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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The “High Languages” of Native California as Indices of Social Rank: A (Re)Consideration

  • Author(s): Field, Margaret
  • et al.

This paper examines the statement generally offered in support of the argument that “high” or “refined” languages were spoken by members of elite classes in California Indian societies prior to contact with Europeans. It suggests that California’s “high languages” had more to do with formal or ceremonial contexts than with the everyday construction of identity. Rather, it appears that what have been termed “high languages” are examples of prestigious or formal styles or registers of a single language. Special styles and registers are two types of speech occurring in most if not every society on earth, and which are commonly associated with public oratory, oral literature, and formal or ceremonial contexts. These varieties do not provide a useful form of evidence for the existence of ranked social classes in California native societies on a par with other forms of evidence such as specialized clothing or displays of wealth.

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