Genetics meets Voodoo Historical Linguistics: Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans

The process of the settlement of the Americas is one of those long-standing and fascinating research questions that can probably only be properly tackled by bringing to bear the tools of multiple disciplines: archeology, historical linguistics, and biology — especially genetic analyses of Native American populations. I was excited to see, therefore, a recent study, Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans (PLoS Genetics), that sought to use information on genetic variation in Native American populations to develop and test hypotheses about the question of prehistoric migration in the Americas.

There is much to chew on in this interesting article, and I have some queries on methodological issues related to the genetics discussed in the article, but in this post I want to comment on the use the authors made of historical linguistics. Most of the article is devoted to analyses of genetic samples from various indigenous peoples of the Americas, but one section is entitled “Genes and Languages”. The first sentence of this section reads:

We compared the classification of the population into linguist “stocks” with their genetic relationships as inferred on a neighbor-joining tree constructed from Nei genetic distances.

When I saw the word “stocks”, my eyebrows went up, and I read on:

In a neighbor-joining tree, a reasonably well-supported cluster (86%) includes all non-Andean South American populations, together with the Andean-speaking Inga population from southern Columbia. Within this South American cluster, strong support exists from separate clustering of Chibchan-Paezan (97%) and Equatorial-Tucanoan (96%) speakers (except for the inclusions of the Equatorial-Tucanoan Wayuu population with its Chibchan-Paezan geographic neighbors, and the inclusion of Kaingang, the single Ge-Pano-Carib population, with its Equatorial-Tucanoan geographic neighbors).

Chibchan-Paezan? Equatorial-Tucanoan? Ge-Pano-Carib? Uh-oh, I thought, it looks like the authors are using Greenberg’s classification of the languages of the Americas. The citations confirmed it: Greenberg (1987) and Ruhlen (1991) are their main linguistic references. I was stunned.

The authors are geneticists, and not historical linguists specializing in the Americas, so they are probably blissfully unaware of the fact that Greenberg’s classification (which Ruhlen essentially repeats) has been severely criticized by Americanist historical linguists, and is regarded by most of them as unreliable at best. They may exist, but I’ve never met an Americanist that finds Greenberg’s classification vaguely plausible. But the authors thank Merritt Ruhlen for assistance in their acknowledgement section, which indicates at least one source for their linguistic advice.

The problematic nature of the use of Greenberg’s classification is nicely, if subtly, indicated by the following observation by the authors:

As the use of a single-family grouping (Amerind) of all languages not belonging to the Na-Dene or Eskimo-Aleut families is controversial [here they cite Bolnick et al. 2004], we focused our analysis on the taxonomically lower level of linguistic stocks.

To say that Amerind is “controversial” is an understatement — but never mind that for now — as Lyle Campbell points out, even Greenberg and Ruhlen admit that they have greater confidence in the Amerind supergroup than they do in the accuracy of the subgroupings within Amerind:

Moreover, there is some reason to believe that not even Greenberg and Ruhlen have strong faith in the validity of these eleven groupings, since the repeatedly mentioned their belief that the overall Amerind construct “is really much more robust that some [of these eleven] lower branches of Amerind (Ruhlen 1994b:15; see Greenberg 1987:59). (Campbell 1997: p.328)

The Greenberg citation in question reads:

The validity of Amerind as a whole is more secure than that of any of its stocks.

So, the authors of GVPSNA think that Amerind is too controversial to be used in their paper, but Greenberg and Ruhlen think that Amerind is “more robust” and “more secure” that the “taxonomically lower level of linguistic stocks” used in GVPSNA. Simple transitivity means that these the authors should not trust the lower level stocks either.

The root problem with the lower-level groupings in Amerind is that even if the method of mass lexical comparison (MMLC) used by Greenberg and Ruhlen is viable (and there are not many historical linguists who would defend this position), the method is (as Bill Poser, among many others, has pointed out) incapable of defining subgroupings. The very best that MMLC can do (and once again, historical linguists have grave doubts even here) is show that a group of languages is related. It cannot elucidate subgroupings within that group of related languages.

I’ll save the explanations for the flaws in MMLC and its inability to define subgroupings for another post, but we see in the case of GVPSNA both a pervasive problem and an opportunity. The pervasive problem is that literacy in linguistics is low both among laymen and in other scientific disciplines — a horse long ago beaten to death over at Language Log (the horse in question, is, unfortunately, undead, and requires period new beatings). The opportunity is twofold: first, its clear that linguistics has something to offer scientists in other fields, which is nice; and second, getting the word out about the state of the art in linguistics gives linguists a great way to achieve world domination. Fast.

Works Cited

Bolnick DA, Shook BA, Campbell L, Goddard I. 2004. Problematic use of Greenberg’s linguistic classification of the Americas in studies of Native American genetic variation. Am J Hum Genet 75: 519–522.

Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American Indian Languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. Oxford University Press.

Greenberg, Joseph. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford University Press.

Ruhlen, Merritt. 1991. A guide to the world’s languages. Volume 1: Classification. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Funding for Amazonian Language Research

A colleague of mine who works in Peru recently asked me about funding opportunities for linguistically-oriented research. Since this is a question I get with some regularity, I have been inspired to write a post that consolidates this information in one place. In putting together this list, I specifically have in mind research on Amazonian languages, and I am excluding fairly nation-specific funding sources like NSF (US) and CNPq (Brazil), and the like. As a special bonus, I am including comments and (possibly scurrilous) rumors about the various options that aspiring applicants may wish to consider.

Btw, if readers know of any sources that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know, and I’ll add them.

Endangered Language Fund

ELF seems to have been generous in funding proposals for work on Amazonian languages, as far as I have been able to determine through the Amazonianist grapevine. Another nice point is that the proposal requirements themselves aren’t too onerous. As one would expect, language revitalization and indigenous linguistic training components are looked upon favorably, which is not the case for all funding sources.

The major disadvantage of ELF grants is their small size: most are in the $1000 – $2000 range. Between travel, equipment, and consultant costs, that just doesn’t go very far in the Amazon Basin. I think that for most projects, an ELF grant is best seen as a funding supplement for a revitalization/pedagogical component. Of course, if one is already living relatively near your planned field site and are capable of living on the cheap, an ELF grant could be stretched out to finance a reasonably long project.

Foundation for Endangered Languages

I have never known anyone who has received an FEL grant, and it looks like most of their money goes to projects outside the Americas, but I imagine that’s mainly reflective of who applies more than anything else.

Grants are quite small; most are under $1000.

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Documentation Project

For most international researchers, ELDP is probably the single best source for funding research on Amazonian languages. ELDP offers a number of different funding options, from short field trips, to dissertation funding, to multi-year projects.

ELDP has very high standards for proposals, and tend to have very strong opinions about technology and methodology. Personally, I think that this is, for the most part, a good thing, but I’ve also heard that some applicants have found the ELDP application process to be too onerous, and have looked for funding elsewhere instead. In any event, be sure to carefully examine sample proposals and their recommendations on technology and methodology before completing any proposal.

Wenner-Gren Foundation

Wenner Gren is a funding source for anthropological research, but it remains true to the Boasian four-field approach, which includes linguistics. As might be expected, Wenner Gren appears to look most favorably on language-oriented research projects that also incorporate a significant social or ethnographic research component, meaning that this is an especially good funding source for linguistic anthropologists. Nevertheless, I know of a few projects that have been funded that are pretty much straightforward descriptive linguistics.

Funding is available at both pre-PhD and post-PhD levels, and they have a nice collaborative research program.

One warning however: Wenner Gren seems to have a rather antediluvian attitude towards endangered language documentation, as evidenced by this comment:

Linguists should also be aware that the Foundation does not fund salvage work on endangered languages (e.g., preparation of dictionaries and/or grammars).

(Salvage work?! There are so many misconceptions underlying this characterization of endangered language documentation that I am left speechless. It’s a good thing Boas or Sapir didn’t apply for funding from Wenner-Gren!)

Volkswagen Foundation

VW has funded a large number of projects in Greater Amazonia, with a focus on Eastern Brazil and Bolivia. Funding is substantial, and research is supported by the DoBeS project (, based at the Max Planck Instute at Nijmegen ( These projects are generally substantial and technologically documentation sophisticated projects, and I suspect that applicants should do significant homework before applying, as in the ELDP case.

Note that proposals to the Volkswagen Foundation require substantive collaboration with a German scholar or German academic institution. The rumor mill has it that a year or so ago that the VW Foundation effectively yanked funding from a project or two that had fairly nominal German participation, leaving a number of Latin American collaborators high and dry. Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems best to be careful.

Research Centre for Linguistic Typology

RCLT provides funding for dissertation and postdoctoral research under the guidance of the center’s co-directors, R.M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Aihkenvald. One of their major areas of interest is Amazonian languages, and in recent years, they have focused quite a bit on Peruvian Amazonia in particular. Funding includes a fairly hefty multi-year stipend, but I’ve met a few people who have found the travel and equipment funding a bit thin for work in the Amazon basin, which can get fairly expensive because of transportation costs. Doctoral students and post-docs are expected to spend a significant part of their time at RCLT, which is located at La Trobe University, in Melboune, Australia.

The Origins and Spread of “Greater Amazonia”

The term “Greater Amazonia” now yields hundreds of hits with your average search engine — but it was not always so. Indeed, this term has only gained widespread currency in the last decade. In this post I report on what I have learned about its earliest attestation, and the route by which it came to be a widely used term

But first, a personal note — my involvement with this term began some time in 2000-2001, when I was writing a review article with Chris Beier and Joel Sherzer on dicourse in lowland South America. As it turns out, when you begin to look at the distribution of particular discourse phenomena associated with Amazonia, say, dialogic chanting or dialogic ritual discourse, you find that the phenomena tend to be distrubed in a roughly contiguous area encompassing the Amazon Basin proper, but also — in the north — the Guyanas, the Orinoco Basin, and the Darien and nearby parts of Columbia and Panama. In the south, the region extends through the central Brazilian highlands to encompass the headwaters of the rivers running south from the southern limits of the Amazon Basin proper. This contiguous region is also spanned by several language families (Arawak, Carib, Gê, Tupí) and by cultural patterns, suggesting the existence of a long-standing linguistic-cultural area.

At the time we were writing that article, at any rate, we were in need of a handy term to describe this area and so I coined — or so I though — the term “Greater Amazonia”. I proposed it to my co-authors, and they liked it, but were concerned that we might be being too onomastically daring in introducing the term. But it was just so well-suited to our need that we decided to use it anyway. Naturally, I checked to see if anyone else had used the term before, but using the search tools of the time — remember, this was before Google Scholar and Google Books, and just at the time when scholarly resources were being digitized en masse — I found nothing. Recently, however, I had reason to repeat this search and discovered that I was very, very far from being the first to use the term “Greater Amazonia”.

The earliest attestation of the term that I have discovered so far is in Clarence Fielden Jones’ 1930 volume South America, a geography text devoted to South America as a whole. However, after this one early outlier, I have found almost no uses of the term until William Denevan’s 1976 book The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, which seems to have been the point at which the term began to spread into the scholarly community.

There is one caveat here: I have found a few attestations of “greater Amazon area” from the 1940s. It should be recalled that use of the term “Amazonia” only really took off in the English speaking world starting in the 1970s, and that “The Amazon” or “Amazon basin” was more commonly used before that point. In any event, we find use of the “the greater Amazon area” in Prehistoric settlement patterns in the New World, a 1943 Wenner Grenn volume edited by Willey Gordon, as well as in Alice Galligan James’ 1949 Village arrangement and social organization among some Amazon tribes.

But as I said, these scattered outliers do not seem to have had much impact, and we can trace the current spread of the term back to Denevan’s 1976 volume. This book, which significantly increased estimates of the indigenous population in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans, had a significant impact when it was published. Among other reasons, the larger population estimates put the effects of the European colonization of the Americas in an entirely new light, and made respectable the use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the actions taken by Europeans and their descendants against indigenous American peoples. Denevan’s work was widely reviews and cited, and I believe that it was this work that served to introduce “Greater Amazonia” to the scholarly community — especially to cultural anthropologists and archeologists.

Until about 1985, most uses of “Greater Amazonia” occurred in reviews or citations of Denevan’s work, but starting in about 1987, the term began to gain wider currency. We find it, for example, in Chiefdoms in the Americas, a 1987 voume edited by Robert Drennan and Carlos Uribe, and in Comparative Farming Systems, of the same year, edited by B.L. Turner and Stephen Brush. An increasing trickle of uses is attested through the 1990s, and then in 2000 we see a sudden jump in its use and the term then began to spread rapidly through the scholarly community.

The first use of the term that I have been able to locate in a journal article not directly connected with Denevan’s work is in a 1990 article by Darna L Dufour, Use of Tropical Rainforests by Native Americans.

So, it’s very clear that I did not coin the term “Greater Amazonia”, although I had no memory at the time of having heard it before. Note, however, that my supposed coining of the term coincided almost perfectly with the point at which the term began to gain great academic currency, suggesting to me that unconsciously picked it up. It does, however, seem that I may have been an early adopter, at least in my neck of the academic woods: it looks like ours was the first language-related journal article to use “Greater Amazonia”. But I’ve learned my lesson, and I expect earlier attestations await only further progress in the digitization of the scholarly record.

Symposium on Endangered Languages of Amazonia Talk Summaries

The following is a summary of talks given at the “Symposium on Endangered Languages of Amazonia”, held at the University of Texas at Austin on February 16-17, 2007. That’s now a while ago, but I figure this is a good a place as any to archive these summaries.

I apologize in advance for any inadvertent misrepresentations due to the need for brevity, or due to misunderstandings on my part. I have suppressed most citations.

Nilson Gabas Junior (Keynote). Ideophones and evidentiality in Karo (Tupi).

Gabas presented two talks: one on ideophones and a second on evidentiality in Karo, a Tupian language spoken in the Brazilian state of Rôndonia, near the border with Bolivia. Karo has approximately 150 speakers living in two villages, and the language is currently vital.

Ideophones in Karo

Gabas argues that ideophones forms a distinct, open word class in Karo, on par with nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. In Karo, ideophones are semantically similar to verbs, in that they convey actions or movements, are morphologically similar to particles in that they display no internal structure, and take no inflectional or derivational morphology, as well as to adjectives and verbs, in that they can take an adverbializer clitic. They display a similar syntactic distribution to adverbs. Phonologically, Karo ideophones are phonologically exceptional in exhibiting a doubly-articulated alveolar-labial nasal.

Syntactically, ideophones appear in all clause types, and are usually acompanied by an auxiliary, except in the case of negative imperative clauses, nominalizations, and time subordinate clauses. In any clause type, however, an ideophone or an ideophone + auxiliary combination may replace a verb to indicate the action of the clause. Note that ideophones may also co-occur with verbs of the same or similar meaning.

Gabas argued Karo ideophones display some obvious onomatopoeic features, but do not exhibit the one-to-one sound-meaning correlation characteristic of sound symbolism. Moreover, some ideophones have meanings that correspond to regular Karo verbs, such as `look’, `miss’, `throw’, and `disappear’, and can replace them via the constructions mentioned previously.

Gabas has found that Karo ideophones are more common in narratives than in everyday conversation, and he associates them with `expressiveness’ and the notion of involvement stemming from Tannen, Chafe, and others.

Gabas closed with comments on the typology of ideophones, remarking that there is not yet an ageed upon definition of ideophone, other than its basis in onomatopoeia and sound iconicity. Gabas proposed that a cross-linguistically valid definition of ideophones may be prototype-based, involving central members with the following characteristics: sound iconicity; the use of sounds rare or absent in other categories; the use of reduplication to indicate iteration, progressive, or continuative aspect; syntactic distribution different from other word classes and inclined towards clausal edges, and their own intonational unit; and an association with narrative peaks.

Evidentiality in Karo

Gabas described a set of eleven particles in Karo that would be considered evidentials under the `broad’ sense of evidentiality (i.e. source-of-information, reliability (i.e. epistemic modality), and possibly, mirativity). These particles are not obligatory for morphosyntactic wellformedness (i.e. do not form an inflectional category), but are very common in Karo discourse. Karo evidentials appear either in sentence-final position or NP-final position, which are distributional characteristic that distinguish them from adverbs.

Karo evidentials appear in declarative, interrogative, focal, negated, predicate adjective, and predicate nominal clause types, but do not appear in imperative clauses, or any future clauses. More than one evidential may appear in a clause, providing their meanings are compatible (e.g. source-of-information and reliability), but Gabas pointed out that fully determining the co-occurence patterns in this intricately related set of particles remains an issue for further research.

The semantics of Karo evidentials appears quite complicated and subtle. Gabas identifed five clear source-of-information evidentials: visual, non-visual, hearsay (reportive), and two inferentials distinguished by whether or not the proposition is counter-expectational or not. Another particle is used to indicate `assumption’ from patterns of previous activity (this could also arguably be considered an inferential based on habitual behavior). In addition, Gabas identified three particles that indicate high, medium, and low reliability. Finally, Gabas identified two evidential particles identified as `counter-expectation’ and `subject confirmation’ which indicate that the proposition does derive from *some* source of information (unspecified as to its nature), and that the proposition based on that source of information is, respectively, in fact counter to expectation or other information sources, or confirms a possible proposition regarding the subject of the clause.

Gabas closed his talk with a review of the typological discussions of evidentiality by Dixon and Aikhenvald (1998) and Aikhenvald (2004), a review of the areal distribution of evidentiality in the Amazon (which shows a greater tendency towards larger numbers of evidential distinctions in the Northern Amazon than in the Southern Amazon), and mention of other languages, apart from Karo, in the Southern Amazon and in the Tupian family that exhibit evidentiality (Southern: Kamayura, Nambiquara, Madi, and Panoan languages; Tupian: Gavião and Sakuriabat)

Lev Michael. Mood and Negation in Nanti (Kampan, Arawak).

Nanti is an Arawak language of the Kampan sub-family, which includes languages such as Asháninka, Ashéninka, and Matsigenka, and is spoken in lowland southeastern Peru. There a 500 speakers of Nanti, and the language is extremely vital, most Nantis being monolingual.

Michael presented a description and analysis of the mood system of Nanti, focusing on the interaction of mood and negation. In Nanti, mood is an inflectional category that exhibits a binary contrast between `realis’ and `irrealis’. Michael reviewed the debate on the validity of realis and irrealis as typological grammatical categories (Marianne Mithun, Talmy Givón, Jennifer Elliot, William McGregor and Tamsin Wagner come down in favor of it, Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca reject it), and argued that the concepts appear to have a great deal of descriptive utility, and that they should not be abandoned at this time.

Returning to Nanti, Michael showed that in affirmative main clauses, realis marking is found in non-imperative clauses with non-future temporal reference, whereas irrealis marking is found in imperatives, counterfactuals, conditionals, and clauses with future temporal reference. Michael pointed out that this patterning is common for languages with a realis/irrealis contrast. In Nanti, irrealis marking is also found in non-finite complements, temporal coordination clauses, and purpose clauses.

In negated clauses, mood-marking is more complicated. First, Nanti exhibits two negators, te- and ha-. The former is used to negate otherwise semantically realis clauses, and the latter is used to negate otherwise semantically irrealis clauses. That is, te- is used to negate non-imperative clauses with non-future temporal reference, whereas ha- is used to negate imperatives, counterfactuals, conditionals, and clauses with future temporal reference.

Te-negated clauses take irrealis marking, and ha-negated clauses take realis marking. Irrealis marking of negated clauses is common in languages with realis/irrealis systems, making the behavior of te-negated clauses unremarkable. However, the fact that ha-negated clauses are realis-marked is unexpected. If anything, these clauses seem like they are, semantically speaking, doubly irrealis.

Michael then argued that in fact, it is not only the mood-marking of ha-negated clauses that seems `backwards’, but also that of te-negated clauses. Michael argued that in order to understand Nanti mood marking in negated clauses it is necessary to go back to the notional definition of `realis’ given by Mithun, and note that part of the definition refers to `knowability through direct experience’. On this basis, Michael argued, te-negated clauses (which necessarily have non-future temporal reference) can be considered to be semantically realis, just like their non-negated counterparts, since it is possible to directly experience the non-occurrence of something in past or present. If this is given, both te-negated and ha-negated clauses exhibit mood marking opposite to what one would expect on notional grounds.

Inspired by certain analyses of counter-intuitive mood marking of Mithun’s, Michael proposed that mood-marking discrepancy exhibited in Nanti negated clases can be resolved by considering the scopal interaction of negation and mood in Nanti. Michael’s argument involved three steps: first, we accept work that has argued that negation can have scope of mood in particular languages and assume that this is the case in Nanti. Second, we accept work that shows that in certain languages the total modal value for a clause is the result of the interaction of negation and mood values. And third, we explictly formulate the relationship between relationship between realis and irrealis as: irrealis = NOT realis, and realis = NOT irrealis.

From these starting points, Michael argued, we can easily explain `backwards’ marking of mood in Nanti negated clauses. In te-negated clauses, which are semantically realis according to the above argument but are *marked* irrealis, we would analyse the total modal value of the clause as NEG(irrealis) = realis. In other words, the negation `flips’ the irrealis modal value marked on the verb, resulting in overall realis modal value for the clause. In ha-negated clauses, which are semantically irrealis, but are marked realis, the total modal value of the clause is given by NEG(realis) = irrealis. By this argument, then, the overall modal value of the negated clauses are what one would expect on notional grounds.

I-Wen Lai. Conditionals and Counterfactuals in Iquito

Iquito is a Zaparoan language spoken in northern Peruvian Amazonia, near the present-day city of Iquitos. The language is moribund, with only 25-40 remaining speakers, all over the age of 60.

Lai presented a description of the morphosyntax of conditional and counterfactual constructions in Iquito and an analysis of the morphosyntactic composition of conditional and counterfactual semantics in these constructions. The analytical framing of Lai’s analysis involved a contrast between languages in which conditionality and counterfactuality is conveyed by implicature, on the basis of tense/aspect/mood (TMA) morphology, and languages in which conditionality and counterfactuality is expressed by morphology dedicated to this meaning. Significantly, in languages of the former type, like English and Modern Greek, TMA morphology does not receive its normal interpretation in conditional and counterfactual constructions (resulting on so-called “fake” TMA), while in languages of the latter type TMA morphology still receives its normal interpretation (so-called “real” TMA). Lai argued that Iquito is a language of the latter type.

Lai then presented descriptions of Iquito non-counterfactual conditional constructions (habitual patterns and situations, epistemic conditionals, and future conditionals) and counterfactual conditionals. Non-counterfactual conditionals use the bipartite non-assertive morpheme `sa-cari’ and realis word order in the antecedent (In Iquito, realis and irrealis mood are distinguished by word order; in realis order, no elements intervene between the subject verb, whereas in irrealis order, other elements, such as object NPs, determiners, and adverbs typically intervene between the subject and the verb). Tense and aspect appear between the two parts of the bipartite non-assertive morpheme.

The habitual conditional (e.g. If he sees you, he does not look for you) is characterized by imperfect aspect and realis order in both the antecedent and consequent clauses. Epistemic conditionals (e.g. If he drank it earlier today, he is probably recovering now) also employ realis order in both the antecedent and consequent clauses and always employs the epistemic adverb `cuuta’ (perhaps) in the consequent clause. Tense and aspect morphology varies with the particulars of the situation being described. Future conditionals are characterized by realis order in the antecedent and irrealis order in the consequent. Aspect used in the antecedent varies with the particulars of the situation being described; the consequents always employ one of a large set of aspect morphemes which incorporate perfective meanings. The particular choice of perfective depends on the remoteness of the future being indicated.

Counterfactual conditionals are characterized by the use of either the non-assertive `sa-cari’ and and realis word order in the antecedent *or* the counterfactual morpheme +t+ (+ = high central unrounded vowel) with irrealis order. Consequent clauses always bear the counterfactual morpheme and exhibit irrealis order. Lai then presented a large set of examples of counterfactual conditional constructions with verbs of different Aktionsart classes (statives, activities, and telics), tenses (recent past, distant past, and zero tense), and aspects (perfective and imperfective).

Lai then proceeded to the main analytical part of her talk, in which she showed that the TMA morphology in both counterfactual and non-counterfactual conditionals receives the same interpretation in these constructions as in non-conditional constructions. A pair of examples illustrates the basic point: consider the English sentence `If he had been knowledgeable a long time ago, he would be a teacher now’. This sentence is compatible in English with either perfective of imperfect readings in the antecedent clause. To make the perfective sense clear, in contrast to the imperfective sense, one would have to reword the sentence as something like: `If he had *become* knowledgeable a long time ago, he would be a teacher now.’ In Iquito, however, the perfective and imperfective senses can be distinguished by substituting perfective for imperfective aspect in the antecedent clause, a possibility ruled out in English due to the fact that TMA morphology is “fake” in English counterfactual conditionals. Lai’s final point was that counterfactual senses in Iquito are not the consequence of inferences based on TMA morphology, as they are in English, but are conveyed by the specialized counterfactual morpheme +t+.

Mily Crevels (Keynote). How a language without nominal number expresses plurality: the case of Itonama [Isolate, Bolivia].

Itonama is an isolate spoken in the northeastern Bolivian Amazonian lowlands by fewer than five very old speakers. Crevels described how number is expressed in Itonama, despite the fact that the language lacks any systematic nominal number morphology.

Crevels presented a typological overview of Itonama: Itonama is a head-marking, polysynthetic language that exhibits body-part incorporation. It exhibits VSO basic order and an inverse system in independent bivalent predicates (e.g. main clause transitive verbs). Itonama also exhibits two sets of classifiers (a verbal/deictic set and a numeral set), directionals, end evidentials.

Crevels began by showing that there is no nominal number morphology in Itonama, although there are a very small number of human nouns which mark plurality suppletively. The language does, however, exhibit two other productive resources for marking number: verbal/deictic classifiers and pluractional markers.

Crevels listed 17 verbal/deictic classifers, which encode information about animacy, orientation, and shape; there is also fluid classifier. Crucially, many Itonama verbal classifiers also encode number (classifiers for which a count interpretation is not very natural, like the fluid classifier, do not encode number). Itonama verbal/deictic classifiers are employed in existential constructions, and with predicates of possession, location, or manipulation. In existential constructions, these classifiers may appear on existential verbs, or on nouns, if a predicate nominal existential construction is employed. Otherwise, the classifiers appear on the associated verb in the corresponding construction types. In addition, these classifiers can appear with demonstratives. Classifiers are associated with the subjects of intransitive verbs and the objects of transitive verbs.

Crevels discussed four pluractional markers, a `distributive’, a `plural’, a `multiple’, and a `continuative’ . In addition, reduplication is a productive process for indicating iteration. In addition to these productive processes, certain verbs (e.g. `flee’ and `fall’) have suppletive singular and plural forms.

The distributive indicates multiple instances of the action or state indicated by the verb root, affecting or involving spatially separated (and hence, by implicature, multiple) objects. The plural, on the other hand indicates multiple instances of an action or state either affecting a single object, or multiple realizations of an action or state by a single subject in a single place. An illuminating example of the constrast between the distributive and plural involves fishing. Fishing with a fishhook (multiple throws in a single location) is associated with the plural, whereas net fishing (multiple throws in spatially separated locations) is associated with the distributive.

Crevels then turned to a discussion of distinguishing event and participant number with regard to the number-related resources she had just finished describing. The basic point of Crevels detailed discussion, which I cannot do justice to here in this brief summary, is that some resources (like the distributive and iterative) encode only event number, and convey participant number via implicature. Other resources, like the classifiers, directly encode participant number.

Crevels closed with a comparison of the Itonama number system with nominal and verbal number in other lowland Bolivian languages (Movima (isolate), Yuakaré (isolate), Mosetén (isolate), Baure (Arawak), and Yuki (Tupi-Guaraní)). Of these, Itonama is the only language which clearly lacks nominal number. In Movima, there is no marking on nouns per se, but there is on articles.

Taryne Hallet. A paradigm of event modality: the Iquito continuum.

Hallett presented a description of Iquito event modality constructions (abilitive, obligative, and imperative) and discussed the grammaticalization of obligative constructions from clauses containing abilitative verbs. Iquito event modality constructions depend on the polarity of the sentence, so Hallett distinguished affirmative from negative sentences in her discussion.

In Iquito, affirmative abilitive constructions consist of a main clause with an inflected form of the verb root /parii/ `be able’ and a non-finite complement. The only difference in negated abilitive constructions is the addition of the negation /caa/.

Iquito distinguishes strong and weak obligatives. Hallett noted that affirmative weak obligatives are formally identical to abilitive constructions (i.e. involve the verb root /parii/ in main clauses), but it is clear from example glosses that in certain discourse contexts, the construction is interpreted as a weak obligative, and not an abilitive. Negative weak obligatives are distinct from negative abilitives (and affirmative weak obligatives) in that the verb root of the main clause is not /parii/, but rather /paji/, which in non-obligative constructions is glossed as `learn’.

Strong obligative constructions are formed very differently. The affirmative strong obligative consists of an irrealis mood clause with perfective marking (/-qui/). Strictly speaking, this is ambiguous between strong obligative and simply future temporal reference, but the latter typically co-occurs with momentary aspect /-r++/ (+ = high central unrounded vowel). The negative strong obligative is distinguished from the affirmative by the presence of the prohibitive suffix /-cuma/.

The affirmative imperative is formed by omitting the subject person marker verbal clitic and any co-referential NP; the verb typically takes some form of perfective marking, including momentary aspect (which typically gives rise to inceptive readings in imperatives), and two suffixes with roughly allative and ablative senses. The negative imperative also involves the suffix /-cuma/, mentioned above, as well as subject omission.

Hallett then describes a `non-curative’ construction, which is basically a third person imperative with the added sense that the speaker will not interfere with the realization of the action in question. This construction may be used in a permissive sense to indicate that the third person referent is allowed to carry out a given action. This construction is characterized by the addition of a clause-initial particle /pa/ to a realis clause.

Hallett distinguishes the former from a first person permissive construction, which consists of an imperative construction in which the verb bears the causative derivational suffix /-t++/. Note that in Iquito the causative suffix is neutral with respect to causee desire and volition.

Having completed the description of Iquito event modality, Hallett turned to a discussion of the grammaticalization of the strong obligative construction from the future-reference construction, and the grammaticalization of the obligative construction from abilitive constructions. Hallett also pointed out the similarity between the non-curative /pa/ and the abilitive verbs /parii/ and /paji/.

Patience Epps. Verb compounding and antigrammaticalization in Hup (Nadahup, Brazil)

Hup is a language spoken in Vaupés region of the Brazilian state of Amazona, near the border with Columbia. There are approximately 1500 speakers of Hup, and it presently remains a vital language, although Epps remarked that it is possibe that Hup society is on the brink of profound cultural change, which poses significant dangers for the survival of the language.

Epps began with a review of grammaticalization, which overwhelmingly tends to be a unidirectional process of increasing morphological binding (word > clitic > affix), increasing semantic abstraction, shift from lexical to grammatical function, phonological reduction, and increasing textual frequency. Antigrammaticalization is extremely rare, but Epps argued that Hup provides a good example of this phenomenon.

In Hup, a set of verb roots have undergone a transition from verb root to suffix, e.g a verb meaning `make noise’ to a non-visual evidential suffix. A subset of these suffixes has subsequently antigrammaticalized, including the non-visual evidential, becoming an enclitic or particle.

Epps provided the following account of the grammaticalization process: Hup exhibits productive verb compounding, where multiple verb roots stack up inside any inflectional morphology (nuclear serialization). If a comound verb refers to a series of events, the roots appear in iconic temporal order. If the verb refers to a single event, the `main’ verb root is first, followed by dependent verbs that modify the main verb. Following the verb root(s) in any verb one find an `inner suffix’, with a variety of possible meanings. Synchronically, verb roots and inner suffixes are not fully distinct categories, in that there are elements which are clearly in transition between being lexical verbs and being inner suffixes. There are marginally grammaticalized verbs/inner suffixes like `play’, where V-play means `play at V, do V playfully’. These marginally grammaticalized verb roots exhibit little semantic or phonological change in comparison to the corresponding free verbs. Next on the grammaticalization continuum are elements that Epps refers to as `auxiliaries’ , such as `see’, where V-see means `try to V’. Auxiliaries exhibit significant changes in their meaning in comparison to the corresponding free verbs, may show phonological reduction, and the free verb forms may be rare or unattested. Inner suffixes, which are maximally grammaticalized, such as the frustrative suffix (developed from the verb `request, order’) or the inferred evidential (developed from a verb `be inside’) exhibit great semantic shifts, are highly productive as bound morphemes (though the corresponding free form may be rare or absent), and frequently exhibit phonological reduction. For some verbs, all three forms exist, as in the case of `make noise’ (free lexical verb) which has a corresponding modifying verb/auxiliary form `make noise doing V’ and an inner suffix form which is a non-visual evidential.

There is another set of morphemes that Epps dubs `fluid suffixes’ (alluded to above), which may appear either as an inner suffix or as an enclitic, usually with little change in semantics, as in the case of the visual evidential (whether the inner suffix form or the enclitic form is used depends on the choice of boundary suffix). Epps provides the following argument for the inner suffix being the source of the enclitic: of all the grammaticalized elements, only the inner suffixes display the phonologically reduced CV form (a consequence of a phonological process due to the adjacent vowel-initial `boundary suffix’.) Consequently, it is extremely unlikely that the non-visual enclitic (which is of CV shape) was the source of the inner suffix. Since it is clear that the ultimate source is the free verb (which has CVC shape), the only way for the enclitic to have the shape it does is if it developed from the CV-shaped inner suffix. Crucially, this is an example of antigrammaticalization, since it is an instance of decreasing binding.

Epps then presented a five stage diachronic explanation for the antigrammaticalization of the visual evidential. The key idea in the analysis involves a process by which certain erstwhile free verbal modifiers end up being reanalyzed, in the presence of particular boundary suffixes, as inner suffixes (with changes in meaning, e.g. a verbal modifier `do for a long time’ becomes an habitual inner suffix.). Consequently, these modifiers end being fluid suffixes, since they appear both as verbal modifiers outside the verb and inner suffixes. By analogy, other inner suffixes are reanalyzed as fluid suffixes, with the consequence that they can now appear as enclitics, in addition to being inner suffixes. The result is antigrammaticalization of certain inner suffixes. As Epps points out, this process has been quite productive in Hup, which apparently is otherwise cross-linguistically unattested.

Christine Beier. Putting the hunt into words: formal features of Nanti hunting stories in Montetoni (Southeastern Peruvian Amazonia)

Beier presented a description and analysis of the formal features of a Nanti discourse genre: hunting stories. Beier’s work on hunting stories is part of a broader effort to understand the non-referential components of meaning associated with the varied discourse genres.

Beier began by distinguishing speech styles from a speech (or discourse) genre. The former is defined as a type of language use attributable to single utterances, which can be characterized by a set of formal features (phonetic, phonological, morphological, lexical, etc.) which render it distinguishable from other types of speech. Speech styles can be inserted into various institutional settings and activity frames. Genres, on the other hand, is are more complex organizations of shared language use that encompass not only speech styles, but also setting, activity frame, participant structures, and other factors.

Hunting talk is a speech style principally employed by adult men, and indeed, the social transition between adolescence and adulthood for young mean is closely tied to their mastery and public performance of this speech style. Spatially, hunting talk is mostly employed in cooking huts, either during inter-household visits by men, or during manioc beer feasts.

The genre of hunting stories emerges when interactants actively orient themselves towards the sustained use of hunting talk and cooperate to build a narrative out of one or several hunting stories. Hunting stories emerge from the successful deployment of sequences of hunting talk, which are ratified and sustained and sustained largely through appropriate backchanneling and commentary from multiple participants.

Hunting talk is distinguished by its referential content, intonation contour, vowel lengthening, rhythm, rate of speech, and use of parallelism. Hunting talk has a distinctive intonation contour. In comparison with normal conversational talk, which has a fairly flat contour and then drops over the last syllable or two, hunting talk starts at a relatively high pitch, then drops melodically and dramatically across the first vowel (which is typically lengthened), stays at a low pitch, and then rises over to the last one or two syllables back to the iintial pitch. Beier played audio examples exemplifying this and showed pitch track data confirming her observations. As already intimated, the first vowel of a word uttered using the hunting talk style is typically lengthened, and the overall tempo of the utterance is faster than that of normal conversational talk. Just as some vowels are lengthened, the remaining vowels in an utterance are compensatorily shortened, creating a characteristic rhythm (Beier played additional audio examples to exemplify this). Finally, in any given strip of hunting talk, particularly relevant words tend to be repeated in this context of this rhythmic speech, setting up a parallelistic organization to a strip of talk (more audio examples were presented to illustrate this).

Beier also mentioned that there are other features characteristic of hunting talk of which she omitted lengthier discussion for reasons of time. These include increased nasalization, pervasive centralization of vowels, and increased breathiness.

Beier then discussed the non-referential communicative content of hunting talk. Beier explained that the distinctive formal features of Nanti hunting talk serves to constrain interpretations of the referential content of the talk, essentially serving as a metapragmatic marker that the talk in question is hunting talk, and all that entails socially and interactionally. Specifically, the formal features index the fact that the speaker is taking a particular kind of narrative stance, in which he is playing up a particular event for narrative purposes, and also indexes as appropriate a interactional pattern of multi-party talk and significant overlapping among participants, which is generally not considered appropriate in Nanti communicative interaction.

Beier concluded with a discussion of why descriptive linguists and linguistic anthropologists should care about the description and analysis of discourse genres. First, discourse styles and genres are phenomenologically significant to speakers of languages, consequently they should to language scientists as well, since such a robustly patterned aspect of language should form a part of the complete description of a language. Second, although the basic tools for grammatical description are relatively well-developed, those for the description of discourse styles are not. This means that this important aspect of language description largely remains the domain of impressionistic descriptions. Further development of tools to render such descriptions more rigorous and systematic depends on greater empirical engagement with these pervasive phenomena.

Cynthia Anderson. Hands, fingers, feet, and toes? Oh brother. The numeral system in Iquito.

Anderson presented a description of the Iquito numeral system and the implications of the certain features of this numeral system for language contact between Iquito and other Amazonian languages. Anderson characterized the Iquito numeral system as quinary (base five), with four lexicalized cardinal numerals (1-4), and set of highly variable expressions based on counting fingers, toes, hand and feet for higher numbers (5+). The lexicalized numerals 2, 3, and 4 display animacy agreement, although 1 does not (more generally in Iquito, only plural-marked elements display animacy agreement).

The numeral system is based on three numeral forming strategies, which presumably correspond to different historical stages in the development of the numeral system. 1 and 2 are plausibly reconstructible in proto-Zaparoan. 3 and 4 are different, not being reconstructible in Proto-Zaparoan, and at six syllables in length, are uncharacteristically long for monomorphemic words in Iquito (3= s++saramaj+taami, 4=suhuaramaj+taami). Moreover, further examination suggests an etymology. The first two syllables of 3 and 4 correspond to the words ‘bad’ (s++sa) and ‘good’ (suhua), respectively. The common remainder consists of a participialization of the verb root `to have a sibling (of the same sex)’ (aramaj+) with the instrumental/comitative suffix -ta. These numerals are examples of a `fraternal’ strategy.

5-20 are expressed by nonce expressions based on a body-part tally system, begining with a number of terms for `one hand’ and successively adding fingers, toes, and entire hands or feet, as needed.

Anderson then returned to the areal implications of the fraternal system for 3 and 4. Fraternal systems are typologically rare, but are common in an area of the northwest Amazon centered on the Vaupés region. In that region fraternal numeral strategies have, according to Epps, diffused from the Tucanoan languages to Tariana (Arawak) and the Nadahup languages. Further to the south, in the Peruvian/Columbian border region, Bora, Witoto, and Yagua display signs of fraternal numeral strategies. Iquito thus becomes the southwesternmost language displaying this areal feature. Anderson noted that Iquito formerly bordered on Yameo (now extinct), a language of the Peba-Yaguan family, which may have been the source of the fraternal strategy in Iquito.

Brianna Rauschuber. Tonal accent in Iquito.

Rauschuber presented a description of the stress system and tonal accent system found in Iquito nouns and adjectives. Rauschuber began with a discussion of tonal accent, which is an `abstract’ mark on a given syllable that gives it greater prosodic salience than sourrounding syllables. A tonal accent system is one in which abstract tonal accent marks correspond to a specific tonal realization across all accented tone-bearing units (TBUs). Rauschuber also discussed more recent work by Hyman that casts doubt on `pitch accent’ systems, which are frequently understood as based on tonal accent, as a coherent type of prosodic system distinct from stress systems and tonal systems. Rauschuber followed the position that pitch-accent systems are essentially tonal systems which make minimal use of tonal contrast (making Iquito an instance of a pitch-accent system).

Rauschuber then turned to a description of Iquito tonal accent. Iquito nouns and adjectives bear a single audible pitch peak per word, which Rauschuber takes to be the reflex of pitch accent. Some fraction of Iquito nouns and adjectives must be lexically marked for tonal accent, because of the existence of minimal pairs that are distinguished solely by the position of tonal accent. Rauschuber also argued that the TBU in Iquito is the mora, based on the existence of contrasting rising and falling tones, which are only found on long vowels.

Rauschuber argued that the position for non-lexical tonal accent is the penultimate mora of a word, based on evidence from morphologically complex words. When suffixes are added to roots with penultimate tonal accent (e.g. cúni `snake’), the tone shifts to the penultimate position of the morphological complex word (e.g. cuní-hua `snakes’). When suffixes are added to words with tonal accent in other positions, this shift does not occur (e.g. táasa `basket’, táasaca `baskets’).

Another relevant piece of evidence involves the first person subject marker quí-, which bears the high pitch for most words to which it is prefixed (e.g. quí-cuni `my snake’), but not in all words , since some retain pitch on the same syllable as in the correponding morphologically simplex form (e.g. qui-táasa, `my basket’). As it turns out, words that display pitch mobility with respect to suffixation also display pitch mobility with respect to quí- prefixation.

Rauschuber observes that, in cases in which the accent position varies with the morphological environment, the location of pitch in morphological simplex forms (e.g. cúni, `snake’) is predictable: it falls on the penultimate mora. Accent position is not predictable for words in which the accent position does not vary according to morphological environment, and hence must be lexically specified.

Rauschuber then turned to stress in Iquito nouns and adjectives, showing that the position of primary stress is predictable on the combined basis of wordshape and tonal accent. Relevant diagnostics for stress include lengthening of syllables bearing primary stress in emphatic speech and the centralization, devoicing, or omission of non-stressed vowels.

In words that do not bear a lexical tonal accent, primary stress falls on the penultimate syllable, if the final syllable is light, or the penultimate syllable, if the final syllable is long. As Rauschuber observed, this is consistent with the right-to-left parsing of words by moraic trochees. In words that bear a lexical tonal accent, primary stress fall on the same syllable as the tonal accent. Iquito consequently displays features of a tone-driven stress system, since stress is attracted to lexical tonal accent, as well as features of a stress-driven tone system, since tone coincides with metrically-assigned primary word stress.

Spike Gildea and Flávia Castro Alves (not present at symposium) (Keynote). Nominative-Absolutive alignment in Cariban and Jê description and reconstruction.

Gildea began by positioning Nominative-Absolutive systems in a typology of alignment. Nominative-Absolutive alignment systems are ones in which S arguments are simultaneously coded as, or treated as, P arguments (`absolutive’) and as A arguments (`nominative’) by different elements in a clause. This kind of alignment pattern should be distinguished from Split Intransitive systems (aka Stative/Active, Split-S, or Fluid-S systems), in which an S argument is treated *either* as an A or as a P, depending on the semantics of the verb or, less commonly, discourse pragmatics.

Gildea presented data on Nominative-Absolutive alignment in two Cariban languages (Panare and Katxuyana) and three Jê languages (Apinajé, Suyá, and Timbira), and then discussed the historical process by which which this system arose in these languages.

Panare exhibits a complex alignment system involving the following subsystems, which are conditioned by tense-aspect inflections: Split-S/Inverse, Nominative-Accusative, Passive/Ergative-Absolutive, and Nominative-Absolutive. Nominative-Absolutive alignment is conditioned by Future, Desiderative, and “Nonspecific Aspect”. Focusing on the Nominative-Absolutive context , absolutive marking is realized via person-marking verbal prefixes, while nominative marking is realized via agreement on auxiliaries and an optional free pronoun.

Katxuyana also displays several tense-aspect splits in its alignment system: Split-Intransitive/Hierarchical (everything but distant past and imperfective), Ergative-Absolutive (one of several pasts – due to contact with Tiriyó), and Nominative-Absolutive (imperfective). In the Nominative-Absolutive context, absolutive marking is realized by verbal person-marking prefixes, and nominative marking by free pronouns.

Apinajé generally displays Split-Intransitive alignment, with Ergative-Absolutive alignment conditioned by prospective aspect, and Nominative-Absolutive conditioned by progressive and continuative aspect, and negative clauses. In these latter contexts, absolutive marking is realized by verbal person-marking prefixes, and nominative marking by free pronouns.

Suyá displays Nominative-Absolutive marking in negated and future tense clauses, in which nominative marking is realized by free pronouns and absolutive marking by person-marking affixes.

Timbira generally displays Split-Instransitive alignment, with Ergative-Absolutive alignment in the past tense, and Nominative-Absolutive alignment in a large set of clause types headed by non-finite verb forms with post verbal auxiliaries. These include clauses with any of four evaluative modes, four iterative aspects, four continuative aspects, four perfect aspects, and the non-past negative. In Nominative-Absolutive clauses, nominative marking is realized by free pronouns and absolutive marking by person-marker affixes.

Having completed this empirical introduction, Gildea then set out a historical explanation for the development of Nominative-Absolutive alignment in the Cariban and Jê languages. There are two key observations. First, ergative case-marking and absolutive person-marking are both present in subordinate clauses in both language families. And second, the general process by which new, complex TAM distinctions develop involves the reanalysis a complex clause (e.g. a verb with a non-finite complement) as a simple main clause with a complex predicate consisting of an auxiliary (the former main verb) and a main verb (the former non-finite complement). The result is nominative marking on the auxiliary (or associated with the auxilliary) and ergative-absolutive alignment on the new main verb.

The other element in the development of nominative-absolutive alignment is the loss of ergative marking on the main verb. This the consequence of a process of NP equi-deletion in the Cariban and Jê languages: when the S of the matrix verb is co-referential with the A of the subordinate clause, the A is deleted. This leaves nominative marking in the matrix clause and absolutive marking in the subordinate clause. When the reanalysis described above takes place, the result is nominative-absolutive marking in a single clause.

Gildea then turned to consider the status of nominative-absolutive alignment in the typology of alignment systems, defending the tentative conclusion that nominative-absolutive and ergative-absolutive are different alignment types. Gildea first observed that in terms of the traditional definition of ergative alignment, nominative-absolutive alignment would be considered a subtype of ergative alignment, since an ergative pattern is any morphological pattern that treats S and O as a category distinct from A.

Glidea then presented a number of reasons favoring distinguishing nominative-absolutive from ergative-absolutive alignment. First, nominative-absolutive marking displays two characteristics that are counter-universal for ergative constructions: A. If there is a split between case-marking and person-marking affixes, then the bound forms will be accusative and the free forms ergative. This is contradicted in the nominative-absolutive systems of Katxuyana, Apinajé, Suyá, and Timbira. B. An ergative system is less likely to employed when the clause refers to something that has not yet happened (future ternse), is not complete (imperfective) or did not happen (negative polarity), or emphasis is on the agent’s role (imperative and hortative). But in multiple languages, nominative-absolutive alignment is conditioned by future tense, imperfective aspect, and negative polarity.

Second, we see different consequences in the diachronic loss of ergative case markers in nominative-absolutive versus ergative-absolutive systems. When nominative-absolutive systems lose their ergative case marker, the resulting system is “less ergative”. Indeed, since case-marking is frequently the only ergative pattern in the language, the loss of the case marker is sufficient to shift the entire affected construction out of the ergative alignment category.

Gildea suggested that the typology of alignment systems might be profitably reformulated by redefining ergative alignment as a characteristic of clause types that contained a *marked ergative*. Under this definition, nominative absolutive constructions are no longer `ergative’ and most of the tense-aspect violations to universal ergative systems, mentioned above, would disappear. Such a redefinition would also make identifying nominative-absolutive sytems easier, allowing linguists to more easily build a typology of correlations to nominative-absolutive alignment.

How ‘We’ became ‘White People’: A tale of indigenous onomastic strategies

In a previous post, I discussed the challenges faced by researchers who go in search of ‘authentic autonyms’ of Amazonian indigenous groups. In this post I want to describe how one Peruvian indigenous group arrived at a remarkable and initially counterintuitive decision about the ‘official’ ethnonym they chose to be known by.

In the mid-1980s, a Panoan group living in the Manu and Mishagua River basins, which had avoided contact with other peoples since at least the Rubber Boom, entered into sustained contact with mainstream Peruvian society. Prior to this contact, anthropologists, linguistics, missionaries, and NGOs referred to this group with such varied names as the Parquenahua and X-nahua. These names were formed from the morpheme nahua (i.e. /nawa/), which is found in a host of names of Panoan groups in southeastern Peru and adjacent regions of Brazil including Yaminahua, Sharanahua, Chaninahua, Mastanahua, and Cashinahua. Each of these names is a compound, consisting of the element nahua ‘people’ and some non-head element like yami ‘axe’ or cashi ‘bat’. Thus, the entirely ad hoc Parquenahua was coined on the basis of the residence of this group in the Manu National Park (Parque Nacional del Manu), and you can no doubt deduce the origin of X-nahua (I think this is my favorite, since it does not seek to hide the ignorance of those coining and using the name. It also has that X-Men/X-files resonance going for it.).

After a devastating period of massive mortality due to introduced illnesses, the group in question formed a single community in which they all settled, and in the period following initial contact, a new set of ethnonyms emerged. Those created by anthropologists and linguists included Yora, from the pronomial first person plural inclusive pronoun, Yoranahua, a neologism, and Nahua, about which we will hear more below. The name adopted by local mestizos was Shara, from the word shara ‘good’, a frequent and easily recognized lexical item in the speech of this group. And the name used by Yaminahuas living nearby was Yabashta, a word of uncertain origin used between members of the X-nahua group as a positive-affect greeting between individuals.

The plethora of names adopted by outsiders reflects the fact that the members of the group itself did not employ any autonym per se for the group to which they pertained. Of course the member of the group employed descriptors, such as yora ‘we/us’, when needing to distinguish members of the group from others, and called each other yabashta when being friendly to each other, but neither of these words is a name per se. (Given that all other Panoan groups in the rough vicinity do employ recognizable autonyms the question arises as to why this group did not employ one. One possibility is that the X-nahua essentially came into being as a coherent group in late 19th and early 20th century as an amalgamation of survivors from a number of Panoan groups decimated by the violence and slaving activities of the Rubber Boom. According to reliable sources who visited the group in question shortly after sustained contact in the mid-1980s, there was considerably dialectal variation within this small group, supporting the amalgamation hypothesis.)

As I mentioned above, one of the names that surfaced in the early years after contact was the bare, shorn form Nahua — the result of some DIY morphological segmentation (if anyone knows precisely who coined the term, let me know). I think the reasoning was that if the compound forms with nahua referred to specific Panoan groups, then the bare form must be a more general term. Unexpectedly, however, although nahua features in the names of numerous Panoan groups, when it appears by itself, and not as part of a compound, the word means ‘white person’! So we get the unintentionally hilarious situation of white people referring to this indigenous Amazonian group as the ‘white people’. For good or ill, this piece of linguistic confusion became enshrined in Peruvian law when legislation was fashioned to create a reserve for this Panoan group and neighboring Arawak groups: the so-called Reserva Kugapakori-Nahua (the full name is a good deal longer). (The name ‘Kugapakori’ is another case of massive onomastic confusion, which I will save for another day, but suffice it to say that it comes from the Matsigenka kogapakori, roughly `barbarian, killer’. This led one anthropologist to observe wryly that the name of the reserve, translated literally, was the ‘Assassin-White People Reserve’.)

What is more interesting than this onomastic confusion is how the members of this Panoan group decided to deal with it. In the course of the 1990s, their lands were invaded by loggers, and the X-nahua began efforts to gain control over their land. This lead, in the 2000s, to interaction with NGOs and government entities, all of which expected a tidy onomastic handle for the Panoan group in question. In response, the group decided to adopt the name Nahua. According to the people who were working with the Nahuas (at this point in the story I will now use the name) on land rights issues at the time, the Nahuas decided that since that was the name in the title of the reserve (the legal status of which, not coincidentally, formed the basis of their legal claim to their territory) and lots of people used the name anyway, they would simply adopt it as their official ethnonym.

I find this was a truly fascinating choice, because the Nahuas apparently totally ignored the discourse of authenticity that has become so prominent in recent years in Peruvian Amazonia, both among indigenous peoples and the researchers who work with them. The Nahuas’ decision appears to have been driven by a quite instrumental political strategy — they wanted to adopt an ethnonym that was already well known, and already had a measure of political capital begind it (by being the name of the reserve). I am also struck by the aplomb with which they adopted a ethnonym which, in a certain sense, is about as wrong as it can get. I wonder if the fact that they previous had no autonym as such made this choice particularly painless. Or perhaps they simply grasp the Saussurean arbitrariness of the sign, and refuse to invest much importance in the particular ethnonym for that reason.

In any event, this is how yora ‘we’ became Nahua ‘white people’.

New Yanomami Dictionary

During the recent CILLA III conference I had to opportunity to look at the new Yanomami dictionary compiled by Marie-Claude Mattéi-Müller, a veteran documentary linguist who has carried out fieldwork with an astonishing number of Venezuelan languages.

I’m no specialist in Yanomami — or any other Northern Amazonian language — so I can’t speak to the linguistic accuracy of the dictionary, but I was very impressed by its organization and encyclopedic spirit. This dictionary definitely exemplifies the trend in recent years to treat dictionaries of under-documented languages as repositories of ethnographic and ecological information, and not simply as glossed wordlists, which was the case for a long time (In the Amazonian case see, for example, most of the SIL dictionaries from the 70s and 80s). The Yanomami dictionary provides a great deal of cultural information (the entries for names of particular rituals, for example, include descriptions of the ritual) and scientific identifications of plants and animals. The latter is especially important in Amazonian languages, where plant and animal names are huge semantic domains which cannot be adequately described with glosses like “red bird” (this is a real definition in a dictionary I have). The dictionary also includes sections in which lexical items are grouped by semantic domain — a very useful feature in addition to the alphabetical listing. Apart from these virtues, it is also a very handsome volume — nice hardcover binding, color plates, and print quality. Limited financial resources mean that many dictionaries of Amazonian languages are printed on the cheap, so its nice to see a dictionary done right.

I talked with Marie Claude about her work on the dictionary, and among other things, I learned that she compiled it using Microsoft Word (!). I was floored. This meant that she had to do all the ordering, formatting, cross-referencing, and reversal-list creation by hand. Talk about doing it the hard way. But it makes her accomplishment all the more impressive. I suppose this shows how spoiled young whippersnappers like me are, but the idea of compiling dictionaries without database software fills me with dread.

I recommend this dictionary to all Amazonianists, and really to anyone working on the lexicography of under-documented languages who is looking for ideas for their own dictionary. The one major problem most people will encounter is actually finding a copy. Apparently it’s really only available in Venezuela at present, for about $70. Marie Claude is working on finding distributors outside Venezuela, but I’m not holding my breath. Probably the best way to get one would be to contact Marie Claude directly — write to me and I will put you in touch with her.