I recently discovered a very nice online resource: an online collection of dissertations and master’s theses on Amazonian languages, here (http://www.etnolinguistica.org/teses). The majority of the dissertations on this page were written by students at Brazilian universities, but there are also several from US and European ones. It’s especially nice that this page has Brazilian dissertations, since those are frequently hard to get a hold of outside of Brazil.

Here, to whet your appetite, is a small sample of titles:

Ferreira, Rogério Vicente. 2005. Língua Matis (Pano): uma descrição gramatical. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Freitas, Deborah de Brito Albuquerque Pontes. 2003. Escola Makuxi : identidades em construção. Doutorado, Unicamp

Santos, Manoel Gomes dos. 2006. Uma gramática do Wapixana (Aruák): aspectos da fonologia, da morfologia e da sintaxe. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Sousa Filho, Sinval Martins de. 2007. Aspectos morfossintáticos da língua Akwe-Xerente. Doutorado, UFG.

Zuccolillo, Carolina Maria Rodriguez. 2000. Língua, nação e nacionalismo: um estudo sobre o Guarani no Paraguai. Doutorado, Unicamp.

Just a few days ago I finally obtained a copy of Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which drew my mind back to an issue that has concerned me for several years. Let me explain.

To risk stating the obvious, linguistic form and social action are complexly intertwined: linguistic form is instrumental in social action, and social action both affects the selection of particular elements of linguistic form in communicative interaction, and through the cumulative effects of such selection, drives changes in linguistic form, through processes such as grammaticalization. Nevertheless, there are domains in which, as an idealization, we can usefully treat linguistic form as largely independent of social action, and conversely, social action as largely independent of linguistic form. The viability of these idealizations is evident in the institutionalization of the disciplines of Linguistics, on the one hand, and disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology, on the other. I have no quarrel with the fact that these disciplines are oriented towards research in which the idealizations based on the relative independence of linguistic form and social action hold sway. However, I believe that this institutionalization of the division of the linguistic-formal/social-actional continuum has had an unfortunate effect on the study of the vast middle ground of phenomena for which these idealizations are untenable. Numerous scholars have, of course, recognized that the idealizations in questions are problematic in certain respects, leading to the rise of several hybrid sub-disciplines: linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, ethnomethodology/conversational analysis, and the sociology of language among them.

Each of these subdisciplines has made important contributions to understanding the middle ground in which linguistic form and social action are irreducibly intertwined, but I also believe that the disciplinary centers of gravity around which they orbit have tended to pull each subdiscipline towards the respective idealizations of independence of linguistic form and social action that characterize the core of each institutionalized discipline. To be clear, this has not affected each sub-discipline’s capacity to do valuable work, as each still focuses on some portion of the linguistic-formal/social-actional spectrum that merits attention. But the overall consequence has been, in my opinion, to create (or recreate, or perhaps, leave) a gap in attention to the middle of the spectrum where linguistic form and social action are so tightly intertwined that serious attention must be paid to both.

This problem is revealed clearly, in the realm of Anthropology, at a number of points in Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, which examines issues of subdisciplinarity in Anthropology. There are several relevant and thought-provoking passages in this collection, but I’d like to zero in on one in James Clifford’s contribution which speaks directly to the issue of the institutional division of labor with respect to the intersection of linguistic form and social action. Since he articulates the view from the anthropological hill so nicely, I quote him at length:

Perhaps the most dramatic disarticulation of the four fields ensemble [i.e. archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and physical anthropology] has taken place with respect to “linguistic anthropology.” Most departments today do not feel the need for a distinct linguistic track or faculty cluster. The study of linguistic process is very much part of anthropological work, but it tends to be seen as one of sociocultural anthropology’s many provinces. Few anthropologists now study “languages” in the sustained descriptive/analytic way that was common to the generation of Sapir or Kroeber. As Silverstein argues (this volume), “Linguistic anthropology is sociocultural anthropology with a twist, the theoretical as well as instrumental (via ‘discourse’ or ‘the discursive’) worrying of our same basic data, semiosis in various orders of contextualization.

Here Clifford alludes to two related processes: the progressive elimination of linguistic anthropology from anthropology departments, and, in the minority of cases where it survives or flourishes, the ascendance within linguistic anthropology of theoretical concerns and methods dominant in cultural anthropology, and the concomitant marginalization of theory and methods related to linguistic form. As far as I see the disciplinary situation, the convergence of linguistic and cultural anthropology in recent decades is in itself a fine development; there is much interesting work being done in this vein. However, I do see a regrettable side-effect: the emergence of a significant gap in research coverage of a part of the linguistic-social spectrum to which linguistic anthropology used to attend. Specifically, I see a significant gap emerging in the area of the study of linguistic form as a socially-embedded phenomenon — that is, linguistic form as an instrument of social action and conversely, social action as a factor that affects linguistic form.

Lest I be seen as exaggerating the problem, let me point out that there is some work that I believe focuses on precisely the area in question, such as Bill Hank’s work on referential practice, John Haviland’s work on spatial deixis and evidentiality, and some of Alessandro Duranti’s work on Samoan ethnopragmatics, among others. However, work of this type is becoming rarer in the pages of journals like the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Language and Society.

My sense is that linguistic anthropology’s estrangement from the close study of linguistic form constitutes a major change in the orientation of the discipline, and one that is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. It seems to me that those of us who believe that the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form is important and valuable need to find a new intellectual space in which to organize our efforts, and new institutional spaces where such work can be based. As my post title suggests, I am fond of the new-old name ‘Anthropological Linguistics’ as a denomination for a field that concentrates on the socially-contextualized study of linguistic form, but I could imagine others. Regardless, I think the real question is whether Anthropological Linguistics, so defined, can organize itself into a productive community and find an institutional home.

Anyone who is preparing for their first serious fieldwork would do well to visit Claire Bowern’s fieldwork site: here. The site is mostly intended as a companion to her new book on linguistic fieldwork, but there is ample material on the site that is useful and/or of interest in its own right, including elicitation stimuli, lists of semantic domains, the odd article — like Himmelmann’s article distinguishing documentary and descriptive linguistics, suggested further reading, and numerous links to online resources. (Note that many of the most interesting things are accessed through the ‘Chapter’ link.)

I think people who are new to linguistic fieldwork will benefit the most from the site, but I suspect even old hands will find a few things of interest.


December 25, 2007

On the off chance that not everyone reads all the comments, I wanted to mention two recent comments of interest…

Northwest Journal of Linguistics

Tony Webster mentioned another new, free, open access, online linguistics journal: The Northwest Journal of Linguistics, which focuses on the languages of northwest North America. To be sure, even the most liberal definitions of Greater Amazonia don’t stretch the borders that far north, but we mustn’t be too parochial.

The journal started publishing in 2007, and has released four issues with an article apiece. One article caught my eye in particular as having significant import outside the areal linguistics of the northwest: Extending the Prosodic Hierarchy: Evidence from Lushootseed Narrative by David Beck and David Bennett. The basic claim of this article is that in Lushootseed narratives one finds evidence for a multi-utterance prosodic constituent, the prosodic paragraph. One of the nice points about this article is that it incidentally makes a case for the linguistic relevance of particular discourse genres and verbal art. The poetic line is a well-known prosodic constituent associated with verbal artistry, and the authors of this article argue that the prosodic paragraph, typically neglected in treatments of the prosodic hierarchy, has good empirical support. Showing one of the major strengths of online journals, the article also includes sound files of the sections of narrative analyzed in the article.


Nick Thieberger wrote in to mention a project that he is involved with at the University of Melbourne to develop an application (EOPAS) that allows one to export Toolbox text as HTML with time-aligned links to audiofiles. Discussion of this project and several other interesting discussions and links related to interlinearized text and other forms of annotation can be found at their project wiki: here.

The new issue of Language Documentation and Conservation (LD&C) just became available, through the LD&C homepage (http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/ldc/).

If you haven’t yet had a look at this free, online, peer-reviewed journal, I highly recommend you do so now. Articles include thoughtful discussions of matters related to language documentation, and language loss and revitalization. As a bonus, each issue includes a section with reviews of linguistic software.

Since I have been critical of the use of historical linguistics in Genetic Variation and Population Structure in Native Americans (PLoS Genetics) (GVPSNA), it’s only fair that I point out that they did get one major point very much correct: the contingent nature of the correspondence between genetic relatedness and linguistic relatedness. In Anthropology, this fundamental observation goes at least as far back as Boas, who observed that languages, cultures, and populations each have potentially independent trajectories through time and space. Of course, language, culture, and populations may remain bundled together for periods of time, but this is a fact to be determined by empirical investigation, and cannot be assumed at the outset.

GVPSNA presents a number of intriguing examples of the lack of tidy correspondence between genetic and linguistic relatedness, but let me focus on just one: the fact that the Arawak language-speaking Wayuu are apparently more closely genetic related to the Chibchan language-speaking groups to the west than they are than to the Arawak-speaking Piapoco to the south.

What could this mean? Could this be evidence for Arawak cultural imperialism — an Arawak linguo-cultural takeover — as Max Schmidt’s theory of Arawak expansion proposes? The data presented in GVPSNA are far too spotty to permit us to reach any conclusions (genetic data are only presented for two Arawak languages and five Chibchan languages), but the hints are tantalizing, and the direction for further research is clear.

As it turns out, however, not all geneticists are clear on the loose connection between genetic and linguistic relatedness. Let me take an areally relevant example: a 2005 article in Current Anthropology, by Francisco Mauro Salzano, Mara Helena Hutz, Sabrina Pinto Salamoni, Paula Rohr, and Sidia Maria Callegari-Jacques, entitled Genetic Support for Proposed Patterns of Relationship among Lowland South American Languages (GSPPRLSAL).

The opening paragraph gives a sense of the authors’ perspective:

Comparison of different sets of markers to unravel the past of human populations is an established procedure in both anthropology and genetics. Language characteristics can be easily quantified, and the field of comparative linguistics has a respectable past [citations cut]. Therefore, it is only natural that evolutionary geneticists have turned to linguistics to evaluate the population relationships that they have been obtaining with genetic markers.

Well, I don’t know whether such a move is “natural,” but I suspect anyone who follows this strategy is naïve. Linguistic classification simply cannot tell us anything about the genetic relationships between the populations speaking the languages in questions. GVPSNA, not to mention Boas long before, makes this point quite clearly.

In any event, the goal of the research reported in the paper is to use genetic data to evaluate three different classificatory proposals (due to Greenberg, Loukotka, and Aryon Rodrigues), linking the Arawak, Carib, Gê, and Tupí families:

The testing of the hypotheses concerning language relationship patterns of Greenberg, Loukotka, and Rodrigues was performed using genetic data by means of a method developed by Cavalli-Sforza and Piazza …

And off they go! Data is presented, algorithms are mentioned, and conclusions are drawn. However, just as linguistic classification tells us nothing about genetic relatedness, neither does genetic relatedness of populations tell us anything about linguistic relatedness of the languages the populations speak. (Incidentally, I find it incongruous that a group of Brazilian geneticists, living in a country of mixed African, European, and Native American heritage, in which Portuguese is the dominant language, could, for a moment, imagine that there is any kind of tidy correspondence between genetic and linguistic relatedness.)

And that, really, should be the end of the post. GVPSNA got an important point about the contingent correspondence between genetic and linguistic relatedness right, and, as we can see, this point is not obvious to everyone working at the intersection of genetic and linguistic classification. Kudos to the authors GVPSNA.

But what of the conclusions of GSPPRLSAL? According to the authors:

Rodrigues’s hypothesis was the only one not rejected. Other possible tree arrangements representing the relationships among the language families not considered by the three linguists were identified but are irrelevant to the present inquiry.

But then a little later they summarize their results as follows:

Genetic data support other tree configurations besides those proposed by Greenberg, Loukotka, and Rodrigues. This is not surprising, because different kinds of data may produce somewhat different estimates of the history of the populations. Among the three possibilities proposed by these scholars, that of Rodrigues has the best genetic support.

Hmm. Ok, so, of the three initial proposals, Rodrigues’ fares best, but the genetic data actually supports totally different classifications as well. I fail to understand why “this is not surprising”, or what the comment about “different kinds of data … produc[ing] different estimates of the history of the populations” means. Maybe its my ignorance about genetics speaking, but something smells fishy here.

In any event, it seems to me that if one buys the utility of genetic data in supporting linguistic classification (and there is no good reason to do so in the opinion of most historical linguists, I believe), then the fact that Rodrigues’ proposal is only one of a number of logically possible classifications supported by the genetic data should be a big deal! We don’t even know if Rodrigues’ classification fares better than some of the unmentioned alternatives.

Of course, at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the genetic data tells us nothing about linguistic classification.

The fact that articles like this and GVPSNA get published in solid journals with major linguistic blunders in them just makes me wonder about the peer review process. Doesn’t it occur to editors that if they are reviewing an article involving linguistic classification that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a historical linguist involved?

Just in case you have missed the blizzard of linguisticky publicity…

Dear Colleagues, Friends, Family, and Supporters of Ironbound Films,

We are nothing short of elated to announce that our documentary feature THE LINGUISTS was selected to world premiere in the newly minted “Spectrum: Documentary Spotlight” category at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

THE LINGUISTS is the first documentary supported by the National Science Foundation to ever make it to Sundance.

The trailer is at http://www.thelinguists.com. Here’s a brief synopsis:

It is estimated that of 7,000 languages in the world, half will be gone by the end of this century.

THE LINGUISTS follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, scientists racing to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India, and Bolivia, the linguists’ resolve is tested by the very forces silencing languages: institutionalized racism and violent economic unrest.

David and Greg’s journey takes them deep into the heart of the cultures, knowledge, and communities at risk when a language dies.

We hope you can join us in Utah for one (or maybe all) of the following screenings:

Friday, January 18, 12 Noon – Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Saturday, January 19, 12:45 PM – Broadway Centre Cinemas V, Salt Lake City
Saturday, January 19, 11:30 PM – Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, January 23, 9:00 AM, Holiday Village Cinema I, Park City – PRESS AND INDUSTRY ONLY
Wednesday, January 23, 8:30 PM – Holiday Village Cinema II, Park City

Tickets are available at http://www.sundance.org/festival/.