Earlier this year, UTEP Professor Robert Gunn was awarded the Early American Literature Book Prize for his 2015 book, “Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literature, and the Making of the North American Borderlands.”
“It is about ethnological linguistics – ideas about languages and native languages in the context of western expansion in the 19th century,” Gunn said. “Beginning with Lewis and Clark, and with every major exploratory survey in the 19th century, you have people there who are trained in studying native peoples. The reason the army is interested in this – it’s an intelligence gathering exercise – it helps them learn about the people they want to manage and conquer.”
Gunn moved here from New York City in 2005. He received his doctorate in English and American literature from New York University. He’s an associate professor of UTEP’s English department and teaches early and 19th century American literature.
“There are so many things that are deeply fascinating about living here,” Dr. Gunn said. “The sense of history that one has here, the combination and interchange of different cultures over such a long period is so visible in everyday life.
“The importance of the border and the boundary – and what that means and has meant, historically, for a lot of different people over a very long time – is present in your everyday life,” he continued. “It’s incredibly compelling. Moving here completely changed the course of my research and led to this book.”
After the Revolutionary War, the country was posed with a serious question: to expand or not to expand? The country decided to continue west, and this expansion was helped by linguists.
“The army provides the only plausible basis for [scientists] to get the evidence they need to advance their projects of knowledge creation,” Dr. Gunn said. “These are linguists who are interested in comparing all the languages in the world. In order to do that, you need to collect evidence from very far, foreign places and lots of pieces of evidence. They don’t have the resources, but the army does.
“There’s this interesting collaboration going on between the scientific community and the war department. That’s the key story I want to tell – about how the formation of an American geography depends on a product of learning about languages and mapping languages in North America.”
The findings of these linguistic studies began to show that through language, if one went back far enough and saw how languages evolved from each other, then one could find a common genealogy of the human race.
“We often talk about the importance of race in American history, but we don’t talk often enough about where some of those ideas came from, or more specifically, when they came from,” Gunn said. “The modern understanding of what race is was really invented at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. In that time some really ugly and insidious ideas about racial difference began to spread in the world.
“One of those ideas was that different races weren’t related at all, which is very appealing to people who want to support and strengthen the institution of slavery.
“On the other hand, there are people who want to vindicate a single origin of all people – often these people are the linguists.”