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.

4 thoughts on “Evidentiality and the Rubber Boom: A connection?

  1. This is an interesting idea, and it kind of flies in the face of the received wisdom that grammatical “complexity” (such as evidentiality marking) tends to develop during periods of stable linguistic isolation, while language contact situations tend to level out such features. I am skeptical, however, about claims for grammaticalised evidentiality in Jivaroan languages, which makes for a fairly shaky data set…

  2. Hey Simon,

    Thanks for the input. When Gnerre made his comment, I immediately thought of you, and wondered what you would make of it. I should write to Gnerre and ask him exactly what he had in mind. As you might know, he works on Shuar/Achuar, so he is probably thinking of what is going on in those languages/varieties. So, I take it that there is no grammaticalized evidentiality in Aguaruna?

  3. Lev said: I take it that there is no grammaticalized evidentiality in Aguaruna?

    Not according to my analysis. Of course there are strategies for marking source of information, but not a grammaticalised paradigm. I haven’t yet looked at Shuar and Achuar in much detail, so I would be interested to see Gnerre’s analysis of evidentiality marking there. His 1999 grammar of Shuar doesn’t go into much detail regarding verbal morphology.

  4. Simon,

    I’ve been thinking about your initial comment, namely, that the language contact tends to level out features and grammatical complexity tends to arise during lengthy periods of linguistic isolation. (Thanks, btw, for making that point — it has led me to clarify some of my assumptions.)

    I have two observations. First, there is no evidence that the Nanti evidential system arose due to language contact — quite the opposite in fact. It appears to be a recent and independent innovation. Although I did not make this point clear in my post (but check out the handout I link to in the post!), I believe that Nanti evidentiality mostly resulted from the grammaticalization of extant lexical resources.

    One question that interests me is what drove this relatively sudden grammaticalization. If we take the common position that grammaticalization results from token frequency, then the question becomes: Why did Nantis start to use evidential resources (e.g. verbs of perception) with greater frequency some 150-100 years ago? If, as people like Brian Joseph have suggested, evidentials are a resource for avoiding social conflict, then I am led to speculate about why social conflict would suddenly have become so salient to Nanti speakers at about that time. So you can see why I found Gnerre’s comments so interesting (quite apart from the actual facts of the Shuar/Achuar case — but yes, one solid data point alone is shaky, as you say). So I am actually imagining social processes as possibly driving grammaticalization as a distal cause. Who knows, of course, whether this is correct or not, but I just wanted to clarify that I was not thinking about language contact as the motive force behind the development of Nanti evidentiality.

    Second, it seems to me that notion of social upheaval playing a role in grammatical change is actually quite in line with the notion of punctuated equilibrium, both as articulated by Dixon, and as originally conceived in the context of biological evolutionary theory. I realize you did not explicitly rule this possibility out in your original comment, but I would be curious if you have much sympathy for it, or not.

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