Terrence Kaufman

Terrence Kaufman (born 1937) is an American linguist specializing in documentation of unwritten languages, lexicography, Mesoamerican historical linguistics and language contact phenomena. He is emeritus professor of the department of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Academic career

Kaufman received his PhD in Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. Kaufman has produced descriptive and comparative-historical studies of languages of the Mayan, Siouan, Hokan, Uto-Aztecan, Mixe–Zoquean and Oto-Manguean families.

Probably because of his focus on gathering empirical documentation of unwritten languages through fieldwork and training of native linguists, Kaufman's list of publications is less extensive than those of other scholars in the field. Nevertheless, many of his articles, often coauthored with other scholars such as Lyle Campbell, Sarah Thomason and John Justeson, have been highly influential.

In a 1976 paper coauthored with Lyle Campbell, he advanced a theory that the Olmecs spoke a Mixe–Zoquean language, based on the substantial presence of early Mixe–Zoquean loans in many Mesoamerican languages, particularly from specific, culturally significant semantic domains. This theory has come to be widely accepted, and is often cited as quasi-fact. Along with Lyle Campbell and Thomas Smith-Stark, Kaufman carried out research published in Language (1986) which led to the recognition of Mesoamerica as a linguistic area.

In Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics (1988), coauthored by Kaufman and Sarah Thomason, the authors were the first to lay down a solid theoretical framework for the understanding of the processes of contact-induced language change. Kaufman's proposed genealogy of the indigenous languages of South America (Kaufman 1990), which stands as the most thorough and well-founded classification of its kind, serves as the basis for the classification presented by Lyle Campbell in his authoritative "American Indian Languages" (Campbell 1997).

Along with John Justeson, he claimed to have successfully deciphered the Isthmian or Epi-Olmec script (Justeson & Kaufman 1993). This claim has not found general acceptance in the general scholarly community, and has been bluntly rejected by Michael Coe and Stephen Houston (Houston & Coe 2004). Kaufman is currently involved in the "Project for the Documentation of the Languages of Mesoamerica" or PDLMA, focused on collecting standardized linguistic data from the underdocumented languages of Mesoamerica.

Selected bibliography


  • Campbell, Lyle, and Terrence Kaufman. 1976. "A Linguistic Look at the Olmec." American Antiquity 41(1):80-89.
  • Campbell, Lyle, and Terrence Kaufman. 1980. "On Mesoamerican linguistics." American Anthropologist 82:850-857.
  • Campbell, Lyle, Terrence Kaufman and Thomas C. Smith-Stark. "Meso-America as a Linguistic Area", Language Vol. 62, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), pp. 530–570.
  • Campbell, Lyle, Terrence Kaufman, "Mayan Linguistics: Where are we Now?" Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 14, 1985 (1985), pp. 187–198.
  • Justeson, John, and Terrence Kaufman. 1993. "A decipherment of epi-Olmec hieroglyphic writing". Science 259:1703-1711.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. "Archaeological and Linguistic Correlations in Mayaland and Associated Areas of Meso-America" World Archaeology, Vol. 8, No. 1, Archaeology and Linguistics (Jun., 1976), pp. 101–118
  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1988. "A Research Program for Reconstructing Proto-Hokan: First Gropings." In Scott DeLancey, ed. Papers from the 1988 Hokan–Penutian Languages Workshop, pp. 50–168. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon. (University of Oregon Papers in Linguistics. Publications of the Center for Amerindian Linguistics and Ethnography 1.)
  • Kaufman, Terrence. 1990. "Language History in South America: What we know and how to know more." In Doris L. Payne, ed. Amazonian Linguistics, pp. 13–74. Austin: University of Texas Press.


  • Justeson, John, William Norman, Lyle Campbell, and Terrence Kaufman (1985). The Foreign Impact on Lowland Mayan Language and Script. Middle American Research Institute Publication 53.
  • Kaufman, Terrence (1972). El Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil. Fonología comparada y diccionario reconstruido. México, UNAM.
  • Thomason, Sarah G., and Terrence Kaufman (1988). Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07893-4.


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