I arrived in Iquitos yesterday on the way between fieldwork on Iquito and fieldwork on Máíhɨ̃ki, and found a message from John Benjamins letting me know that Evidentiality in Interaction, a volume edited by Janis Nuckolls and me, has been published. This volume includes a Foreword by Bill Hanks, and articles on a variety of grammaticalized evidentials and evidentiality is several lesser-studied languages, including Albanian (Victor Friedman), Garrwa (Ilana Mushin), Huamalíes Quechua, Imbabura Quichua (Janis Nuckolls), and Nanti (yours truly). The chapters represent a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including a CA-based chapter by Jack Sidnell.


Amazonicas V talks

May 29, 2014

Since the beginning of the week I’ve been here in Belém, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon itself, having a great time at the fifth biennial meeting of Amazonicas, the major international conference dedicated to Amazonian linguistics. Yesterday Zach O’Hagan and I gave back-to-back talks (citations below) presenting the first major results to come out of the work of the Berkeley Comparative Tupí-Guaraní Group. In the first talk, we presented a new internal classification of the TG family (slides available here), based on a large comparative lexical dataset that we have spent the last several years developing, and in the second one, we presented a proposal for the Proto-Tupí-Guaraní homeland and the migrations that account for the distribution of its modern daughter languages (slides available here). The audience had many interesting and valuable comments and questions for us, several of which will keep us busy until the next Amazonicas.


Chousou-Polydouri, Natalia, Zachary O’Hagan, Keith Bartolomei, Erin Donnelly, and Lev Michael. 2014. An internal classification of Tupí-Guaraní using computational phylogenetic methods. Presented at Amazonicas V, Belém, Brazil, May 28, 2014. [pdf]

O’Hagan, Zachary, Natalia Chousou-Polydouri, Keith Barolomei, Erin Donnelly, and Lev Michael. 2014. The geographical spread of the Tupí-Guaraní family: Evidence from computational phylogenetics. Presented at Amazonicas V, Belém, Brazil, May 28, 2014. [pdf]

Last week a box showed up from Brill with shiny new copies of the volume on negation in Arawak languages that Tania Granadillo and I edited. Springing from a Society for the Studies of the Indigenous Languages of the America (SSILA) panel that Tania and I organized in 2010, the volume includes detailed descriptions of negation constructions in Apurinã (by Sidney Facundes), Garifuna (by Pam Munro and Caitlin Gallagher), Kurripako (by Tania Granadillo), Lokono (by Marie-France Patte), Mojeño Trinitario (by Françoise Rose), Nanti (by yours truly), Paresi (by Ana Paula Brandão), Tariana (by Alexandra Aikhenvald), and Wauja (by Chris Ball). There is also a final chapter in which I present a typological overview of negation in the family, based on these chapters and other published materials. Think ahead: this would make an excellent stocking-stuffer for all the Arawak specialists on your Christmas list, or even for that typologist or synctactician interested in negation who has everything.

Arawak Negation Volume

Tania and I were originally motivated to organize the panel by our interest in seeing Arawak linguistics become a more actively comparative enterprise. Perhaps stemming from the considerable geographical dispersal of the family, and despite good descriptive work done on many of the languages of the family, Arawak linguistics has lagged behind traditions focused on other major South American language families, such as Tupían and Carib, in terms of historical and comparative work. The chapters in the volume point to some interesting patterns – and significant diversity – in Arawak negation constructions, giving us a sense of how this important grammatical sub-system works in the family.

The volume is bargain priced* at ~$127 and is available through Amazon or Brill.


*That is, bargain priced in comparison to having to go do fieldwork on all the languages in the volume yourself.

Máíhuna film project

April 18, 2014

I recently learned of a new documentary film project that aims to tell the story of the Máíhuna fight to defend their lands in the face of a plan to build a road through their traditional territory. As the project website describes,

The Maijuna, an indigenous group of the northeastern Peruvian Amazon, live in one of the most biologically rich regions of the world. Unfortunately, the Peruvian government wants to build a road directly through the heart of their ancestral lands, an area that they have cared for and lived in for millennia. The direct effects of highway construction and the associated impacts from an influx of colonists and subsequent deforestation would irreversibly alter the ecological fabric of this currently roadless area. Given that the Maijuna are a forest dwelling people who rely on the forest for sustenance and survival, building this road would severely impact their livelihoods and traditional culture. Help us tell the story of the last remaining Maijuna through the power of documentary filmmaking as they fight for their ancestral homeland and their cultural survival. This film is critically important because it will help to get the word out about the plight of the Maijuna and help them in their struggle to defend themselves.

This is a joint project between Professor Michael Gilmore and students Tyler Orton and Will Martinez of George Mason University, documentary filmmaker Jacob Wagner, and the non-governmental organization Rainforest Conservation Fund.

The project is currently seeking to raise $25k in funds through crowd-funding, and you can learn more about the project this article, and support it through the project’s Indiegogo page.

I was delighted to receive via email yesterday a copy of a new collection of Máíhɨ̃ki texts compiled by Amalia Skilton, who was a member of the Máíhɨ̃ki Project fieldwork team in 2012 and 2013. Amalia began independent fieldwork on Máíhɨ̃ki in the fall of 2013, and since January of this year, she has been working with speakers of Northern dialect of Máíhɨ̃ki in the town of El Estrecho, located on the Peruvian side of the Peru-Colombia border.

Northern Máíhɨ̃ki was historically spoken in the basin of the Algodón River (Máíhɨ̃ki: Tótóyà), a major southern tributary of the Putumayo River, and the remaining 13 speakers of this variety live either in the community of Tótóyà, located on the river of the same name, or have moved to El Estrecho to have easier access to education, work, and commercial products. Northern Máíhɨ̃ki was, until Amalia began her work, the least documented of the three Máíhɨ̃ki varieties (Western Máíhɨ̃ki, spoken in the Yanayacu River basin, Eastern Máíhɨ̃ki, spoken in the Sucusari River basin, and Northern Máíhɨ̃ki), but its small number of remaining speakers are considered by many Máíhuna to be among the most knowledgeable in terms of traditional culture, including oral traditions. Amalia has also found quite a number of grammatical and phonological differences between Northern Máíhɨ̃ki and the other Máíhɨ̃ki varieties which will no doubt lead to interesting insights into the history of the language as whole.

The text collection that Amalia has compiled for distribution to the Maihuna communities includes texts from majority of the speakers of the Northern dialect (Adriano Ríos Sanchez, Enrique Ríos Díez, Féderico Lopez Algoba, Lizardo González Flores, Otília López Gordillo, Pedro López Algoba, Soraida López Algoba, and Trujillo Ríos Díez), and includes illustrations by Gervasio López Mosoline. The oral texts related by these speakers, and transcribed and translated by Amalia with their help, are all fascinating, and exemplify a wide range of themes and forms of verbal artistry.

Anyone with an interest in Tukanoan linguistics or Amazonian verbal art should check it out here (6.3mb)!

A couple of months ago an announcement by a group biologists led by a team working out of the Universidade Federal do Minais Gerais, cleared up a small mystery that has been nagging me for about ten years now, and the resolution to this mystery nicely illustrates how the ethnobiological knowledge of the peoples that field linguists work with can outstrip that of biological experts we often rely upon.

This mystery first raised its head when I was working in Peruvian Amazonia, collaborating with several  speakers of Iquito to document the ethnobiological terminology of their language, as part of a broader effort to develop an Iquito dictionary (see here for a draft). Although we eventually got into more challenging domains like birds, fish, and plants, we began with the easiest domain: mammals (1). Our work on mammal terminology went quickly and smoothly, but for one thing: the men I was working with — principally Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa and Jaime Pacaya Inuma — provided two Iquito terms corresponding to the local Spanish term for tapir (sachavaca): pɨsɨkɨ and ariyuukʷaaha. The first was clearly Tapirus terrestris, the lowland tapir found all over the Amazon Basin, but I was perplexed by the second term, ariyuukʷaaha, which Hermenegildo and Jaime explained denoted a smaller variety than the one denoted by pɨsɨkɨ. I probed to see if perhaps the two terms referred to different life stages of the same species or the like or simply morphological variants (2), but the Iquito speakers were positive that there were in fact two distinct species of tapir, and described the physical characteristics that distinguished them. Mammologists, however, recognized only a single species of tapir in Amazonia: Tapirus terrestris.

 Twelve Iquito speakers at lunch in their honor (2004); Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa is in the back row, far left, and Jaime Pacaya Inuma, far right.

Twelve Iquito speakers at lunch in their honor (2004); Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa is in the back row, far left, and Jaime Pacaya Inuma, far right.

I was stumped by this state of affairs, and in the Iquito dictionary I just decided to indicate that pɨsɨkɨ was Tapirus terrestris, and that ariyuukʷaaha denoted a smaller variety of tapir which speakers identified as a distinct species. I was never fully satisfied by the this, however. How could biologists miss a wholly distinct species of mammal as large as a tapir? But on the other hand, how could a people who hunted tapirs regularly be wrong about a species distinction like this?

I expected this to be one of those numerous mysteries that crop up in fieldwork that are never resolved, and was thus very excited when I read about the discovery of a new species of tapir, Tapirus kabomani, which, crucially, is smaller than Tapirus terrestris. The original Cozzuol et al. BioOne article which announces the discovery can be found here. Interestingly, evidence for this species has been found in various locations in the lowland South America, including one location a mere 240 miles northeast of Iquito territory, suggesting that the Iquito ariyuukʷaaha is Tapirus kabomani.

Although the potential solution to the ariyuukʷaaha mystery is quite satisfying, it is worth pointing out that the ‘discovery’ in question is of course a curious one, in that the existence of this second species of tapir is no news to several Amazonian peoples, as Cozzuol et al. themselves point out. Although reports by indigenous peoples of this species to Western scientists date at least to an early 19th century mention of this species to Carl Friedrich Philip von Martius (see here), biologists never pursued this lead systematically, and thereby managed to miss identifying a quite massive mammal. Whatever the lesson for biologists in this story, as a field linguist who spends a reasonable amount of time concerned with ethnobiological matters as part of lexical work, this experience has left me with a renewed appreciation for how seriously we should take indigenous ethnobiological knowledge.


(1) In my experience, mammalian ethnobiological terminology is ‘easy’ in the sense that either there are few similar-looking species within a given genus in any given area, making species identification comparatively easy (e.g. within the genus Ateles), or there are a large number of similar-looking species, but there is a single ethnobiological term employed for the entire genus, or sometimes only two terms for an entire order, like bats (Chiroptera; the peoples I have worked with in the Amazon Basin make a two way terminological distinction: vampire bats  vs. any other member of the order).

(2) I’ve run across one pervasive terminological distinction in Peruvian Amazonian languages (and local Spanish) that does not correspond to a species distinction, although speakers of these languages believe that it does: the adult and juvenile phases of Bothrop atrox. In local Spanish, for example, the adult phase is referred to as a gergón, and the juvenile phase as a cascabel, and it is believed that they are distinct species.

Vale Constenla

November 11, 2013

I was saddened to hear that Adolfo Constenla Umaña recently passed away. Constenla was a giant in Costa Rican linguistics, doing important work on Chibchan languages and training students who also advanced our understanding of the family. Constenla was also the author of an important book that deserves to be better known than it is, Las lenguas del area intermedia: Introducción a su estudio areal. Among other things, this work evaluates whether the ‘area intermedia’, roughly the region south of the Mayan zone in Meso-America, and extending to northern Colombian Andes, constitutes a linguistic area. This study prefigures by almost two decades the increasingly common use of a relatively large number of typological features to assess areality, and carefully examines the distribution of diagnostic features outside the proposed area, as well as inside, an important methodological point not always attended to in older work on linguistic areas. In many respects this work represented one of the most rigorous studies of a linguistic area until recently, when computational techniques were harnessed to assess areality. Constenla left behind a rich body of work and a cadre of students, through which his influence will live on.


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