December 20, 2009
This year’s Symposium about Language and Society — Austin (SALSA) may be of special interest to those working on the language-culture nexus in indigenous Latin America, as it is organized in honor of Joel Sherzer, whose work has focused on a number of themes on language and culture in various parts of Central and South America, including the archiving of indigenous discourse materials. I include an abbreviated version of the CFP below (more information can be via the SALSA website, here). A number of Joel’s Amazonianist colleagues and students will be keynote speakers, including Greg Urban, who has carried out fieldwork on Shokleng, and Laura Graham, who continues to work with Xavante communities. SALSA is always a fun conference, and I think this year will be especially enjoyable.
S A L S A 2010
SPEECH PLAY AND VERBAL ART:
A CONFERENCE IN HONOR OF JOEL SHERZER
The Symposium About Language and Society Austin is pleased to announce its 18th Annual Meeting to be held March 26, 27, and 28 at the University of Texas at Austin. This year the conference will be held in honor of Dr. Joel Sherzer in order to mark his significant contributions to the study of language and culture. SALSA is now accepting proposals for papers focusing on the theme of speech play and verbal art as outlined in one of Dr. Sherzer’s most recent works, Speech Play and Verbal Art (2002). As Sherzer has noted, speech play consists of “The manipulation of elements and components of language in relation to one another, in relation to the social and cultural contexts of language use, and against the backdrop of other verbal possibilities in which it is foregrounded.”
SPECIAL PARASESSION: POETICS AT THE THRESHOLD OF CONTEXT
In addition to the general session, we are accepting proposals for contributions to a para-session on potential trajectories for further work in linguistic anthropology based on Sherzer’s legacy. In particular, we see a janus faced threshold for research on the interface of language and culture - the formal properties of language cannot be fully understood without understanding how language is used socially, and social action cannot be understood without understanding how people are making use of the formal properties of language. Such approaches would take seriously both recent work in linguistics and social anthropology.
Please send submissions to SALSA 2010 through the online submission form on the SALSA web site.
All submissions must include TWO abstracts: An extended abstract not to exceed 4,100 characters and spaces (approximately 600 words), including references and examples; and a shorter abstract not to exceed 1,100 spaces and characters (approximately 150 words). Please note that the online submission form does not accept special formatting or text such as IPA. Only electronic submissions sent through our online form will be accepted. Each person is limited to ONE submission as the primary author; multiple submissions by the same first author will not be accepted.
Deadline for receipt of abstracts is JANUARY 20, 2010. Late submissions will not be accepted, and we cannot accept papers that are to be published elsewhere. Notification of acceptance will be sent in the first week of February 2010.
November 25, 2009
The December 1 abstract deadline for Amazonicas III is fast approaching. Judging by what I’ve been hearing, this five day conference will be quite the event — probably the major event for Amazonianists in the coming year. Check out the CFP here.
November 11, 2009
In a post over at Savage Minds, Rex raises the issue of the ethics of publishing works that are not accessible (i.e. intelligible) to the community with which the anthropologist (in Rex’s scenario) works. In a thoughtful discussion of the issues, he seems to conclude that it is probably ethical in principle to publish such works, but not in practice. I infer that Rex’s conclusion is that ethical anthropologists make *all* their work accessible to the communities with which they work. Reflecting on his ruminations in the context of documentary and descriptive linguistics, I’m inclined to think that the relationships field linguists enter into with the communities with which they work, and the statements that they make about communities’ (linguistic) practices, are similar enough to those of anthropologists that to the degree that Rex’s argument is valid for anthropologists, it is also valid for field linguists. But given that, I find it hard to agree with where Rex seems to be heading. (My apologies in advance, Rex, if I am misconstruing your position.)
Briefly, I think that field-oriented scholars perforce participate in two quite different economies of knowledge: that of their academic speciality, and that of the communities in which they work — and these two economies in most cases value different things. For example, a community might value a combination of language lessons for language revitalization purposes and documentation and printed circulation of important works of verbal art, while in the scholarly economy, grammatical analysis of a typologically unusual construction in the language may be valued. I find it difficult to imagine in most cases how a *single* work could circulate in both economies. If in practice it is unethical to produce technical scholarly works, and yet those works are necessary for participation in the scholarly economy, field-oriented scholars are in a position where they must choose between being scholars and being ethical. (A possible response is that one could provide linguistic training to community members so that they can read the technical works in question — and there are good models for this, such as Oxlajuuj Keej Maya’ Ajtz’iib’ (OKMA) in Guatemala. But only a minority of community members are likely to be interested (as in our own society), so the basic problem remains.)
I think that the root of this apparent difficulty is the somewhat arbitrary conclusion that *all* works scholars produce be accessible to the communities with which they work. I find a more reasonable position to be that ethical behavior on the part of scholars entails that the community be pleased with the scholar’s participation in their lives (which may, for example, include collaborative research) and with what the scholar and local collaborators produce. At least in my experience, this means (among other things) meeting communities’ expectations regarding the production of materials for their use (and not for use by other scholars). On this view, and in practical terms (keeping in mind the scholars participation in two economies), ethical behavior means maintaining some kind of parity between scholarly and community-oriented production. Easier said than done, of course.
I’ve been wrestling with the practical issue of how to maintain a reasonable parity between scholarly and community-oriented work for some time. In the Iquito Language Documentation Project, for example, we produced a number of works, including a pretty hefty dictionary, that were well-received by the community. Of these, only the dictionary is eligible as a scholarly publication, but I’ve been leaving it to languish as an academic publication because dictionaries don’t have very much scholarly currency. On the other hand, I’m writing articles about the very interesting ways in which speakers of Nanti in a different community employ evidentials for a number of subtle social and interactional ends. I’ll be frank: these articles are almost totally inaccessible to the community.
I think one problem faced by well-intentioned scholars (alluded to by Rex in his post), is that the way field-oriented scholars tend to work: they gather data, materials, or experiences, they work it up for scholarly publication, and then, in all their spare time, they produce something for the community. What this means, of course, is that much of the time, the community gets nothing. Deferment leads to neglect. Or scholars just skip the production of scholarly works, which carries serious penalties if one is participating in a scholarly economy of knowledge.
These issues were heavy on my mind when planning fieldwork this past summer on Muniche, a linguistic isolate spoken in Peruvian Amazonia. But thinking about these issues with my long-term fieldwork partner Chris Beier, I think we hit upon a research methodology that addresses some of these issues, especially the issue of deferment. Briefly, In planning our fieldwork we prioritized the specific aim of creating resources for interested community members, with the explicit goal of delivering these resources to the community before we departed from the community. We reasoned that if we did a good job on these community resource, we could use them as the basis for subsequent scholarly work. Arriving in Munichis, we talked with interested community members about the resources they wanted — a dictionary, pedagogical grammar, and spelling primer were foremost — and then spent the rest of the summer working hard to meet our end-of-field-season deadline, in order to avoid deferring the production of community resources.
We met most of our goals (see this post for links to the materials we created), and the speakers we worked with, and the other interested community members, were very pleased with the materials. And apart from being very pleased to have produced resources the community valued, we have been very happy with the resources as the basis for further scholarly work. Since late August, we have been working up a description of the very interesting Muniche phonological system, and will subsequently move on to morphology and syntax.
I won’t claim that the resources we created were perfect — technical grammatical concepts were necessary for the pedagogical grammar, for example, and I’m not sure that we always did a good job in explaining them — but I think it was a strong start. Now that we’ve organized a project this way once, I think we can improve on this methodology in the future.
The details of this approach are presumably not going to be applicable to all field situations, but I think that there are underlying two principles here that are of broad applicability: 1) organize your project so that scholarly works are spin-offs of community-oriented works, rather than the reverse; 2) aim to deliver concrete products that community members want at the end of each field season *before* you leave for the shady groves of academia.
This seems to me to be one practical way to be an ethical field-oriented scholar, but I’d be very interested to get feedback on what others think of this approach.
November 3, 2009
I returned yesterday from the CILLA IV conference held at the University of Texas at Austin, where I had a great time. Perhaps my favorite paper was one presented by Katherine Bolaños and Pattie Epps, that examined the presumed genetic relationship between the Nadahup languages (Hup, Yuhup, Dâw, and Nadëb), on the one hand, and Kakua and Nukak, on the other. The basic point of their paper is that although the Nadahup languages and Kakua & Nukak have been grouped together as forming the ‘Makuan’ family (e.g. Martins and Martins 1999) since at least Koch-Grünberg (1906), this grouping is not supported by linguistic evidence, and seems to represent a socio-cultural categorization more than a linguistic one.
Based on Kakua data that Bolaños collected this past summer, Bolaños and Epps showed that there were no regular sound correspondences identifiable from Swadesh lists for the languages, although there were a number of forms that were identical, which strongly suggests that these items were borrowed. As Bolaños and Epps remarked, Koch-Grünberg’s original classification was not based on a very substantial body of data, but that through sheer repetition, the classification gained the weight of authority. They also observed that the speakers of Kakua & Nukak and the Nadahup languages are socially marginal hunter-gatherers in the context of the linguistic exogamy system in which the agricultural groups of the Vaupés region participate, and Koch-Grünberg’s classification thus essentially constitutes a linguistic reification of a regionally-relevant social categorization.
Bolaños and Epps then compared Kakua & Nukak, the Nadahup languages, and Tukano for a set of typological features, such as the presence of an evidential system, the number of terms in the tense system, and so on. What they found was that Kakua & Nukak, and the members of the Nadahup languages in the Vaupés area share a significant number of typological features with Tukano. This suggests that Kakua & Nukak, although they are now relatively distant from the Vaupés region, formerly participated more centrally in the Vaupés multilingual area.
Bolaños and Epps’ presentation represented a very solid contribution to our understanding of genetic and areal relationships in northwestern Amazonia, and I very much look forward to the paper stemming from this work.
Koch-Grünberg, Theodor. 1906. Die Indianer-Stämme am oberen Rio Negro und Yapurá uns ihre Sprachliche Zuhörigkeit. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 38: 167-205.
Martins, Silvana and Valteir Martins. 1999. Makú. In R.W.W. Dixon and Alexandra Aihkenvald (eds.), The Amazonian Languages, pp. 251-268. Cambridge University Press.
October 29, 2009
I am in Austin for CILLA IV, and I am looking forward to three full days of interesting talks on Latin American indigenous languages, especially Amazonian ones. Skimming the New York Times this morning I saw a brief mention of what seems like a rather odious article by John McWhorter about language loss here. Here is a brief quote from the article:
At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.
The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies.
Language death is consequence of people “coming together”? In Amazonia, as in much of the world, language death has everything to do with genocide and political and economic oppression. Does that count as “coming together”?
I’m almost speechless. But I’m out of time for now.
October 25, 2009
I’ve recently been reading quite a number of 17th and 18th century works about the upper Amazon region, mostly written by Jesuit missionaries who worked in the area. One of the more bewildering characteristics of these works is the plethora of ethnonyms the Jesuits used, sometimes in contradictory and unclear ways. One reason for this multiplicity of names is that the Jesuits would sometimes retain multiple names for roughly the same ethnolinguistic group, originating from different sources, or supply and use names for numerous subgroups of a given ethnolinguistic group in confusing ways. Once in a while, however, the circumstances behind the jumble of partially overlapping ethnonyms become clear, and one can get a brief glimpse into the multilinguistic and multiethnic milieu of the the period.
The first ethnonym I want to consider is ‘Payagua’, which I believe is an Omagua name for some or all of the Tukanoan peoples the Omaguas were familiar with. The Omaguas were a large and powerful group which, during the period in question, lived along the Amazon proper, from near the mouth of the Napo to below the mouth of the Putumayo (or Iça, as it is known in Brazil). The Omaguas spoke a language that is related to those of the Tupí-Guaraní family in complicated ways (more on this in an upcoming post). For our present interests, it is relevant that the Omaguas sometimes used binomial ethnonyms for their neighbors, in which the second element was the noun /awa/ ‘person, people’. For example, they referred to their eastern (downriver) neighbors, who lived in a large settlement called Yoriman, as the Yurimawa (/Yurima(n) + awa/), which the Spanish rendered as ‘Yurimagua’.
(In case you are curious, the Omaguas referred to themselves as ‘Awa’ — the eymology of ‘Umawa’ is unclear, the folk etymological ingenuity of the Jesuits notwithstanding.)
The ‘Payagua’, it so happens, were the Omaguas western neighbors, a Tukanoan people that inhabited the northern banks of the lower Napo. The Western Tukanoan groups who inhabited the northern bank of the Napo from its mouth to well into present day Ecuador tended to be called ‘Encabellados’ by the early colonial Spanish — a name derived from their distinctive long haircuts. The present day descendants of this groups, who are usually called ‘Siona’, ‘Secoya’, and ‘Orejón’ in the ethnographic and linguistic literature, employ autonyms incorporating the element /pai/ or /mai/ ‘person, people’. The Secoya, for example, call themselves /airo pai/ ‘forest people’, while the group formerly known as Orejón now prefer to be called /maihuna/ ‘people’ (/-huna/ is apparently a collective plural). It seems plausible then, that the Omaguas followed their binominal ethnonym formation pattern, using the autonym /pai/ to construct /pai + awa/, which the Spanish rendered ‘Payagua’. The reason for overlapping names in this case thus seems to stem from the fact that the Jesuits employed both the Omagua name for the Tukanoan neighbors of the Omaguasm and another term (Encabellados) to denote the Western Tukanoans as a whole.
Which brings us to the ethnonym ‘Masamae’, which was applied by the Spanish to a subgroup of Yameos who lived near the mouth of a southern tributary of the lower Napo River, now know as the Río Mazán. Any one who has read this far can probably now deduce the origin of ‘Massamae’ by themselves: the Tukanoan peoples just discussed lived directly across the river from this Yameo group, and presumably distinguished them from other Yameo groups by referring to them as the ‘people of the Mazán’ or /masa + mai/ (cf. /mai/ ‘person’, as discussed above). So ‘Masamae’ seems to be a name of Tukano origin, used to denote a particular geographically distinguished group of Yameos.
In closing, let me note the name ‘Masamae’ and its rarer variant ‘Masshamae’ pose some further puzzles — for example, why the use of /mai/ in the formation of this name, rather than the /pai/ that surfaces in ‘Payagua’? — but I’ll leave these for another day.
October 20, 2009
This semester at Berkeley I am teaching the year-long graduate field methods course, which I am enjoying tremendously. Apart from having the opportunity to work with a wonderful speaker of Quichua and a group of very intelligent and hard-working students, I have very much appreciated how the experience of helping others get their start with documenting and describing a language has given me the opportunity to reflect on aspects of my own language documentation practices. As in any area in which skills are acquired through praxis, there are aspects of my own practices that I am normally not particularly conscious of, but by watching others find their way and experiment, I’ve become more aware of some of them.
One such aspect concerns the intuitions I have developed about possible pitfalls in elicitation. Among documentary and descriptive linguists, the role of elicitation in a project’s overall methodological toolbox is a source of some controversy, with some linguists, like Tom Payne, recommending a heavy focus on elicitation early on in a documentary/descriptive project, and others, like Bob Dixon, recommending avoiding elicitation until late in a project, after a significant amount of text-based analysis has been carried out. I feel that there are good arguments for both of these elicitation philosophies, but regardless of the approach taken, I believe elicitation involves subtle skills that take time and practice to develop. One especially important aspect of developing elicitation skills, I believe, is acquiring sensitivities to the ways in which the linguistic expectations we have, stemming from the characteristics of our native language(s), can be the source of elicitation difficulties.
One area in which I’ve developed this type of sensitivity, I’ve recently come to realize, is in the use of metaphor. For example, I recently overhead an elicitation session in which a student asked our consultant to translate something like “Dancing gave Fred a headache.” The consultant had some difficulty with translating this sentence, and it dawned on me that I would probably never ask a consultant to translate a sentence like this.
But what kind of sentence is this, and why wouldn’t I ask a consultant to translate it? First, the sentence relies a great deal on metaphor: correctly interpreting the sentence requires interpreting the ‘giving’ expressed in the sentence as a metaphor for causation. And second, it requires understanding (anthropomorphising?) an activity like dancing as capable of ‘giving’ in the first place. Reflecting on this brief interchange and my reaction to it, I realized that over the years, I’ve come to avoid certain metaphors in elicitation. They seem to cause trouble.
But if, as scholars like George Lakoff believe, metaphor is central to human cognition, what exactly am I doing when I am ‘reducing’ my use of metaphor? I think that what I’m really doing is relying on my intuitive sense of what metaphors are cross-linguistically common and which aren’t. For example, I have the sense that the metaphorical use of spatial distances and relations to talk about temporal duration and relations (e.g. ‘a long time’) is very widespread, while the causation-as-giving metaphor discussed above is not. I’m not sure how good my intuition really is, of course, since I’ve only worked with a small number of languages, but the sensitivity I’ve developed seems to be an improvement over having none whatsoever. Of course, what would really be helpful here would a cross-linguistic typological perspective on metaphor, so that we could have a really sound basis for judgements about the use of metaphors in elicitation — but that’s an issue for another post.