Vale Constenla

November 11, 2013

I was saddened to hear that Adolfo Constenla Umaña recently passed away. Constenla was a giant in Costa Rican linguistics, doing important work on Chibchan languages and training students who also advanced our understanding of the family. Constenla was also the author of an important book that deserves to be better known than it is, Las lenguas del area intermedia: Introducción a su estudio areal. Among other things, this work evaluates whether the ‘area intermedia’, roughly the region south of the Mayan zone in Meso-America, and extending to northern Colombian Andes, constitutes a linguistic area. This study prefigures by almost two decades the increasingly common use of a relatively large number of typological features to assess areality, and carefully examines the distribution of diagnostic features outside the proposed area, as well as inside, an important methodological point not always attended to in older work on linguistic areas. In many respects this work represented one of the most rigorous studies of a linguistic area until recently, when computational techniques were harnessed to assess areality. Constenla left behind a rich body of work and a cadre of students, through which his influence will live on.

I recently learned of David Fleck’s new monograph Panoan Languages and Linguistics, available online here through the American Museum of Natural History. Fleck provides an internal classification of the family, but perhaps the greatest service he has provided is to sort through the perplexing blizzard of Panoan ethnonyms one finds in the colonial and ethnographic literature, and in older classifications of Panoan languages. He also discusses language names that have been applied to both Panoan languages and non-Panoan ones (Katukina, anyone?), which is another source of confusion. This is a very useful reference to anyone who engages, however briefly, with Panoan linguistics.