Alfred Kroeber.

Hiphilangsci, which I posted about last year, has an interview with Andrew Garrett about Alfred Kroeber (link goes to both a podcast and, blessedly, a transcript), and if you’re fuzzy on Kroeber’s contributions and on the recent controversy involving him, it’s a good place to start. He’s remembered mostly as an anthropologist, but he made contributions to linguistics as well; some excerpts:

Kroeber was born in 1876 in the U.S. His grandparents were all born in Germany. His father came to the US as a young child, and his mother’s parents were born in Germany, so German was not only his family background but actually his household language. His first language was German. The first book that he read, apparently, was a German translation of Robinson Crusoe. He grew up in New York in a kind of, I guess, humanistic German-Jewish environment and went to Columbia College in Columbia University in the late 1800s as a student of literature. He got an undergraduate degree in comparative literature, and that would have been his trajectory, except that he encountered Franz Boas. He took a seminar from Franz Boas which he described later as transformational and as having adjusted his trajectory towards anthropology. That seminar was oriented towards text explication, and Kroeber described it afterwards as very similar to what the classical philologists will do with Greek or Latin texts, except these were texts with Native American languages, and Kroeber just loved figuring out language, so he got into anthropology through linguistics and text work. The first text documentation that he actually did was in New York working with the Inuktun language recording linguistic materials and texts. […]

You asked about his accomplishments, and it’s very complex, I think, because he was in an anthropology department for his whole career, he’s known today by most people as an anthropologist, but at the time that he started, anthropology and linguistics were not so separated as they are now, and I think many people saw at least some parts of linguistics as being part of anthropology. That was certainly how he was trained. In the first decade or 15 years of his career at Berkeley, most of the work that he did was linguistic in nature. It was work that we would now call language documentation, recording as many languages as possible in California, transcribing texts, publishing text material, and doing all of that with the with the goal of trying to understand the linguistic landscape of California. California has more linguistic diversity in it per square mile, I guess, than any place in the Western Hemisphere, and there are about 98 languages, Indigenous languages, and they belong to 20 or 21 unrelated language families. So the map is very messy, the relationships of the languages are… were unclear, and part of his interest, like the interests of many people at the time, was to try and understand history through linguistic relationships, and so figuring out, kind of doing the primary documentation of languages and figuring out their linguistic relationships was a major goal. And some of his most important publications in the first decade of the 20th century were identifying language families and proposing relationships and subgrouping within language families kind of with that in mind. He also, in the last decade of his life, after he retired, kind of returned to that primary, again, what we would call language documentation – basically, working with the material that he had collected early and had languished and trying to prepare it for publication and so on.

So his career is very much sandwiched by linguistic work. He was actually a president of the Linguistics Society of America at one point. He did quantitative historical linguistic work before lexicostatistics and glottochronology. So he’s kind of underrecognized for his linguistic contributions partly because of the substance of his anthropological contributions.

As for the “denaming” of Kroeber Hall at UC Berkeley, I personally think it’s stupid (Garrett, who supported it, admits Kroeber is basically paying for the sins of early 20th century anthropology in general), but who cares? I have no skin in the game, and I say let Berkeley do what it wants with its buildings. (For the record, I was unqualifiedly in favor of the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale; John C. Calhoun really was a vile bastard.) At any rate, you can find out more about all this at the link; thanks, Y! (N.b.: There’s discussion of the Berkeley renaming in this thread, and I see TR added the podcast link to it while I was composing this post.)


  1. jack morava says

    There’s an (IMO) very interesting account

    of Kroeber’s correspondence with Edward Sapir, reviewed in Language at .

    It’s a while since I looked at it but IIRC a lot concerns academic politics (ie jobs) at the time…

  2. Andrew’s point about the unnaming is that it’s less about Kroeber and more about the University’s current relationship with indigenous people. Since it’s something many of them clearly care strongly about, and few others do, why be stubborn? I remember Hat making similar arguments in the past about writing out the N-word.

  3. why be stubborn?

    I’m certainly not: “I say let Berkeley do what it wants with its buildings.”

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    The only real argument against seems to be that it has the appearance of condemning a man who really doesn’t deserve it; as Prof Garrett says, he figures largely as a handy scapegoat in this. I suppose the long-term solution would be to avoid naming your buildings after actual people in the first place, no matter how worthy they may seem at the time. Though admittedly that is not much use now. (Adaa yɛl ka’ tiimm, as we say in Welsh.)

    Given that much building-naming seems to commemorate obscenely rich men seeking to whitewash their unsavoury reputations by late-stage performative philanthropy, I’d be quite happy with a general moratorium going forward, though.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Another argument against this sort of denaming is that it is an example of The Etymological Fallacy ™. By way of comparison, one of Berkeley’s major thoroughfares (sufficiently major as to have its own wikipedia article) is named Shattuck Avenue. Wikipedia says it was named after Francis Kittredge Shattuck (1824-1898), who was in his day a prominent local personality and, perhaps more to the point, owned some adjacent land at the time the street was first laid out.

    I assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that 99.9% of the people who live on, work on, or just walk down the sidewalk of, Shattuck Avenue have no idea about the backstory of its name, just as they generally do not know (or if they at some point learned, do not have readily available in their conscious recollection) that the city itself is named for a philosophically-minded 18th-century bishop of the Church of Ireland.

    By referring to Shattuck Avenue as a conventional toponym, current Berkeleyites are not, it seems to me, honoring the legacy of Mr. Shattuck or excusing any of his potential moral faults that may appear such in hindsight. They are much more likely to be completely indifferent to the historical Mr. Shattuck, whether he be praiseworthy or blameworthy.

    It certainly seems possible that some archeologically-minded activist group with time on its hands could delve into the biography of the historical Mr. Shattuck and find some action or opinion or position or association of his that was unremarkable at the time but appears quite odious (by the norms of 21st-century Berkeley) in hindsight and demand on that basis that the street be renamed. But I think this would be, as indicated above, an instance of The Etymological Fallacy ™.

    I like to think that my self-understanding as an American is appropriately informed by both the praiseworthy and blameworthy chapters of American history, but it is not informed one whit by the life of Amerigo Vespucci, who may for all I know have been the wickedest man of his generation. I don’t care about that. Etymology is not meaning.

  6. Berkeley Library in Trinity College Dublin may be renamed soon, because George B owned slaves. Dunno if U Berkeley has considered this

  7. David Marjanović says

    U Berkeley

    University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley being the place. All UC campuses are named after where they are.

  8. If you want to shorten it, just say “Berkeley.” In an academic context, there is no confusion.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Except for its football team (and perhaps other sports teams?), which in short form is pretty much always “Cal” and never “Berkeley.”

  10. Kroeber was my dissertation advisor’s dissertation advisor. George W. Grace was Kroeber’s student at Columbia. Kroeber and Grace in 1960 coauthored The Sparkman Grammar of Luiseno, updating Sparkman’s grammar from 1908. Grace was one of the original proponents of an Oceanic subgroup within the Austronesian language family, but he was always most interested in ethnolinguistics, especially in Melanesia, where subgrouping is very messy due to language contact issues.

  11. Cal is used locally, not just for sports: “Cal student”, “Cal professor”, etc. I don’t like this usage myself.

  12. Berkeley feels entitled to call itself simply “California” or “Cal” because it was the first campus of the University of California, is what I heard. Of course, that’s only locally or for sports, never in more general contexts.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    The name “Britain” implies that the native inhabitants are painted with woad. Such hurtful stereotyping has no place in this day and age (and anyway, what’s wrong with woad? Bloody Romans coming over here with their fancy togas …)

  14. Stu Clayton says

    It’s actually popular among alien rebels. Avatar, for example, is a woad movie.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    May you be forgiven …

  16. here’s a link to the collection that has ursula le guin’s piece “Indian Uncles” about her father and his indigenous friends/informants/colleagues.

    “There is a photograph of my father and Robert, one listening, the other telling, with lifted hand and faraway gaze. They are sitting on those fireplace stones. Robert and Alfred talked together sometimes in English sometimes in Yurok. It was perhaps unusual for the daughter of a first-generation German immigrant from New York to hear him talking Yurok, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything. I thought everybody spoke Yurok. But I knew where the center of the world was.”

  17. Indiana U and the City of Bloomington have just renamed a number of things named after David Starr Jordan, the eugenicist with a sideline in running universities. Fine, say I. But the former Jordan River, which runs through campus, is now the Campus River, which is (a) anodyne (b) silly, since in fact it’s a small creek–the name “Jordan River” was an obvious pun. I’d like to see it named after one of the leaders of campus protest (often in Dunn Meadow, along its banks) ca. 1968; but fat chance.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    @Rodger C.: “Campus Crick” would be nicely alliterative, although I guess I don’t know how common the “crick” pronunciation is in that part of Indiana, w/o even getting into the ways in which college-town populations do not reliably mirror regional pronunciations.

  19. I surmise UCB would be the name most galling to Berkelians

  20. I don’t get it. Best guess: Bishop Berkeley was Anglican, and United Christian Broadcasters seems to be an evangelical Protestant network?

  21. David Fraser says

    Most of the points about UC Berkeley [perhaps the most common appellation] are well taken. But some miss the mark. Why would ‘UCB’ be undesirable? I’ve spent 30+ years there, first as a grad(uate) student [Ph.D. East Asian History/China, 1999] and then 20 more as a staffer, just retired [Managing Editor, journal Asian Survey, Institute of East Asian Studies]: ‘I work at UC.’ Our sister school, if that’s not un-PC, UC Davis, is called ‘Davis,’ as in he goes to, and of course it’s UCLA and UCSD because the whole name [including ‘at’] is a mouthful. No one says ‘U Berkeley,’ and ‘Cal’ [as in she graduated from] is convenient locally. I try not to use it with denizens of other UCs, out of politeness. ‘Cal beats Stanford’ is a delicious if rare headline. Fiat, as the UC motto has it, Lux.

  22. Thanks, it’s good to have the word from a local!

  23. I have no particular opinion about renaming the building at Berkeley. However, it did seem like potentially dirty pool that the administration waited until Kroeber’s much more famous daughter was dead before talking about entertaining the change.

  24. @Brett, the renaming was not out of the blue but in response to a student proposal, which was submitted two years after UKL’s death.

  25. John Cowan says

    If UCB had not been in use locally, there would have been no ucbvax (obituary). Note that this document is hosted on!

  26. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    A semiologist could write a thesis
    on this event, but here we confine ourselves to the facts.
    — oooh!

  27. Wonderful article in this week’s London Review of Books about Jane Stanford. A leading Spiritualist, she promised/threatened Jordan that she planned to continue working at Her University after her death.

  28. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I’m pretty sure that BSD Unix had a /usr/ucb for stuff that shouldn’t be in /usr/bin because AT&T.

    (That’s [the] Berkeley Software Distribution as we all know. 4.2 ran just fine with 20 users in 2MB RAM! [As long as they were on serial lines, telnet we had to offload]).

  29. there would have been no ucbvax

    In turn, without aplvax, astrovax, asuvax, atvax, auvax, bsdgvax, burdvax, cadvax, ccivax, ccvax, cdcvax, cernvax, cosivax, ctvax, cubsvax, cvax, cybavax, dartvax, decvax, dscvax, ecsvax, elecvax, eneevax, flairvax, foxvax, hcrvax, hscfvax, hscvax, hydravax, imsvax, itivax, ittvax, iuvax, iwkvax, litvax, maxvax, mcvax, micomvax, mplvax, mprvax, nmtvax, noscvax, ogcvax, omsvax, oscvax, popvax, psuvax, randvax, rlgvax, rocksvax, savax, scgvax, sdcsvax, sjuvax, smcvax, stcvax, trsvax, ubvax, ucbesvax, ucbvax, uhpgvax, unmvax, uokvax, upvax, utmbvax, uwvax, wacsvax, wivax, wjvax, wxlvax, and even beesvax and turtlevax, there would have been no kremvax, either the fake or the real version. See also Shub-Internet.

    I’m pretty sure that BSD Unix had a /usr/ucb for stuff that shouldn’t be in /usr/bin because AT&T.

    Yes, indeed. SunOS 1.x had that directory too.

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