Dissertation on Apinajé phonology and education

For those who are not subscribed to the etnolinguistica listserve — a must, btw, for Amazonianists — I wanted to mention the online availability of a recent dissertation, here:

Albuquerque, Francisco Edvige. 2008. Contribuição da fonologia ao processo de educação indígena Apinajé. Universidade Federal do Tocantins.

The dissertation focuses on a re-study of Apinajé phonology, and the implications of the results of this study for the Apinajé orthography and the teaching materials used in Apinajé bilingual education programs. On the phonological front, the author concludes that previous analyses of the Apinajé phonological inventory were flawed due to the inclusion of three nasal mid vowels, which he concludes are not contrastive in Apinajé. He includes a very interesting discussion of the practical and political issues surrounding the Apinajé orthography raised by the new phonological findings.

(For Mac users: The pdf file was not readable with Preview; it comes out fine with Acrobat Reader.)

New research website

Recently I have been putting most of my so-called spare time into putting together a website that describes my research projects and provides links to most of my publications. As a result I have been neglecting this blog, but the site is now up, and can be viewed here. Comments and questions are, of course, very welcome.

The Ideophone

If you haven’t done so yet, I recommend visting The Ideophone, a new blog written by Mark Dingemanse, a PhD student at MPI Nijmegen. So far he has mostly been writing substantial and interesting posts on African languages and expressivity. He has also just written a post on Zotero, a free bibliographic database program with nice web browser integration.

Kampan Dilemma

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about a dilemma which has been bothering me more and more over the past few months. The dilemma concerns the name to use for the sub-branch of the Arawak language family that I work with, which includes Ashéninka, Asháninka, Kakinte, Nanti, Nomatsigenga, and Matsigenka. At this time, one encounters two different names for this family in the scholarly literature: `Pre-Andine (Arawak)’ and ‘Kampan’ (also ‘Kampa’ and ‘Campa’). Unfortunately, each name suffers from certain drawbacks which make me wish there was a good alternative, but I am very hesitant about inventing a third name. My decision thus far is to use ‘Kampan’, but I remain somewhat uneasy about this choice. Let me explain.

First, what’s wrong with ‘Pre-Andine’? Basically, the problem is that the history of the term makes it very ambiguous what set of languages one is referring to by the term. The term was originally coined by Paul Rivet for a proposed grouping of Arawak languages that encompassed what are now commonly known as the Kampan and the Pur\’us branches. The best known languages of the latter branch are Yine (Piro) and Apurinã (Ipurina). Later, Yanesha’ (Amuesha) and the Harakmbet family were added, and each subsequently removed. As David Payne showed back in 1991, however, there is little evidence to support even the grouping together of the Kampan and Purús languages. All recent classifications treat the Purús branch as coordinate with the Kampan branch within Southern Arawak. Similarly, Yanesha’ was removed from Pre-Andine, and is now sometimes grouped with Chamicuro. Those who retained the term `Pre-Andine’ employed it for this successively dwindling group, until only the Kampan languages remained, rendering `Pre-Andine’ coextensive with `Kampan’.

So, my basic objection to `Pre-Andine’ is that it was initially coined to denote a grouping that includes the Kampan branch as a subgroup, which, as far as I’m concerned, renders its use to denote only the Kampan group as rather suspect. Perhaps worse, from the perspective of scholarly communication, one can never be sure without further investigation, when someone uses the term ‘Pre-Andine’, which version of ‘Pre-Andine’ they have in mind. With or without Amuesha? With or without the Purús branch? Its a mess.

But I think I understand why some people prefer ‘Pre-Andine’ to ‘Kampa(n)’ — the latter term carries with it some political baggage that renders it somewhat unattractive. In the early colonial period ‘Campa’ was used by the Spaniards to refer to all the, well, Kampan peoples. Since then, however, the term has come to be used principally in relation to the groups that are also known as the ‘Asháninka’ and ‘Ashéninka’. In the last few decades, however, the political leadership of these groups have expressed that they find the term ‘Campa’ derogatory, and have been successful in getting many outsiders to adopt the ethnonyms ‘Asháninka’ and ‘Ashéninka’ instead (see this post for some discussion of the politics of ethnonyms in Peruvian Amazonia).

As a result, linguists scrupulously avoid using ‘K/Campa’ to denote individual languages, but many continue to use it to denote the sub-branch of Arawak to which these languages belong. As far as I know, there has been no complaint about this sub-branch-level use of the term ‘K/Campa’, but I could easily imagine such complaints arising. So, what to do, if one does not want to fall back on ‘Pre-Andine’?

Sure, one could invent a new term, but except for a small group of linguists who prefer ‘Pre-Andine’, most linguists, and Arawakanists in particular, know and use the term ‘K/Campa’ for the family in question. I fear it would only confuse matters to introduce a third term. And as a junior scholar, I feel that I am in an especially weak position to suggest a new term. So thus far, I have kept using ‘Kampan’, but somewhat uneasily. What I see as the ideal resolution to this issue would be to ask the assembled political leadership of the, uh, Kampan peoples what they think should be done about the name of the sub-branch. Such an endeavor would be logistically difficult, but not entirely impossible. I’d be interested to know if other readers have faced dilemmas of this sort, and how they have dealt with it

Biblioteca Curt Nimuendaju

I recently came across a really marvelous online resource on Amazonian languages, the Biblioteca Curt Nimuendaju (http://biblio.etnolinguistica.org/). This open access site makes available for free download in PDF format numerous hard-to-find linguistic works on Amazonian languages and ethnographic works on Amazonian peoples.

The focus of the collection to this point is on Brazilian Amazonian languages, but there are also works available on languages spoken in other parts of Greater Amazonia, and in some cases, in other parts of South America. The site is continuously adding new materials, so I expect that their coverage will expand over time. Interestingly, the organizers offer to locate and add specific works if visitors request them. So if the works you want are not available on the site, there is hope that they could be added.

Here is sampling of works that the Biblioteca currently has available online:

Adam, Lucien. 1902. Le parler des Caingangs. Congrès International des Américanistes (XIIe. Session tenue a Paris en 1900), p. 318-330.

Crowell, Thomas H. 1977. The phonology of Boróro verb, postposition, and noun paradigms. Arquivos de Anatomia e Antropologia (Instituto de Antropologia Prof. Souza Marques, Rio de Janeiro), 2.159.178.

la Grasserie, Raoul de. 1902. Contribution a l’ètude des langues de la Patagonie: vocabulaire Pehuelche. Congrès International des Américanistes (XIIe. Session tenue a Paris en 1900), p. 339-354

Lafone Quevedo, S. A. 1902. La lengua Tacana de la región del Rio Madre de Dios (Bolivia). Congrès International des Américanistes (XIIe. Session tenue a Paris en 1900), p. 331-337.

Larrañaga, Dámaso Antonio. 1923. Compendio del idioma de la nación chaná. Escritos de D. Dámaso A. Larrañaga, tomo III: 163-174. Montevideo: Instituto Histórico y Geográfico del Uruguay, Imprenta Nacional

Rivet, Paul. 1924. Les Indiens Canoeiros. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris, n. s., tome XVI, p. 169-181.

Of tobacco seers: The etymology of seripigari, part II

In my previous post on the etymology of the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’, I argued that a number of proposed etymologies for this word were flawed in crucial ways. In this post I propose an alternative analysis that I believe better fits the linguist facts.

I believe the key insight we need to improve our etymology of seripigari is that the -ri nominalization involved in the derivation of seripigari derives an agentive nominal. This means that were seripigari derived from the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’, the resulting nominalized form would denote some sort of ‘intoxicator’, i.e. someone or thing that intoxicates others. However, this is problematic for two reasons. First, this does not make much sense in terms of the meaning of the form seripigari, since the shaman generally does not, in general, intoxicate others with, say, tobacco, but rather intoxicates himself. Second, and more problematic from a morphological standpoint, transitive nominalized forms generally exhibit a morpheme corresponding to the object person marker in the verb form. An example of this phenomenon is given by the deverbal noun shintarorira ‘parent of a female child’, derived from the transitive verb shinto ‘have a female child’, where the morpheme -ro corresponds to the object of the verb.

These facts strongly suggest that the verb root visible in seripigari is not a transitive root, but rather, an intransitive one. If we then look at the set of phonologically plausible instransitive candidates, one leaps out as being especially compatible with the role of a shaman, piga ‘hallucinate, have visions’. The corresponding -ri-nominalized form would be pigari ‘hallucinator, seer of visions’ — I’ll use gloss the shorthand gloss ‘seer’.

If this reasoning is correct, the seri ‘tabacco’ of seripigari did not originate as a verbal argument of a verb that subsequently underwent nominalization, but is instead the non-head element in a NN compound, where pigari ‘seer’ is the head. One of the very nice consequences of this analysis is that it resolves the absence of a person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri that we would expect to see if seri originated as a verbal argument. If this analysis is correct, the original meaning of seripigari was ‘tobacco seer’, by which we would understand, presumably ‘one who sees visions by means of tobacco’. Note, incidentally, that once we analyze seripigari as a compound, which we are forced to if we stipulate that the verb root in question is the intransitive piga, then we are freed from many of the difficulties posed by semantic role restrictions forced upon us by assuming that seri originates as a verbal argument. (Note that seripigari is not a synthetic compound (e.g. ‘truck driver’ or ‘window washer’), and indeed, I am not aware of any synthetic compounds in Matsigenka.)

In my next and final post on the etymology of seripigari I will discuss an additional complication I have not yet discussed, but at this point I want to reflect on whether the etymology I have proposed gives us any greater insight into the cultural significance of Matsigenka shamans. Certainly the new etymology suggests that tobacco played a major role in shamanic visions at the time that the compound was formed, a hypothesis that fits with certain ethnohistorical facts. Shepard and Yu, for example, report that ayahuasca, a hallucinogen used in many parts of the Amazon basin as a component of shamanic practice, was introduced in at least certain Matsigenka areas as late as the 1950s. Although ethnographers have tended to project ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans back into the distant past, the fact that Matsigenka shamans are refered to as ‘tobacco seers’ (seripigari) rather than ‘ayahuasca seers’ (kamarampipigari — NB: this is my own nonce coinage) supports the idea that ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans may be a relatively recent innovation, going back, perhaps, little more than a century. Some ethnobotanists that I have talked with have suggested that the ‘traditional’ medicinal practices documented among Amazonian peoples may in fact have been significantly shaped by the effects of the Rubber Boom, and that widespread use of ayahuasca in Amazonia may in part reflect a sharing of shamanic practices among Amazonian peoples in response to the ravages of that era. If this hypothesis is correct, the term seripigari is an indication of the previously more prominent role of tobacco, rather than ayahuasca, in inducing visions in Matsigenka shamanic practice.

Tobacco, intoxication, and many happy returns: The etymology of seripigari, Part I

Little did I realize when I first started writing about Matsigenka etymology that there is quite a little etymological cottage industry among cultural anthropologists who study Matsigenka society — especially those focusing on matters related to Matsigenka spirituality/religion. Personally, I suspect that this etymological tradition all began with seripigari ‘shaman’. That is, the word seripigari — the shamans themselves are, of course, blameless. The word seripigari exhibits a degree of semantic compositionality that I think appeals to many scholars’ imaginations. One can immediately spot two roots in the word — seri ‘tobacco’ and pig ‘intoxicate, poison’ (or so it seems) — and as it so happens, tobacco intoxication plays a major part in Matsigenka shamanism. How cool is that? The word therefore appears to have a simple etymology, and I have a hunch that this etymological coup has made Matsigenka specialists optimistic about etymology as tool for understanding Matsigenka spiritual and religious beliefs. (See for example, my discussion of proposed etymologies for matsikanari ‘dark shaman’, here, and sankarite ‘invisible being’, here.)

It turns out upon closer inspection, however, that seripigari is full of etymological traps for the unwary, and even poses some interesting challenges for the etymologically savvy. Since the etymological speculation surrounding this word shows how subtle etymological work can be, and how tricky it is to use it as a tool for cultural analysis, I want to examine in some detail one particular etymological discussion of seripegari, in a paper by Dan Rosengren (download the PDF here). In my next post, I will propose an alternative analysis.

Rosengren opens his etymological discussion of seripigari thus:

The Matsigenka shaman is known as seripigari, a word that is constructed from seri meaning ‘tobacco,’ piga, which is a concept with a complex meaning dimension, and the suffix -ri, being the third person male pronominal object, that is, ‘him.’ One common mode of translating pigagantsi (i.e., the infinitive of piga) is “to intoxicate” which would render seripigari “he who is intoxicated by tobacco” (cf. Baer 1992).

Rosengren, like his predecessors, correctly identifies the roots (well, mostly, the verbal root he refers to is actually pig, not piga), but then runs aground on the suffix -ri, which is almost certainly not the 3rd person masculine object marker, but is instead the homophonous deverbal nominalizer -ri. There are a number of reasons for reaching this conclusion. First, seripigari is a noun, whereas pig is a verb, so we need some kind of deverbal nominalization to derive a noun. Second, were -ri a person marker, then that would mean that seripigari is a verb. In that case, because of the way the verb class of pig `intoxicate’ and the way Matsigenka mood inflection works, the suffix following the root would have to be -i (realis mood, i-class suffix), instead of the -a (realis mood, a-class suffix) we seem to see, were we to consider seripigari a verb. (If anyone is really interested I can go into detail about Matsigenka verb classes.) However, if seripigari is a derived noun, we would expect an epenthetic a in that position, as we indeed find, because of a lexical phonological process that ‘repairs’ instances of phonotactically illicit syllable structure. And third, if seripigari were a verb, we would also expect to find a subject person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri, resulting in something like seriopigari, which we do not find. The evidence is pretty strong then, that -ri is a deverbal nominalizer, and not a person marker.

But what was Rosengren getting at by referring to pig as a “concept with a complex meaning dimension”? This becomes clear in the following passage:

Another possible meaning dimension is suggested by Shepard (1998: 331) who notes that pigagantsi also can be translated as “to return” which would render seripigari “the one who returns tobacco.” Shepard sees this return as a reference to the regurgitation of tobacco that the shaman has swallowed and then passes on to his apprentices who in this process acquire the same magical powers as their teacher.

The “complex meaning dimension” in question is simply a case of homophony involving the intransitive verb pig ‘return’ and the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’. To be clear, there is nothing profound or interestingly “conceptual” about this case of homophony, just as there is nothing profound in the homophony of the English words mine (possessive demonstrative) and mine (hole in the ground for extracting minerals). Nor is there anything really “complex” about the meaning of the words involved; neither are particular problems posed by their homophony — due to their different valencies, there is generally little difficulty in determining which of the two homophonous verbs one is facing in discourse.

As for Shepard’s highly creative etymology: it is, despite its cleverness, very unlikely to be correct. The basic difficulty with the “one who returns tobacco” etymology is that the verb ‘return’ would have to be used transitively for it to be correct. In English, of course, ‘return’ exists as both a intransitive verb and a transitive one: one can either say “MacArthur returned.” (intransitive) or “MacArthur returned his defective pipe.” (transitive). But the Matsigenka verb pig does not have both intransitive an transitive forms: it is resolutely intransitive. In order to use the verb transitively, one has to use the causative prefix ogi-, thereby deriving the verb stem ogipig, as in:

Nogipigakero pihachane.
`I returned your axe.’

Clearly, seripigari does not involve this derived stem. Moreover, since seri ‘tobacco’ is the thing being returned, we would expect it to be in object position, following the verb, rather than in subject position, preceding the verb. (This simplifies a complicated issue — we would also expect an object person marker.) So, Shepard’s etymological hypothesis is unlikely to be correct, but the stem ogipig makes a reappearance in this discussion, below.

But returning to his idea of ‘complex meaning dimension’, Rosengren continues:

I assume, though, that the receivers of the tobacco also could be the saangarite spirits who in mythical time gave the Matsigenka the tobacco and whom shamans now daily feed with tobacco smoke and syrup. Of the various possible translations of the word seripigari I do not believe that one necessarily is more correct than any other; the different translations rather reflect different aspects of the complex whole.

I can appreciate Rosengren’s generous pluralism, but I feel it is misplaced here. First, Rosengren refers to the different etymologies as different “translations”, which suggests to me that he conflates the common idea that multiple translations may be possible for a given word, with the fact that one may propose various etymologies for a word. This suggests that Rosengren has fallen prey to the Etymological Fallacy, the idea that the ‘true meaning’ of a word is uncovered by an analysis of its historical orgins (i.e. etymology). There is really only one “translation” for seripigari, ‘shaman’, despite the fact that there are multiple proposed etymologies (I’m glossing over some subtleties here, but what I’m saying is true enough for the purposes at hand). Second, if we are indeed talking about the etymology of seripigari, the noun was either derived from a given verb or it was not. At whatever historical point that derivation occurred, the individuals who derived and employed the word were thinking about either ‘intoxication’ or ‘returning’ (or what have you), and derived the word accordingly. Since the two concepts do not form any meaningful “complex whole”, the derivation would have been synchronically unambiguous, as difficult as it may prove for us to figure it out from our present vantage point.

Moreover, it is clear that Rosengren considers the “complex whole” in question to to be quite philosophically profound, and here we clearly pass from etymology to cultural analysis, by way of the Etymological Fallacy. Consider the following passage:

Associated with the word pigagantsi [a nominalization of the verb pig – LM] is gipigagantsi which, according to Snell (1998: 92) means among other things 1) to make one return to the place of origin, and to send back (to return). The shaman is, accordingly, also he who returns to the primordial conditions that initially was shared by all Matsigenka, i.e., humans and saangarite alike.

The form gipigagantsi is a nominalization of the verb stem ogipig ‘make return, return (transitive)’, the causativized form of the verb pig ‘return (intransitive)’, as evident in the definitions provided. In a leap that I have to admire for its sheer intellectual daring, Rosengren then concludes that because gipigagantsi `make return (nom)’ is “associated” with pigagantsi ‘return (nom)’ and because he associates the latter (mistakenly, see above), via his “complex whole” theory, with seripigari, that Matsigenka shamans return to mystical “primordial conditions”.

There are two obvious difficulties with this theory, however. First, as discussed above, there is no good reason to believe that seripigari is derived from pig ‘return’. This means that gipigagantsi is not “associated” with the form of pigagantsi to which seripigari is historically related, removing the entire basis for Rosengren’s mystical conclusion.

Second, and yet more problematic from the standpoint of linguistic analysis: even were gipigagantsi ‘make return’ and seripigari related to each other by virtue of being derived from the same verb (which they are not), this relationship would not justify the analysis of the meaning of one derived form on the basis of the meaning of the other derived form. One cannot ignore the fact that derivations in question alter the meanings of resulting forms.

To see this, consider the intransitive English verb ‘run’. From this we can derive an agentive nominal ‘runner’. We can also find a transitive version of the verb ‘run’, as in ‘run cattle’, that is historically related the intransitive verb. If we were to follow Rosengren’s method, we would then look at the meaning of transitive ‘run’ to give us insight into ‘runner’. For example, I might conclude that running athletes are associated with cattle farming. Or whatever.

Having argued against some of the proposed etymologies of seripigari, what can I propose in their place? As it turns out, seripigari presents some interesting challenges from a analytic standpoint, but this post is already long enough; stay tuned for my next post.

I want to close by remarking on the fact that the difficulties we see in Rosengren’s and Shepard’s analyses are evidence for the argument that Linguistics and Anthropology, as disciplines, suffer from their institutional estrangement. A modest understanding of historical linguistics and descriptive morphosyntax would have been sufficient to steer the two authors away from some highly inventive, but ultimately fanciful, etymologies. Unfortunately, most anthropologists, as far as I can tell, receive little training in linguistic anthropology, let alone linguistics, and thus remain unfamiliar with bodies of scholarship which could be very helpful to them. The intellectual marginalization of linguistics within linguistic anthropology, and the institutional marginalization of the latter sub-discipline within anthropology departments only exacerbates the problem, as these forms of marginalization mean that anthropologists must go far out of their way to learn about areas of linguistics which would enrich their work. It seems to me that the recent boom in documentary and descriptive linguistics is leading some linguists to a renewed interest in and openness towards Anthropology, but Anthropology’s disciplinary momentum seems to be carrying it further away from Linguistics. This strikes me as an unfortunate situation, but it is not clear to me what can be done about it.


Shepard Jr., Glenn (1998) “Psychoactive Plants and Ethnopsychiatric Medicines of the Matsigenka,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol.30(4): 321-332.

Snell, Betty (1998) Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Documento de Trabajo no. 32. Peru: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Journal of Language Contact

I recently discovered yet another open access online linguistics journal that readers may find interesting: The Journal of Language Contact . The journal has thus far published one issue, and as the following table of contents shows, they have been able to attract some of the big names in contact linguistics as contributors to their inaugural issue:

Robert Nicolaï. Le contact des langues : point aveugle du ‘linguistique’; Language Contact: A Blind Spot in ‘Things Linguistic’.

Donald Winford. Some Issues in the Study of Language Contact.

Sarah Thomason. Language Contact and Deliberate Change.

Salikoko Mufwene. Population Movements and Contacts in Language Evolution.

Bernard Py. Apprendre une langue et devenir bilingue : un éclairage acquisitioniste sur les contacts des langues.

Petr Zima. Why languages and contact.

Malcom Ross. Calquing and Metatypy.

Marianne Mithun. Grammar, Contact and Time.

Lorenza Mondada. Le code switching comme ressource pour l’organisation de la parole-en-interaction.

Robert Nicolaï. Contact des langues et contact dans la langue : hétérogénéité, construction de l’homogène et émergence du ‘linguistique’