NSF ‘Documenting Endangered Languages’ made permanent program

I just today learned that the National Science Foundation has decided to make its Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) initiative a permanent program. For those of you who, like me, were living under a rock and missed the original announcement, I have included it below.

Since all but a few Amazonian languages are endangered, the DEL program will no doubt be a very important long-term funding source for Amazonian language research. This is especially true because two of the other important funding sources for Amazonian research, the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Documentation Programme and the Volkswagen Foundation DoBeS project, are envisioned as non-permanent programs, as far as I know. So kudos to NSF for their long-term commitment to endangered languages!

November 20, 2007

After funding more than $10 million dollars of scientific research and study projects during the last three years to record and analyze some of the world’s most endangered languages, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently made its Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) initiative a permanent program.

The program was established in NSF’s social, behavioral and economic sciences directorate in 2005. It was part of a collaborative arrangement with the National Endowment for the Humanities as a funding partner and the Smithsonian Institution as a non-funding partner.

“By making this a permanent program, NSF is acknowledging both that these efforts have been successful and that much remains to be done,” said Douglas Whalen, the program’s director at NSF. “Of the 6,500 or so languages that are spoken today, fewer than half are expected to survive the century. The world could lose 3,000 languages in the span of 100 years. Many of them are virtually unrecorded, and all have unique linguistic aspects that will be unrecoverable in the near future.”

But new technologies provide hope for linguists, giving them a greater ability to preserve language in a more complete and permanent way.

For the first time in history, researchers can digitally record many of these languages, and new developments in cyberinfrastructure make it possible for the original language material to be accessible to linguists and native speaker communities over the Internet, a capability that did not exist until quite recently.

Whalen says linguists are redoubling their efforts to document endangered languages because time is short. More than 70 languages have received attention through grants from the DEL program.

“While this is a promising beginning, there are many languages still in need of further documentation,” said Whalen. “With a permanent program backing up this work, the field of linguistics can expect to do a better job of recording this uniquely human heritage for future scientists and language users.”

Link to original announcement here


The trouble with ‘Welcome’: On the incommensurability of interactional rituals

An influential tradition in linguistics has it that languages are, in some important sense, communicatively equivalent: anything that you can say in one language, you can say in another (modulo trivial lexical differences). I think this formulation is attractive to some because, apart from combatting racist claims about ‘primitive languages’, it deals a blow to certain understandings of linguistic relativity, which has long been a source of controversy.

There are many ways, however, in which any two given languages are not communicatively equivalent, as most people who have spent time living in two significantly different language communities will probably tell you. Part of the discrepancy here is that claims of communicative equivalence frequently focus on the ability to translate propositions of the “The cat is on the mat” variety, whereas the subjective sense of the non-equivalence of languages stems in part from the fact that certain interactional uses of language in one language have no clear counterpart in the other. One domain in which this is particularly clear is in that of interactional micro-rituals.

Let me illustrate this point in terms of the translatability of “thank you” between English and Nanti, an Arawak language of the Peruvian Amazon I have worked with. Nantis, like all human beings, perform acts for each other, and give each other gifts. Unlike speakers of English (and numerous other languages), however, Nantis do not express their gratitude by employing a routinized micro-ritual that makes use of a fixed expression like “thank you”. When I first started living in the Nanti communities, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the nonchalance with which Nantis accepted gifts, which seemed to me (since I was raised to expect SAE thanking micro-rituals) to border on a tremendous lack of enthusiasm for the gifts they frequently received from their kin and friends. I soon realized, however, that what mattered to Nantis was substantive reciprocation — that’s how they expressed their appreciation for gifts and services — and not a thanking micro-ritual. In a significant sense, then, there is simply no way to say “thank you” in Nanti. And this is not because Nantis are not considerate (they are extremely so) or unappreciative of favors done on their behalf, but simply because Nantis just do not employ a routinized micro-ritual based on a discursive formula to express gratitude and appreciation.

Let me now turn to a very public example of the translational knots into which one can tie oneself if one attempts to translate an interactional ritual from one language into another which lacks that ritual. In the late 1990s, the municipal government of Iquitos built a nice archway over the highway just outside the airport, designed to welcome people arriving in the city, and to bid farewell to those departing. As one can see in the image, the main part of the archway on is in Spanish, with two little extensions that feature a translation into English and another into Iquito. (For the political background on the surprising presence of prose written in a highly endangered indigenous language on this archway, see this post.) The correspondence in meaning between the Spanish and English is quite good, but as we shall see, the correspondence between the Spanish and Iquito is quite poor. The point I wish to make is that this discrepancy does not reflect any deficiency on the part of the translator, but rather, reflects the fact that the Standard Average European interactional micro-ritual represented on the arch has no direct counterpart in Iquito society.


Let’s take a closer look at the prose:

Spanish: Bienvenidos a nuestra tierra. ‘Welcome to our land.’ (my translation)
English (on the archway): Welcome to Iquitos.
Iquito (on the sign): Kishwara Kiníí.
Iquito (cleaned up): Quí-sihu+raa quí-níiya ‘I am visiting my land.’

We see that some liberties have been taken with the English translation — but certainly there would have been no difficulty rendering it more faithfully. The Iquito ‘translation’ however, seems to fall quite far from the mark. (The cleaned up version employs the official Iquito orthography; ‘+’ represents a high central vowel.) Right off, we see that the Iquito sentence seems to be using the wrong person — first person instead of second — and thus is not directed to the arriving traveller. Then we note that it implies that the arriving person is actually *from* the Iquitos area (‘*I* am visiting *my* land’), which runs counter to our expectations about the appropriate recipients of acts of ‘welcoming’. And finally, the sentence doesn’t have the right illocutionary force — it’s simply an observation, and doesn’t perform an act of welcoming.

The oddness of the Iquito translation here basically stems from the fact that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual of ‘welcoming’ in Iquito society, and no corresponding discursive formula (e.g. ‘bienvenidos’) for carrying out the ritual. This is not to say there are no welcoming micro-rituals at all, but rather that there is no all-purpose one. The one welcoming micro-ritual that I have seen in regular use is the expression: Tiquiaar+’+! Ajiít+qui! ‘Enter! Sit down!’, when a visitor shows up at the door of a house. But crucially, this is not a general welcoming ritual, but one tied to a particular interactional context. Consequently, there is no micro-ritual for welcoming someone to a place as large as a city or a ‘land’. To be clear, when someone shows up in an Iquito community, the residents can of course, be welcoming — by, for example, expressing pleasure at the arrival of the visitor or attending to their needs. The point is simply that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual for welcoming someone that employs some lexical homologue to ‘Welcome!’.

Contrast the Iquito situation with the Standard Average European micro-rituals of welcoming, which can be deployed in a very wide range of contexts:

Welcome to my home!
Welcome to Austin!
Welcome to Earth!
Welcome to the real world.

What we see then, is a lack of correspondence between SAE welcoming micro-rituals and those in Iquito society. I do not know the details of the story behind how the Iquito text wound up on the arch, but I can make an educated guess: a city official charged with obtaining the (non-existent) equivalent in Iquito to “Bienvenidos a mi tierra” located an Iquito speaker and asked him or her to translate it. The Iquito speaker, put on the spot by the important official, thought furiously about how to satisfy the official’s request, and came up with a rough calque based on the similarity between venir ‘come’ and sihu+ráani ‘visit’, thereby giving quí-sihu+raa ‘I am visiting’ as an equivalent for bienvenidos ‘welcome’. This got the Iquito speaker out of a tight spot, and the official left happy, with something to put on the new arch. But really, the Iquito speaker was in an impossible situation: that of coming up with a discursive formula for a type of micro-ritual that simply doesn’t exist in Iquito society.

If the observations of colleagues working in other societies is any indication, the incommensurability of SAE micro-rituals like the ones I’ve been discussing here with those found in small-scale societies is actually the norm. Why might this be? If we reflect about the interactional distribution of welcoming and thanking (and we can throw in saying ‘please’), it’s fairly clear, I think, that these micro-rituals are primarily employed in interacting with non-intimates. The existence of these rituals is in part an artifact of our need in large-scale societies to constantly maintain superficially amicable short-term relationships with strangers and near-strangers. In small-scale societies, on the other hand, the need to grease the wheels of interaction with non-intimates is minimal, and consequently, the micro-rituals developed to deal with non-intimates are absent.

The obvious next question is whether small scale societies give rise to broad classes of interactional micro-rituals not found in large scale ones, which involve discursive formulas that are as difficult to translate into SAE languages as SAE formulas are to translate into Nanti and Iquito. So far, my best guess concerns forms of requesting and inviting that are highly inexplicit, and do not call for any overt acceptance or rejection by an interlocutor. For example, in Nanti society, people employ the expression Aityo oburoki (lit. ‘There is manioc beer.’) to invite someone to a manioc beer party. This constitutes an invitation, but not one that requires any kind of response, thereby allowing the recipient of the invitation to avoid committing to attend or rejecting the invitation. I’m not sure that there is a discursive formula in English which both constitutes an invitation and yet permits the invitee to be totally non-committal in response. Certainly this can be achieved by elaborating on the invitation (“Hey, no pressure, but we’ve got some manioc beer, and if you want, y’know, you can come — but hey, only if you want…”) but that’s not quite the same. In Nanti society, there are numerous interactional micro-rituals like Aityo oburoki which allow interactants to make requests and offers in such a way as to avoid social embarrassment, which I could see as advantageous in a small close-knit society in which it is important for neighbors and kin to get along. I’d be interested to know if other people have found similar micro-rituals in other small-scale societies.

In any event, I think that these micro-rituals nicely illustrate that language use becomes routinized in particular cultural-interactional niches for particular social-actional ends, resulting in conventionalizations of linguistic form for which it may be difficult to find cross-linguistic communcative equivalents.

Of tobacco spirits and tobacco changelings: The etymology of seripigari, Part III

In previous posts (here and here) I have worried the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’ in an effort to arrive at a decent etymology for the word. I ultimately concluded that the term was originally a compound: seri ‘tobacco’ + pigari ‘seer’, where the head of the compound is a nominalized form of the verb pig ‘hallucinate, see visions’.

Having arrived at what I find to be a fairly satisfactory conclusion to the etymological puzzle presented by seripigari, I now wish to throw a serious wrench into the works: some Matsigenkas, instead of saying seripigari, say seripegari. Moreover, as Chris Beier noted in a comment to my first post on the subject, if we look in the first published dictionary of Matsigenka, Pio Aza’s 1923 Vocabulario español-machiguenga, we actually find the seripegari variant and not the seripigari variant.

At this point, I must admit I find the occurrence of the seripegari variant to be quite mysterious, although I have three hypotheses about the form. Before I go into these in detail however, I want to observe that cognates of seripigari/seripegari are to be found in all the Kampan languages, suggesting that the term is an old one, and probably reconstructs to Proto-Kampan, which I estimate was spoken some 750-1000 years ago. So its important to keep in mind that the history of this term could be quite complex, and it will probably not be possible to lay this issue to rest until a great deal more historical work has been carried out on the Kampan family.

There are two basic ways to account for the Matsigenka facts. The first is to assume that the seripegari is essentially the Proto-Kampa form, and that seripigari is an innovation that has spread to certain dialects of Matsigenka. The second is to assume the converse: that seripigari is the original form and that seripegari is the innovation.

So, the first idea for accounting for the seripigari ~ seripegari variation is that the original form of the term in Proto-Kampa was, in fact, seripegari, and that in some varieties of Matsigenka, there was a sound shift from /e/ to /i/. We know for a fact that some Kampan varieties (e.g. certain varieties of Ashéninka) systematically experienced this very change, which suggests that we are on the right track. However, we find the form seripigari even in varieties that did not experience the systematic sound change, such as Nomatsigenga and Matsigenka itself, which raises a problem with the sound change analysis.

On the other hand, if we compare certain forms in Matsigenka with those in the closely-related language Nanti, we do see some /i/:/e/ correspondences: ponchoheni ‘bird sp.’ (Nanti), ponchoini ‘bird sp.’ (Matsigenka); pomerintsih ‘take pains doing something (v.)’ (Nanti), pomirintsi ‘work hard (v.)’ (Matsigenka); taheri ‘tree sp.’ (Nanti), tairi ‘tree sp.’ (Matsigenka). The curious thing about these correspondences is that they appear to be idiosyncratic. That is, they do not seem to be the result of regular sound changes, as it does not appear possible to identify an environment that correctly predicts the alternations. In conjunction with data from other Kampan languages, we can identify the sound change in these idiosyntractic cases as /e/ to /i/ in Matsigenka, but the reason for the sound changes in these isolated instances remains quite mysterious to me. (One possible explanation for this situation is the Matsigenka references may be mixing forms from more than one dialect, in such a way that obscures the systematicity of the sound changes.) So, examples like this seem to give credence to the idea that Matsigenka has undergone some irregular /e/ to /i/ changes, which could account for the seripigari form in Matsigenka, despite the fact that Matsigenka has not undergone a systematic /e/ to /i/ change. However, if we accept the idiosyncratic sound change hypothesis, we would be forced to hypothesize an identical idiosyncratic change in Nomatsigenka, which is not particulalry plausible.

Another possibility is that the current distribution of seripigari and seripegari in Matsigenka is due to language contact among Kampan languages. For example, one possibility is that the occurence of the seripigari variant is a result of relatively recent language contact between Matsigenka and Ashéninka speakers, which has resulted in the displacement of the hypothesized hisotrically prior Matsigenka seripegari variant. This is not as crazy as it might first seem. I have noted, for example, that the Ashéninka word shirampari ‘man’ has displaced the Matsigenka word surari ‘man’ in parts of the Lower Urubamba River valley. I believe that the primary language contact occurred in the Picha River basin (which is an affluent of the Urubamba), where some Ashéninkas resettled in traditionally Matsigenka territories in the 1970s and 1980s to escape the violence of the Shining Path in their home territories to the west. From there, its seems that shirampari spread from Matsigenka speaker to Matsigenka speaker. I’ve heard the word in use as far east as Cashiriari, the uprivermost Matisgenka community on the Camisea River, which is quite far from the Picha Basin. (Note also that there is intense interaction between Nomatsigenga speakers, who also use the seripigari form, and Ashéninka speakers.) In certain respects I think this is a nice explanation, in that it tidily explains why there are two variants of the word in use by Matsigenka speakers. However, we would really need a lot more information to confirm or falsify this hypothesis. At the very least it would be nice to have isoglosses for the two variants. Any records about the date at which seripigari began to be used by Matsigenkas would also be helpful.

Note that if either of the two preceding explanations is basically correct, we would need to completely rethink the etymology of seripigari/ seripegari. Following the reasoning in my previous post, I would need to locate an intransitive verbal root peg that is consonant with Kampan ideas about shamanism to serve as the basis for the nominalized head of the compound.

When we do so, however, the options are not particularly promising. The best is peg ‘become invisible’, but Matsigenka shamans are not particularly known for becoming invisible. However, we find that in Ashéninka, the word peyari, which is cognate to Matsigenka pegari, means ‘spirit’ (lit. ‘fantasma’)(Payne 1980, p103). So plausibly, the compound seripegari originally meant something like ‘tobacco spirit’. The problem I see with this term is that it would seem to have originally denoted not the shaman, but rather his spirit helpers. Semantic shift is certainly a possibility (consider, for example, the multiple senses of ‘leech’ in traditional European medicinal practice, where the term applied to both the invertebrate and the person who employed them for curing), but I beginning to feel like I’m stretching here.

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that in Payne’s entry for sheripiyari ‘curandero, hechicero’ (healer, witch doctor) (p. 126), he actually proposes the etymology sheri ‘tobacco’ + peyari ‘fantasma’ (ghost, spirit). So even in Ashéninka we run across a mismatch in the vowel quality between the synchronic term and its supposed components under the etymology we are presently considering. Its possible that there is a tidy historical explanation for this discrepancy, but at this point I am beginning to feel that the semantic and phonological difficulties piling up for the Proto-Kampa *seripegari hypothesis render this option unattractive, even if we appeal to language contact processes.

So I think that the most plausible hypothesis at this point is that the Proto-Kampa form was indeed *seripigari and that the seripegari is an innovation in Matsigenka. The question, then, is why such a change has occurred in certain Matsigenka dialects. It would be nice if there were any evidence of dissimilation phenomena in Matsigenka that could account for this, but I have not come across any signs of such a process. Another possibility is that some Matsigenkas have reanalyzed seripigari as seri + pegari on semantic grounds — a kind of Amazonian eggcorn that subsequently gained currency as a kind of folk etymology. For this hypothesis to have much chance of being correct, we would need to have evidence that ‘transformation’ plays a prominent role in Matsigenka conceptions of shamanism. There is actually some evidence for evidence for this, as Allen Johnson notes (pdf):

In the Matsigenka conception a seripigari works by changing places with his spirit helper (or counterpart, or double) among the unseen ones. Working only at night, the seripigari drinks ayahuasca and climbs the ladder or notched pole to his platform (menkotsi) in the roof beams of his house. According to Shepard (1990: 32), the seripigari’s counterpart simultaneously drinks ayahuasca and the two trade places, occuping each other’s bodies. The spirit is now present in this world to help treat those who need his powers.

Under this analysis then, Matsigenkas have reanalyzed the proto-Kampan seripigari, originally meaning ‘tobacco seer’, as seripegari ‘tobacco changeling’, or the like. At this point, this is the best hypothesis I have for explaining the seripigari ~ seripegari that fits the historical facts for the Kampan family. However, I strongly suspect that further historical work on the Kampan family will reveal complexities I have yet to understand, so I expect to be writing a Part IV post in a couple of years…


Shepard, Glenn. 1990. Health and healing plants of the Matsigenka in Manu, Southeastern Peru. Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. Ms.

Payne, David. 1980. Diccionario Ashéninca – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Snell, Betty. Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Fellowship opportunity for Amazonian linguists

The University of Florida has recently announced a fellowship program for profesionals and scholars from countries that include areas of Greater Amazonia: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, or Venezuela. The fellowship pays for study at the University of Florida, with the aim of producing academic works linked to the conservation of Amazonian rainforests. A colleague of mine who is involved with this program informed me that they would consider applications from linguists whose work overlaps with issues relevant to conservation, such as work on traditional environmental knowledge (e.g. zoological and botantical lexical knowledge). Further information is available online in Spanish here, Portuguese here, and English here.

Evidentiality and the Rubber Boom: A connection?

I just got back from a brief trip to Berkeley, where I had the opportunity to give a talk on the social and interactional aspects of evidentiality in Nanti, a Peruvian Arawak language I have worked with for some time. The handout for that talk is available here. [link fixed – LM]

One of the great things about such opportunities is that people ask questions and make comments that stimulate one to think about issues that would perhaps never occur to one without external input. One of the points I made in my talk, for example, is that evidentiality is a recent and independent innovation in Nanti. In response to this, Maurizio Gnerre, an expert in the Jibaroan languages of Ecuador and Peru, commented that some of the Jibaroan languages also began innovating evidentiality about a century ago.

Gnerre’s point is especially interesting for two reasons. First, I estimate that Nantis began innovating evidentials at about the same time. And second, the innovation of evidentiality in these languages coincides with the Rubber Boom, a period of massive demographic turmoil for Amazonian indigenous peoples. During this time, there was significant movement of indigenous peoples as a response to efforts by whites to enslave indigenous peoples. This period was also punctuated by significant violence between indigenous peoples and whites as the former groups sought to free themselves from the yoke of the rubber barons, and the whites sought to strengthen their hold over the groups they were enslaving. There was also much violence between and among indigenous groups, as groups were pushed into areas already inhabited by other groups.

The relevance of these points to the question of the innovation of evidentiality lies in the fact that in Nanti society, at least, the use of evidentials seems to form part of a set of practices that seem to serve as strategies to reduce the risk of interpersonal conflict, and hence, violence. But why would strategies to diffuse risks of violence suddently become important to groups like the Nanti and Jibaroan peoples about a century ago? Although it hadn’t really occurred to me before Gnerre’s comment, one obvious answer would be: the Rubber Boom!

Although I think it would be very, very difficult to determine if there is a causal link between the social effects of the Rubber Boom and the recent innovation of evidential systems in the languages in question, the coincidence is certainly striking and food for thought.