First two volumes of Amazonian languages: An international handbook published

The first two volumes of Amazonian languages: An international handbook are now available. Edited by Patience Epps and myself, these two volumes present grammatical descriptions of all reasonably well-attested linguistic isolates of the Greater Amazonian region. Volume I covers Aikanã to Kandozi-Shapra, and Volume II covers Kanoé to Yurakaré. (A chapter in Volume III will summarize what we know about about the more poorly-attested isolates and small language families known only from colonial-era materials.)

At this time, the freely available material is limited to the front matter and the Introduction to Volume I, written by editors.

The next volumes in the series will focus on the small language families of Greater Amazonia, and the final volumes, on the large language families of the region.


On the possible South American origins of Polynesian kumara ‘sweet potato’

A couple of months ago I read Sea People, an engaging popular survey of the scholarship on the historical orgins of the Polynesian peoples, and their subsequent exploration and settling of the Pacific islands. I recently recalled this book due to a discussion at Language Log that intersects with my South Americanist interest, touching on the long-standing question of how sweet potatoes were introduced into the Pacific. While it appears fairly clear that they must have come from South America, the question is whether humans were the vector for their introduction (i.e. Polynesians traveling to South America or South Americans to Polynesia) or whether sweet potatoes dispersed via a natural mechanism that did not involve humans.

Note that the latter hypothesis is not at all implausible. Darwin, for example, devotes an extensive section of the On the Origin of Species (a previous summer book of mine) to mechanisms for the geographic dispersal of plants and animals (floating on water, on natural rafts, stuck to the feet of birds, who can get blown around by storms, etc.). But there is one reason that makes some people think that humans were the vector for the transmission of sweet potatoes to the Pacific, namely, that the word used by Polynesians for this cultigen is very similar to that used by Indigenous peoples in western South America: kumara. There are, to be fair, some linguist details to be nailed down: were there actually truly coastal people who cultivated sweet potato and used this word? Is the form of the Polynesian word what one would expect of the phonological form of the word used on the west coast of South America plus the phonological adaptation processes that would have been involved in Polynesians borrowing the word?

Notwithstanding these issues, I think that the preceding lexical borrowing hypothesis is more plausible than the alternative, namely, that sweet potatoes were introduced to the Pacific via a non-human vector, and Polynesians by chance developed a word almost identical to that of the South American term. Note, crucially, that it is not just a question of the similarity of the form of the two words: as any historical linguist can tell you, surprising coincidences crop up all the time when you compare the lexicons of multiple languages. Rather, it is the similarity in question combined with nature of the lexicon innovation event. We know that sweet potatoes were introduced to the Polynesian around 1300 CE, which would have presented the Polynesians with a linguistic problem to solve, namely, what to call the new cultigen. There are basically three options: 1) they could have borrowed a word; 2) they could have extended the reference of an existing word to include the new referent; or 3) they could have coined a new word. Focusing on the latter two possibilites, the extension mechanism (plus a disambiguating strategy) is something that was employed by Indigenous peoples in the Americas when Europeans introduced new animals and plants. The word for ‘dog’ in many Amazonian languages, for example, is the word that was historically applied to jaguars and other wild cats (e.g. yawara in many Tupi-Guarani langauges). Subsequently a disambiguation strategy was employed when needing to clarify reference to jaguars versus to dogs (e.g., yawara-usu, where -usu is an augmentative suffix). I haven’t heard this extension strategy being mentioned as a possible source for Polynesian kumara, but perhaps it would be work ruling that out, if someone hasn’t already done so.

The other non-borrowing strategy is coining a new word. Here I go out on a bit of a limb and propose that in cases of coining new words for new referents, the new coined word is overwhelmingly likely to be etymologically transparent. For example when the French opted to coin a word for potato instead of borrowing from an American language via Spanish, English, or another language, they coined pomme de terre (lit. ‘earth apple’), and English itself, instead of borrowing, created the compound sweet potato. Similarly, Máíhùnà, who I have worked with, generally do not borrow words from Spanish, but instead use the vast classifier system of Máíhɨ̃̀kì, and the nominalizing properties of classifiers, to coin vast numbers of words: toya-tɨka (write-CL:stick) for pencil, aga-seu (call-CL:root) for telephone, kio-ro (metal-CL:concavity) for metal cooking pot, etc. Although I’m sure such cases exist, I’m not aware of any cases where, when faced with a new referent, speakers of the language have coined a new word that has no semantic basis (whether via extension or compounding) in extant words in their language. If it is the case, then, that kumara is etymologically non-transparent in Polynesian languages, I think this strongly suggests that it was a borrowing.

In short, the linguistic fact that Polynesians use the word kumara for a recently introduced cultigen strongly suggests, in my view, that the introduction of sweet potatoes into the Pacific involved a human vector: either a Polynesian visit to South America, or a visit by South Americans to the Pacific.

There are two reasons, however, why I have some doubts about the Polynesian visit hypothesis. First, there appears to be no oral history record of this voyage. Keep in mind that for Polynesians to have made it to South America, they would have had to gone against the prevailing winds in the Pacific for what would have been the longest of all the Polynesian voyages. In short, it would have had to have been a deliberate trip, not a question of someone getting blown off course. And at the same time, this voyage would have yielded a a set of tremendous discoveries: a new continent, new peoples, and among other things, a new cultigen which would quickly become one of the staples of the Polynesian peoples. The idea that such a deliberate and momentous voyage of discovery would have not become an important part of the oral history of the people who carried the voyage strikes me as extremely implausible. The history of Polynesian exploration makes clear that they would certainly have been capable of a voyage like this, but that same history suggests that it would be remembered in oral history — somewhat subject to processes of mythification, perhaps — but certainly not forgotten.

Second, it puzzles me that if Polynesians had indeed made it to the western coast of South America, that sweet potatoes would have been the only cultigen that they brought back. Why not also corn, squash, manioc, chili peppers, tobacco, or cotton, just to name a few? It strikes me as implausible that Polynesians would have made a journey of this magnitude and not brought back other cultigens that would have been at least as easy to transport as sweet potatoes, if not easier.

If the above thinking is on the right track, but we do believe that humans were the vector for the introduction of sweet potatoes into the Pacific, that leaves South Americans going to Polynesia. The historical record mentions that South Americans employed ocean-going rafts equipped with sails in coastal trade, so they would have had vessels that could have made the trip (as Thor Heyerdahl and many others have shown). And such a trip would have been in the direction of the prevailing winds, favoring the South Americans, who, as far as we know, were nowhere near as talented open ocean sailors as the Polynesians. In fact, once away from the mainland, the South Americans would probably have had no choice but to continue sailing with the prevailing winds, given the balky nature of their vessels. Whether such a trip was deliberate or accidental (imagine traders being blown out to sea), the fact that they would not have returned would have made it unlikely for others to have emulate the trip, or for South American oral history to have recorded the trip, if it had been deliberate.

As the discussion at Language Log illustrates, this is clearly an issue that inspires some strong feelings, and I suspect that for a consensus to emerge, additional findings, whether from ethnography, archaeology, or human genetics, will need to be added to the linguistic and ethnographic facts we now have at our disposal.

Community Presentation of Iquito Dictionary

Earlier today, here in the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, Chris Beier and I presented the recently published Diccionario Iquito-Castellano to the community and distributed copies of the dictionary to all the families present. This dictionary represents an important milestone in the community-oriented documentation of Iquito, significantly expanding and improving on previous versions of the dictionary that we have presented to the community, including a general dictionary in 2006, and a Diccionario Escolar in 2019. The dictionary we presented today is based on our 2019 Iquito-English dictionary, but is an improvement on that dictionary in a number of important ways. First, it includes an extensive section on Iquito word formation, so that users can form morphologically complex words on the basis of the roots provided in each dictionary entry. A glossary of linguistic terms used in the dictionary is provided alongside. Second, this dictionary represents the low tones of headwords and roots, as well as high tones. Low tones can almost always be correctly deduced on the basis of high tones, but this requires some knowledge of the tonal system. We decided that it would be better to be explicit about the placement of low tones to improve pronunciation (a consistent concern of the Iquito elders). And third, in the process of translating the Iquito-English dictionary to Spanish (with the crucial aid of Jaime Montoya Samamé), we caught errors that had slipped through the editing process of the earlier version, and fixed them. As such, we consider the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano to be the definitive dictionary of the Iquito language at this time.

The event this morning was a lot of fun. In the first part of the event, brief speeches were given by Marcelo Inuma, the community president and former Iquito Language Documentation Project community linguist, by the two remaining fluent Iquito-speaking elders and the principal contributors to the dictionary, Jaime Pacaya Inuma end Ema Llona Yareja, and finally by Chris Beier and myself. A major theme of the speeches was the hope that this dictionary would be useful to young people in particular in learning and passing on the Iquito language.

Community president and former community linguist Marcelo Inuma Sinchija launching the community presentation of the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano
Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma, who gave speeches in both Iquito and Spanish about the history of the dictionary project and his hopes that young Iquitos would use the dictionary to learn and pass on the language
Iquito elder Ema Llona Yareja, giving a speech in Iquito about the importance of the dictionary to future generations of Iquitos

Dictionaries were then distributed to all the families present, to the festive accompaniment of panetón and gaseosa.

Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma receiving his copy of the Diccionario Iquito-Castellano
Community member Segundo Sangama receiving a copy of the Diccionary Iquito-Castellano for his family

We then had a ‘listening party’ where we played clips of recordings of songs and narratives by the four Iquito elders whose contributions have formed the base of the Iquito Language Documentation project: the late Hermenegildo Díaz Cuyasa and Ligia Inuma Inuma, as well as Jaime Pacaya Inuma and Ema Llona Yareja, who continue working with us. We also played recordings made in approximately 1960 by Roberto and Elizabeth Eastman, SIL/WBT missionaries who worked in San Antonio for some five years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These latter recordings include songs and narratives by fondly remembered elders whose voices have in some cases not been heard in the community for 50 years.

The listening party was motivated in part by interest that community members have recently expressed in hearing the recordings we have made, as well as in having written versions of the texts to read. And the latter, in fact, is one of the major things we have bee working towards in this and recent trips to the community. Currently we are aiming to have a first set of multilingual texts to present to the community in June of this year — so stay tuned. And I also have been thinking a great deal about making audio recordings available to the community in a useful way: I plan to share my thoughts about that some time soon.

Group photo at the end of the dictionary presentation event (L-to-R): Tambo manager Piero Saldaña Dávila, Iquito elder Ema Llona Yareja, linguist Lev Michael, Iquito elder Jaime Pacaya Inuma, linguist Christine Beier, community president Marcelo Inuma Sinchija

Archivo de la Lenguas Indígenas de la Amazonia

I recently learned from Dr. Juan Álvaro Echeverri of a new digital archive, the Archivo de la Lenguas Indígenas de la Amazonia (ARDILIA), which is based at the Leticia campus of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Dr. Echeverri, who is one of the leaders of this new initiative, is a renowned Colombian anthropologist and linguist who has worked with the People of the Center (especially Witotoan and Boran groups), and other Amazonian peoples of the region. The archive already boast an extensive collection of Murui , and Dr. Echeverri informs me that collections for Tikuna and Miraña are in the process of being added.

One of the strengths of ARDILIA is the nature of its digital institutional support, as Dr. Echeverri observes:

En efecto, una de las limitaciones de cualquier archivo de lenguas es poder disponer de una infraestructura digital que garantice permanencia y mantenimiento de los datos. Esto solo es posible con una infraestructura institucional. Me tomó varios meses convencer a la Universidad Nacional de alojar este proyecto en su Repositorio Institucional, que garantiza perdurabilidad.

And indeed, the issue of institutional infrastructural support is one of the very first things that I wonder about when I hear about a new language archive project, so it is very encouraging to see that ARDILIA has this potential problem dealt with.

The Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) uses DSpace as its institutional repository, and at this stage, the organization and metadata that ARDILIA exhibits seems to reflect the possibilities that UNAL/DSpace repository offers. I think this reflects one of the real advantages of adopting the UNAL/DSpace repository for ARDILIA’s digital infrastructure solution: the work on designing the infrastructure and interface has already been done (and crucially, will be maintained by) someone else. As a result, it was not necessary to invest significant quantities of time and money in developing database back end, storage solution, and interface. I know that some other digital language archives have sunk quite a bit of money, time, and labor into these things, with results that have not always been entirely satisfactory. I imagine that if the organizers of ARDILIA had had to do the same, this would have constituted a grave challenge to launching the archive. As such, relying on stable and maintained institutional digital repositories like UNAL’s seems like a real boon to launching regional digital language archives like ARDILIA.

I wonder if as ARDILIA grows, the team behind ARDILIA might find that structure that DSpace imposes on file organization, metadata, and search functions, in comparison to a system one can design oneself, somewhat constraining. The tradeoff seems totally worth it to me, though, and I think it will probably be very instructive and useful for others who may be inspired by ARDILIA to follow a similiar infrastructural route to see how the ARDILIA team navigates these issues.

At any rate, ARDILIA’s launch is very exciting, and I look forward to hearing about its continued growth.

Internet access in San Antonio de Pintuyacu

One of the major changes that I have seen in the Amazonian communities in which I work in the past several years is community members’ embrace of smartphones and internet. This began some four or five years aɡo with people buying phones to use when they left their communities and were in range of cellphone towers, which sometimes only involved an hour of travel, and sometimes more like half a day, depending on the community. While the very earliest adopters were, as stereotype might suggest, younger people eager to use social media, stream music, and the like, older generations (I have in mind people up to their late 60s in age) quickly followed suite, motivated especially by the desire to keep in touch with kin and work colleagues living in areas with regular cell service.

The Máíjùnà community of Nueva Vida, for example, in which I work, gained an internet connection last year via a Peruvian Ministry of Education program that supplies internet to schools in rural areas via satellite dish, and when school is not in session, the remainder of the community can use the internet, with WhatsApp being especially popular. Or at least in theory: when I was the community in September and November of 2022, solar power issues and other technical issues meant that it was inoperative more than it was operative, but there was at least an intermittent connection.

I am writing and posting the current blog post from the Iquito community of San Antonio de Pintuyacu, located on the Pintuyacu River, a tributary of the Nanay River, which is itself joins the Amazon River at the northern edge of the city of Iquitos. Although I have worked in San Antonio on Iquito language documentation and description with speakers of Iquito on and off since 2002, there was no internet until just a month or two ago, thanks to a Peruvian government program that installs “Tambos” (note the capital letter), in regions far from major urban centers.

Tambos are intended to provide a range of government services ranging from disbursement of pensions, provision of national ID cards, and banking via a local branch of Banco de la Nación (the national bank) to otherwise poorly-served areas. And, crucially, they are equipped with internet to facilitate these various services.

In a curious twist of fate, in San Antonio, the Tambo was built right behind our little Iquito language research center, as can be seen in the photo (the Tambo is the red-roofed building in the background, the building with blue paint in the foreground is the Iquito research center).

When the community gave us the space for the research center back in 2002 it was at the far edge of the built-up part of the community, responding to our request for as quiet a location as possible for our linguistic work. Since then the community has been slowly building out towards our location, and in recent years community leaders have had their eye on the nice flat expanse behind the Iquito research center, which had for a long time been community members’ yuca plots, as a place for a number of possible major government construction projects, including an educational complex promised by the regional government. Whereas the educational complex has yet to materialize, the Tambo was offered to the community and built in its entirety in only six months, a truly impressive pace for such a substantial construction project so far from Iquitos.

The architect and construction team worked wonders, finishing up in October, but the subsequent installation of services has not advanced as quickly: thus far, the only thing to have been done is the installation of internet in December. But that has been a huge boon for community members, who can now communicate with the outside world without leaving the community. Internet is supposed to be available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening every day, although the actual availability of internet is less predictable than this. Since we’ve been here on this visit, there have been days at a time where community members have not had internet access.

The range of the Tambo’s wifi signal is quite short, so to make calls, people need to come up to the Tambo. Especially in the evening, when we often sit out on our patio after a day of work enjoying the cool evening and the stars, we exchange a steady stream of “Buenas noches” with folks going to and from the Tambo to use their phones. Unexpectedly, at our research center, we are within range of the Tambo’s wifi, making us, and our immediate neighbor, Iquito speaker Jaime Pacaya Inuma, the only people in the community who can use the internet without leaving our homes. Anyway, this blog post is brought to you by the San Antonio’s Tambo internet connection!

In a future post I will address what I believe to be a very important implication that the expansion of internet access to Indigenous communities has for documentary linguists.