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date: 24 June 2018

Summary and Keywords

Hokan is a linguistic stock or phylum based on a series of hypotheses about deeper genetic relationships among languages that extend geographically from Northern California to Nicaragua. Following the general effort to genetically link the vast number of Native American languages and to reduce them to a few superstocks, Dixon and Kroeber first proposed the Hokan stock in 1913, to include several California indigenous languages: Karuk, Chimariko, Shastan, Palaihnihan (Atsugewi and Achumawi), Pomoan, Yana, and later Esselen and Yuman. The name Hokan stems from the Atsugewi word for “two”: hoqi. While the first proposals by Dixon and Kroeber rested on very limited cognate sets comprising only five words, later assessments by Sapir included hundreds of putative cognate sets and analyses of Hokan morphosyntax. By 1925, Sapir further included Washo, Salinan, Seri, Chumashan, Tequistlatecan, and Subtiaba-Tlapanec as the Southern Hokan branch into the stock.

Throughout the 20th century, scholars sought additional evidence for the stock as more and refined data on the languages became available. A number of languages were added, and earlier proposals were abandoned. A new surge in work on individual California indigenous languages in the 1950s and 1960s prompted a string of studies conducting binary comparisons. This renewed interest inspired a series of Hokan conferences held until the 1990s. A more recent comprehensive assessment of the entire stock was undertaken by Kaufman in 1988. Applying rigorous analysis and only implicating those languages for which he encountered substantial evidence, Kaufman proposes sixteen classificatory units for Hokan clustered geographically. Kaufman’s Hokan stock also includes Coahuilteco and Comecrudan in Mexico and Jicaque in Nicaragua.

Although Hokan was widely studied in the 20th century, and many scholars presented what they thought to be supporting evidence, it is far from being an established genetic unit. In fact, many scholars today treat it with a lot of skepticism. One major challenge, as with any phylum-level affiliation, is its time depth. Proto-Hokan is thought to be at least as antique as Proto-Indo-European. Moreover, many of the languages were spoken in geographically contiguous areas, with speakers being multilingual and in close contact for an extended period of time, as is the case in Northern California. This suggests considerable language contact effects and complicates the distinction between true cognates and ancient borrowings. Many of the languages involved further show similarities in grammatical structure as a result of language contact.

Hokan languages stretch across California, Nevada, South Texas, various parts of Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua and display notable structural differences. Phonologically, the languages show great variation including small and large phoneme inventories and different phonological processes. Typologically, they are equally diverse, but many are considered polysynthetic to varying degrees. Morphosyntactic and grammatical similarities are evident especially among languages spoken in Northern California. These resemblances include sets of lexical affixes with similar meanings and affinities in core argument patterns.

Keywords: Hokan, linguistic stock, phylum, language family, binary comparison, genetic relationship, California Indian languages, polysynthesis, instrumental affixes, directional affixes

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