on the grounds of the names assigned to the branches is misguided. 

  5. Choctaw and Chickasaw 

  6. Kimball is explicit about his hypothesis of a ternary split in the text of his paper, but the accompanying diagram shows all three possible branchings for Central Muskogean with question marks (i.e. as a separate branch, joined with Western Muskogean, and joined with Eastern Muskogean). 

  7. Bynon 1977, Anttila 1989 

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GABroadwell@peopleofonefire.com'

George Aaron Broadwell

University at Albany, State University of New York
GABroadwell@peopleofonefire.com'

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