Evidentiality and the Rubber Boom: A connection?
February 7, 2008
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.