October 29, 2009
I am in Austin for CILLA IV, and I am looking forward to three full days of interesting talks on Latin American indigenous languages, especially Amazonian ones. Skimming the New York Times this morning I saw a brief mention of what seems like a rather odious article by John McWhorter about language loss here. Here is a brief quote from the article:
At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.
The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies.
Language death is consequence of people “coming together”? In Amazonia, as in much of the world, language death has everything to do with genocide and political and economic oppression. Does that count as “coming together”?
I’m almost speechless. But I’m out of time for now.
October 25, 2009
I’ve recently been reading quite a number of 17th and 18th century works about the upper Amazon region, mostly written by Jesuit missionaries who worked in the area. One of the more bewildering characteristics of these works is the plethora of ethnonyms the Jesuits used, sometimes in contradictory and unclear ways. One reason for this multiplicity of names is that the Jesuits would sometimes retain multiple names for roughly the same ethnolinguistic group, originating from different sources, or supply and use names for numerous subgroups of a given ethnolinguistic group in confusing ways. Once in a while, however, the circumstances behind the jumble of partially overlapping ethnonyms become clear, and one can get a brief glimpse into the multilinguistic and multiethnic milieu of the the period.
The first ethnonym I want to consider is ‘Payagua’, which I believe is an Omagua name for some or all of the Tukanoan peoples the Omaguas were familiar with. The Omaguas were a large and powerful group which, during the period in question, lived along the Amazon proper, from near the mouth of the Napo to below the mouth of the Putumayo (or Iça, as it is known in Brazil). The Omaguas spoke a language that is related to those of the Tupí-Guaraní family in complicated ways (more on this in an upcoming post). For our present interests, it is relevant that the Omaguas sometimes used binomial ethnonyms for their neighbors, in which the second element was the noun /awa/ ‘person, people’. For example, they referred to their eastern (downriver) neighbors, who lived in a large settlement called Yoriman, as the Yurimawa (/Yurima(n) + awa/), which the Spanish rendered as ‘Yurimagua’.
(In case you are curious, the Omaguas referred to themselves as ‘Awa’ — the eymology of ‘Umawa’ is unclear, the folk etymological ingenuity of the Jesuits notwithstanding.)
The ‘Payagua’, it so happens, were the Omaguas western neighbors, a Tukanoan people that inhabited the northern banks of the lower Napo. The Western Tukanoan groups who inhabited the northern bank of the Napo from its mouth to well into present day Ecuador tended to be called ‘Encabellados’ by the early colonial Spanish — a name derived from their distinctive long haircuts. The present day descendants of this groups, who are usually called ‘Siona’, ‘Secoya’, and ‘Orejón’ in the ethnographic and linguistic literature, employ autonyms incorporating the element /pai/ or /mai/ ‘person, people’. The Secoya, for example, call themselves /airo pai/ ‘forest people’, while the group formerly known as Orejón now prefer to be called /maihuna/ ‘people’ (/-huna/ is apparently a collective plural). It seems plausible then, that the Omaguas followed their binominal ethnonym formation pattern, using the autonym /pai/ to construct /pai + awa/, which the Spanish rendered ‘Payagua’. The reason for overlapping names in this case thus seems to stem from the fact that the Jesuits employed both the Omagua name for the Tukanoan neighbors of the Omaguasm and another term (Encabellados) to denote the Western Tukanoans as a whole.
Which brings us to the ethnonym ‘Masamae’, which was applied by the Spanish to a subgroup of Yameos who lived near the mouth of a southern tributary of the lower Napo River, now know as the Río Mazán. Any one who has read this far can probably now deduce the origin of ‘Massamae’ by themselves: the Tukanoan peoples just discussed lived directly across the river from this Yameo group, and presumably distinguished them from other Yameo groups by referring to them as the ‘people of the Mazán’ or /masa + mai/ (cf. /mai/ ‘person’, as discussed above). So ‘Masamae’ seems to be a name of Tukano origin, used to denote a particular geographically distinguished group of Yameos.
In closing, let me note the name ‘Masamae’ and its rarer variant ‘Masshamae’ pose some further puzzles — for example, why the use of /mai/ in the formation of this name, rather than the /pai/ that surfaces in ‘Payagua’? — but I’ll leave these for another day.
October 20, 2009
This semester at Berkeley I am teaching the year-long graduate field methods course, which I am enjoying tremendously. Apart from having the opportunity to work with a wonderful speaker of Quichua and a group of very intelligent and hard-working students, I have very much appreciated how the experience of helping others get their start with documenting and describing a language has given me the opportunity to reflect on aspects of my own language documentation practices. As in any area in which skills are acquired through praxis, there are aspects of my own practices that I am normally not particularly conscious of, but by watching others find their way and experiment, I’ve become more aware of some of them.
One such aspect concerns the intuitions I have developed about possible pitfalls in elicitation. Among documentary and descriptive linguists, the role of elicitation in a project’s overall methodological toolbox is a source of some controversy, with some linguists, like Tom Payne, recommending a heavy focus on elicitation early on in a documentary/descriptive project, and others, like Bob Dixon, recommending avoiding elicitation until late in a project, after a significant amount of text-based analysis has been carried out. I feel that there are good arguments for both of these elicitation philosophies, but regardless of the approach taken, I believe elicitation involves subtle skills that take time and practice to develop. One especially important aspect of developing elicitation skills, I believe, is acquiring sensitivities to the ways in which the linguistic expectations we have, stemming from the characteristics of our native language(s), can be the source of elicitation difficulties.
One area in which I’ve developed this type of sensitivity, I’ve recently come to realize, is in the use of metaphor. For example, I recently overhead an elicitation session in which a student asked our consultant to translate something like “Dancing gave Fred a headache.” The consultant had some difficulty with translating this sentence, and it dawned on me that I would probably never ask a consultant to translate a sentence like this.
But what kind of sentence is this, and why wouldn’t I ask a consultant to translate it? First, the sentence relies a great deal on metaphor: correctly interpreting the sentence requires interpreting the ‘giving’ expressed in the sentence as a metaphor for causation. And second, it requires understanding (anthropomorphising?) an activity like dancing as capable of ‘giving’ in the first place. Reflecting on this brief interchange and my reaction to it, I realized that over the years, I’ve come to avoid certain metaphors in elicitation. They seem to cause trouble.
But if, as scholars like George Lakoff believe, metaphor is central to human cognition, what exactly am I doing when I am ‘reducing’ my use of metaphor? I think that what I’m really doing is relying on my intuitive sense of what metaphors are cross-linguistically common and which aren’t. For example, I have the sense that the metaphorical use of spatial distances and relations to talk about temporal duration and relations (e.g. ‘a long time’) is very widespread, while the causation-as-giving metaphor discussed above is not. I’m not sure how good my intuition really is, of course, since I’ve only worked with a small number of languages, but the sensitivity I’ve developed seems to be an improvement over having none whatsoever. Of course, what would really be helpful here would a cross-linguistic typological perspective on metaphor, so that we could have a really sound basis for judgements about the use of metaphors in elicitation — but that’s an issue for another post.
October 17, 2009
Wednesday evening I attended a screening of “The Linguists” at Stanford, which was followed by a panel discussion involving Penny Eckert, Jim Fox, Alex Jaker, and myself. There were probably about 50 people there for the screening, which was nice to see, and most of the audience stayed for the subsequent discussion. (If you haven’t seen it yet, you can view it free online here).
The organizer and emcee for the event, Alistair Isaac, began by asking the panel members to give their general impressions of the movie. The tone was set by the first panelist, who was dismayed at what he termed the “driveby linguistics” depicted in the movie. Another panelist wondered aloud if David Harrison and Greg Anderson were actually linguists, and not some reality show adventurers who dabbled in linguistics. The other members of the panel quickly assured him that they were in fact real linguists, and a member of the audience who had worked with David and Greg also assured the audience that they did real language documentation, and that the film was not an accurate representation of their normal methodology.
Quite a lot more criticism of the movie followed, which I will omit here, since much of it was along the lines of my comments in this post. Moving on from there, we had an interesting discussion about the generational locus of language shift, prompted by a question from an audience member regarding a comment David Harrison made in the movie that gave the impression that it was children who were the key players in language shift, since it was they who chose not to speak the minority language spoken by their parents. In the language shift situations familiar to the panelists, however, it is parents’ choices to ensure that their children learn the regionally or nationally dominant language at the expense of the minority language they speak that drives language shift and loss. Nevertheless, I’ve heard observations similar to those of Harrison’s from other linguists, which makes me wonder if there are two distinct but important routes to language shift.
We also had an interesting discussion, spurred by the portion of the film devoted to Callahuaya, regarding to what degree it is reasonable to treat the lexicon of a language as a repository of cultural knowledge, and to what degree the lexicon, and hence the knowledge associated with the notional distinctions made by the lexicon, are practically, if not literally, untranslatable. In When Languages Die, David Harrison argues that specialized lexicons are uniquely well-adapted to expressing the knowledge they encode, and that consequently, language loss entails the loss of cultural knowledge. Harrison’s perspective certainly influenced the film, but my own experience suggests that the loss of cultural knowledge in contexts of language shift has much to do with the perceived or actual utility to the community of the conceptual distinctions encoded by the lexicon. In other words, it seems to me that there are grounds for arguing that in many cases it is the knowledge as such that is not being reproduced, and not that knowledge is a casualty of lexical contraction due to language loss. The important thing to realize, I think, is that language loss normally occurs in contexts of the broad erosion of indigenous lifespheres, and that cultural knowledge and language can each suffer from this erosion independently.
In any event, it was an interesting evening. One thing that I was left wondering, however, given the criticism that ‘the linguists’ leveled at “the Linguists”, is what the broader reaction of linguists has been to the movie. Any insights, dear readers?
October 14, 2009
This evening I’ll be going to Stanford for a showing and subsequent panel discussion of ‘The Linguists’, a movie about the documentation of endangered languages, that follows the narrative thread of the travels of two linguists, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, as they look for speakers of several endangered languages. Although the movie has been out for some time, I just watched it for the first time yesterday. It is now available free online (here), so if you are interested, take a gander.
This movie is probably one of the most public faces that language documentation has at present, so I really wanted it to be good — unfortunately, I found it pretty disappointing. I think that there was an opportunity here for a deep, fascinating, and moving presentation of the social, political and intellectual issues involved in language shift and the work of communities and linguists in response to this global phenomenon, and although there were some aspects of the movie that strayed in these directions, the subject matter tended to be played for cheap National Geographic-style exoticization, pseudo-dramatic physical adventure, and laughs. And I felt sorry for the two linguists who were caught up in this movie, as the editing and structure of the movie had the effect, I felt, of trivializing the nature of their work and personal commitment.
I could have imagined ‘The Linguists’ having three positive foci: 1) giving an idea of language endangerment from the perspective of the communities in which the use of these languages is dwindling, examining the forces leading to language shift, what this language shift means to people in these communities, and how communities are responding to these circumstances; 2) explaining the significance of the global reduction in linguistic diversity to scientific efforts to understand our species; 3) providing an idea of what language documentation and description is like as a practical activity, and what the intellectual challenges and excitement involved are.
The movie touched all three of these, but in a distressingly superficial manner, and instead presented a story of derring-do that focused more on the banal drama of traveling to fieldsites and locating speakers, and on photogenic shots of local folklore and scenery, as on these profound and interesting issues. Interestingly, if you followed the link above, there were a number of clips following the main movie that appear to be portions of the movie that ended up on the cutting room floor, which focused on the speakers of several highly endangered languages and some language revitalization efforts. Watch them if you have the chance. I think these vignettes, in which these speakers reflect on their languages, the process of language shift they’ve witnessed, and their relationships with younger generations and the diminishing generations of speakers, are much more eloquent and interesting than the movie that was eventually made. I’m not sure why the creators of the movie decided to omit these moving testimonies, and instead opted for ‘Indiana Jones and the Lost Phoneme’. Maybe this is just part of pattern one sees where film makers have a hard time making movies about indigenous or minority peoples without inserting a major white protagonist or two.
Given that the movie focused on the two linguists so strongly, we could have hoped for a rich presentation of what documentary and descriptive linguistics is like in a fieldwork context, but even here the movie was quite poor. The movie seemed to give the impression that one picks a place on map, swoops in, spends a couple of days collecting some wordlists, and maybe a text, and then zooms off to the next endangered language, apparently chosen at random. Absent from this presentation of linguistic fieldwork was a discussion of the reasons that lead linguists to work on particular languages, anything beyond a few comments that language documentation normally involves a serious time commitment and the building of relationships with speakers and the communities in which they live (which were completely undercut by the rest of the movie!), or the fact that linguistic fieldwork involves a lot of analysis and intellectual work, and is not simply lexical butterfly-collecting. Since there were two linguists, I could imagine having been able to shoot some interesting discussions between the two about the analysis of some point of the grammar, like — who knows — the alignment system of one of the languages, or maybe even just figuring out a phonemic inventory. Sure, it would have been impenetrable to most of the audience, but that would be fine — as sci-fi movies show, abstruse scientific babble can serve as way to index a kind of deep intellectual engagement with a technically complex field.
Endangered languages, linguistic fieldwork, and language documentation could all use a public face to enable the broader public to understand what is at stake in these domains, and what work in each of them entails. ‘The Linguists’, however, seems to me to fall far short of the mark. I’ll be interested to see what the audience and my fellow commenters think.
Ever since I was very young, I’ve had an inordinate fondness for maps. I remember when I was five years old or so drawing maps of imaginary islands and continents, which often included areas that I scrupulously left blank — unexplored areas! I could even, if I so chose, trace the fact that I’m an Amazonian anthropological linguist to a chance encounter with a map of South America as an undergraduate. But getting closer to the point of this post, my present living room has quite a number of maps on its walls, including maps of various parts of Amazonia, as you might expect, and perhaps more surprisingly, an ethnolinguistic map of Australia, which I received as a present from my mother, who now lives in Australia and correctly guessed that a present that combined maps with linguistics would be a welcome gift indeed.
Gazing at this map earlier today I noticed an interesting difference between my Amazonian and Australian maps: the names of rivers on my Amazonian map tend to be drawn from indigenous South American languages, while the river names on my Australian map tend to be English ones. After pondering this difference for a few minutes I generated a hypothesis regarding why the colonial powers who were ultimately responsible for the names that appear on these maps pursued quite different river-naming strategies. Being quite ignorant of Australian ethnography, I have no idea if this is true, but my explanation is the following: Amazonia is replete with indigenous riverine indigenous peoples, while Australia, I’m guessing, is not. Moreover, the exploration of Amazonia by Europeans was carried out in large part via river travel, while the exploration of Australia, if memory serves, was largely carried out overland. If this is basically correct, then, Europeans in Amazonia were constantly running into indigenous peoples living on the rivers, so that European interlopers had ample opportunity to learn indigenous river names, and had no strong reason to invent their own (which did not, of course, prevent them from doing so from time to time). In Australia, my theory goes, Europeans encountered rivers in their overland travels from time to time, but did not encounter large indigenous populations living by the rivers who informed those European interlopers about what the rivers in question should be called, leaving Europeans to invent their own river names.
A little research about Australian Aboriginal groups might settle the answer, but I am deliberately avoiding carrying out this research, for two reasons. First, I’m lazy about doing any research outside of South America. Second, and more significantly, I’m curious if it is possible, based solely on colonial river naming practices, to infer something about Australian Aboriginal settlement patterns.
There are at least two obvious ways to evaluate this hypothesis. One way involves a lot of tedious work reading historical documents, and if anyone has already done this, please let me know. Another way, which involves a lot less work, involves looking at an areal anomaly in terms of the Anglo-centric Australian river naming pattern. At least on my map, there is a cluster of river names of probable Aboriginal origin (to my uninformed eye) in the upper Darling River watershed and some adjacent regions. If the groups living in this area were atypical for Australia in being riverine peoples, then we would have a way to evaluate, within Australia itself, the correlation between the presence of riverine indigenous peoples and the greater tendency for colonial powers to adopt indigenous river names.
So, do the facts support this off-the-cuff hypothesis? (If none of you, dear readers, decide to do my hard work for me, I’ll resort to the next best thing — I’ll pester my Australianist colleagues.)
October 9, 2009
There is an interesting new initiative going on over at Etnolingüística, the hybrid website, discussion list, and resource archive on South American languages run by Eduardo Ribeiro. Briefly, they are attempting to put together a registry of linguists working with South American indigenous languages, including information on research interests and the languages that each linguist is working with.
I think this is a terrific step to building a more robust and interconnected community of South Americanist linguists, which I feel is especially important for Amazonianists. So, if you are a linguist working with an indigenous language of South America, and haven’t done so yet, get over to Etnolingüística and participe!