New World Philology
I recently launched the first version of the Corpus of Historical Mapudungun (CHM) which uses text-based approaches to reconstruct the 400-year history of this Native American language. Such tools, though mostly neglected for historical material of the Americas, have huge potential for pushing back the date of comparative reconstruction, informing historical developments of individual varieties, as well as ideas of local contact and genetic inheritance.
Languages of the Americas have, at best, only five full centuries of attestations using alphabetic writing. However, for some languages — especially for those deemed by missionaries to be ‘General Languages’ for the region — this data is abundant and well suited to exploring changes. Such a timespan, though more restricted than that which we find for many Old World languages, is nevertheless substantial enough to observe non-trivial changes in languages, especially where social pressures and population dynamics are rapidly changing. A quick look at colonial varieties of European languages — which share this timescale — should corroborate these facts.
While much of the early textual material from the Americas is problematic due to the interference of non-native writers, the prevalence of scholastic grammars, genre limitations, etc., there is no doubt that such materials represent versions of the Native American languages which must be squared with reconstructions based on current varieties.
The CHM — and future resources I hope to develop for other languages of the Southern Cone (e.g. Chonan, Yaghan, Kunza, Alacalufan) — will provide searchable analyses of the lexical, morpho-syntactic, phonological and orthographical structure, proposing changes to account for variations across time, space and text.
A page from the earliest set of Mapudungun sermons, by Spanish Jesuit Fr. Luys de Valdivia, 1621.