Amazonicas III

The CFP for the third iteration of the quasi-annual conference series on the syntax and phonology of Amazonian languages is now out (here). I attended the last conference, in Recife, Brazil, and enjoyed it tremendously.

This year the conference will be held outside of Brazil for the first time, in Bogotá, Colombia, and includes a wider range of conference themes: 1) The phonetics and phonology of laryngeal features; 2) Valency increasing strategies; 3) Lexical categorization; 4) The expression of spatial notions; and 5) Valency increasing mechanisms in Arawak languages.

I’m hoping that the location of the conference will make it more feasible and attractive for Peruvian and Ecuadorean linguists to attend than past conferences. Originally, the plan had been for the conference to be held in Leticia, right on the Amazon proper, where Peru, Colombia, and Brazil meet. That would have been wonderful, but I understand why for logistical reasons Bogotá makes more sense. In any event, I am really looking forward to the conference. Now I just need to write my abstract.

Ethics and IRBs

During the past week my wife Chris and I have been in transit from Peru, to Austin, and finally to Berkeley, and we are now setting up our new home. Much neglect of this blog has ensued. I did, however, want to pass on two interesting links. The first, brought to my attention by Jane Simpson over at Transient Languages and Cultures, is a link to the draft of the LSA’s ethics statement. The statement itself is available here. The draft statement is cleverly set up as a series of blog posts, with each major section getting its own post, with its own comments section. (The front page of the blog is here.) This seems like a nice way to get discussion going among linguists, and there have already been some interesting comments posted. Also included are links to ethics statements by other professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association.

On a related note, Claire Bowern over at Angarrgoon (who also mentions the LSA ethics statement blog) provided a link some time ago to Institutional Review Blog, which is maintained by Zachary M. Schrag, an Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. According to its subheader, the blog is dedicated to providing “[n]ews and commentary about Institutional Review Board oversight of the humanities and social sciences.” Schrag is apparently preparing a book and he posts frequently. His perspective seems like a valuable complement to discussions going on at places like Savage Minds (e.g. here, here, and many others).

I must admit that my personal experience with IRBs at the University of Texas was not that bad. Certainly there were lots of bureaucratic hoops to jump through, but at the end of the day, the members of the IRB seemed sane and did not engage in the over-reaching that I’ve heard about in some of the worse horror stories from my colleagues. I will be very interested to see how the IRB is at Berkeley. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed.)

Abstract deadline approaching: Structure of Amazonian Languages II conference

The deadline for abstract submissions for this exciting-sounding conference is drawing nigh. Abstracts are due August 15, and the CFP makes it sound like open spots are scarce. The full announcement and CFP are available via Linguistlist (here), and I’ve also included the Announcement and CFP below:

The Structure of the Amazonian Languages II

Location: Recife, Brazil
Start Date: 24-Nov-2008 – 28-Nov-2008
Contact: Stella Telles

Meeting Description: This conference is the second of a series of three meetings, as part of a cooperation initiative between the CELIA Paris, UFAM Manaus, Leiden University, and the VU University Amsterdam research centers. The themes to be discussed at the second meeting are ‘nominalization’ and ‘word-prosodic systems’. Although the nature of the meeting is that of a seminar for which part of the contributors are individually invited, there is space in the program for non-invited speakers, which we wish to encourage submitting a paper through this call. In addition, the meeting is open for students and scholars that are interested in assisting without presenting a paper.

Call for Papers

Call Deadline: 15-Aug-2008
Call for Papers

The conference themes are:

Nominalization and Subordination

Since deverbal nouns have the ability to recover the arguments of their finite counterpart, nominalization is one of the procedures that languages make use of to put a verbal predicate in a position of dependence with regard to another predicate. The link between nominalization and subordination is more or less tight cross-linguistically. Very visible in Turkish, Tzeltal, or Arabic, it is pervasive in the Amazonian languages.

Several typological issues must be addressed in considering the relation between subordination and nominalization. First, the way in which the recovery of arguments is achieved, since the case assigner is a noun. When the nominalization concerns a transitive verb, one observes a relatively general tendency for ergative alignment, which has a direct incidence on the way syntactic pivots are established between the main clause and the subordinate clause. Second, the loss of the finiteness properties of the verb and the acquirement of typical nominal categories (gender-classes, quantification, definiteness) can reveal a continuum the landmarks of which have to be stated language particularly. Since the deverbal construct generates a noun phrase, the subordination markers will often be recovered from the inventory of adposition type relational markers. With respect to relativization, the designation ”headless relative” sometimes obscures the necessary distinction between a clause in a modifier position in a noun dominated phrase and a deverbal noun in the same syntactic dependent position. Moreover, in languages that allow a certain degree of choice in discourse between a finite dependent clause and a deverbal modifier, the semantic and pragmatic correlates of each option must be highlighted. The diachronic recovery of finiteness properties by deverbal forms, often accomplished through a reanalysis of the nominal morphology, may cause changes in the alignment patterns. More specifically, the study of the relations between nominalization and subordination, if taking into account the so-called masdar form in the Arabic grammatical tradition, is very well-suited to shed a new light on that hybrid form known from many Tupi and Jê languages, which the tradition of Tupi-Guarani studies calls ”indicative 2”.

Word-Prosodic Systems

An assessment of any typological feature in South American indigenous linguistics is premature. Although for certain families (e.g. Tupi-Guarani) available descriptions are sufficiently good and numerous to allow for interesting family-wide observations, for many others there is almost nothing. This is especially true regarding the characteristics of the word-prosodic systems (stress or tone based) that exist in the Amazonian languages. Even among the ‘well-documented’ languages, very few have had their word-prosodies analyzed in a meaningful way. The descriptions are mostly sketchy, sometimes no more than a generic statement and contain few, if any, examples. A systematic consideration of word-level stress and/ or tonal patterns including detailed accounts of morphological or lexical conditioning is rarely encountered. Terms such as ‘pitch accent’ are used often with a vague definition and are employed to refer to systems that are very dissimilar. For this conference we wish to invite papers that present detailed analyses of word-prosodic systems in the Amazonian languages, preferentially based on laboratory evidence.

The abstract should be no longer than 2 pages including examples and bibliography, single spaced, Times New Roman, pitch 12. The abstract should be send in both Word/W and PdF formats to the local organizers.

Two talks in Lima

I am presently in Lima, getting on with the logistical and bureaucratic preparations for fieldwork this summer. Of possible interest to readers in Peru, however, I will also be giving several academic talks on Peruvian Amazonian languages while in Lima. The first two that I have confirmed dates on are both at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), on May 20th and May 22nd. I don’t yet have precise locations for the talks, but I will add that information as soon as I have it. Below I present abstracts for the two talks (with due apologies to the Spanish-speaking peoples of the world). Hope to see some people there!

May 20th, 5:00 pm
La marcación de una categoría flexiva por el orden de palabras: el modo irreal en el idioma iquito (familia zaparoana, Amazonía peruana)

Se sabe que las categorías flexivas de tiempo, aspecto, y modo (TAM) se pueden marcar utilizando diversas estrategias entre las lenguas humanas, inclusive por medio de los afijos, la mutación fonológica, la suplencia léxica y por procesos super-segmentales, como los cambios en los patrones tonales (Anderson 1992, Spencer 1998). En esta ponencia describiré un tipo de marcación de una categoría TAM que no ha sido mencionado hasta el presente en las tipologías de morfología flexiva: la marcación por medio de cambios en el orden de las palabras en una cláusula.

Existe un sistema de marcación de una categoría TAM por medio del orden de palabras en el idioma iquito, un idioma zaparoano de la Amazonía peruana. En este idioma, el modo irreal es marcado por el desplazamiento de elementos post-verbales a la posición entre el sujeto y el verbo, como en (1), donde el elemento /nu/ se desplaza a esta posición. El modo real es marcado por la falta de tal desplazamiento, como en (2).

(1) iina anitáaqui nu ása-qui
DET huangana 3.PRO comer-PERF
`El huangana va a comerlo.’

(2) iina anitáaqui ása-qui nuú.
DET huangana comer-PERF
`El huangana lo comió.’

Muestro que los elementos que desplazan a la ‘posición irreal’ no forman una clase sintáctica coherente, y que los elementos desplazados no son constituyentes sintácticos en todos casos, sino que, a veces son fragmentos de constituyentes. A base de estas observaciones, argumento que el elemento desplazado es un constituyente fonológico (una ‘palabra fonológica’) y que el significado del elemento y sus rasgos sintácticos no son relevantes en marcar el modo irreal. Como tal, el elemento desplazado es semánticamente vacío, y solo sirve como materia fonológica que ocupa la posición irreal.


Anderson, Stephen. 1992. A-morphous morphology. Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, Andew. 1998. Morphophonological operations. En Andrew Spencer and Arnold Zwicky (Eds.), The handbook of Morphology. pp. 123-143.

May 22nd, 12:00 noon
La evidencialidad, la pragmática y la responsibilidad: nexos entre la gramática y la vida social en la sociedad Nanti (familia arahuaco, Amazonía peruana)

La evidencialidad ha sido un enfoque importante la para investigaciones sobre la actividad comunicativa como un aspecto de la vida social (Hill & Irvine 1993, Sidnell 2005). Es claro que la evidencialidad es una parte de las prácticas que forman una ‘epistemología cotidiana’ y su investigación ofrece una apertura para entender las maneras en que los recursos gramaticales sirven como instrumentos en la construcción de las relaciones y estructuras sociales a través de la interacción comunicativa.

En esta charla, analizo el uso de recursos evidenciales por los hablantes del Nanti, un idioma arahuaco de la Amazonía peruana, en el contexto de interacciones sociales cotidianos. Muestro que uno de los usos principales de los recursos evidenciales en la sociedad Nanti es para construir representaciones de acontecimientos que disminuyen la responsabilidad del hablante por percances o por situaciones problemáticas. Mi argumento es que la disminución de responsabilidad es un resultado de una ‘metáfora pragmática’ (Silverstein 1976) por lo cual el tipo de relación perceptual indicado por un recurso evidencial corresponde a la intensidad con que el hablante se involucra en un cierto acontecimiento, y por este medio, el recurso indica de manera indirecta la responsibilidad del hablante por la situación.

Este resultado ilustra un aspecto de las funciones sociales y comunicativas de los evidenciales, los cuales han sido un tema de debate entre lingüistas y antropólogo-lingüistas (Aikhenvald 2004). Este resultado también respalda los argumentos de De Haan (1999) y Aikhenvald (2004) quiénes señalan que la evidencialidad es distinta de la modalidad epistémica, aún al nivel de la pragmática.

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2004. Evidentiality. Cambridge University Press.

De Haan, Ferdinand. 1999. Evidentiality and epistemic modality: Setting boundaries. Southwest Journal of Linguistics. 18: 83-101.

Hill, Jane and Judith Irvine. 1993. Responsibility and evidence in oral discourse. Cambridge University Press.

Sidnell, Jack. 2005. Talk and practical epistemology. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description. En Keith Basso and Henry Selby (Eds.), Meaning in Anthropology. University of New Mexico Press. pp. 11-56

WALS now online

I just learned (via the list) that the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) was recently made available online (here). This useful resource was formerly only available in book and CD format, and it cost several hundred dollars. It is now available for free, and in exploring the new online version, I actually found it easier to work with than the older CD version. At least on my Mac, the user interface for the CD version was fairly small, which gave it cramped feeling and made it a little pesky to use. The online version, however, makes much better use of the screen, and the layout and navigation seem improved to me.

In case you’ve never used or seen WALS, I encourage you to take a look. Basically, it represents an effort to collate typological information on a large number of languages (2500, they say), present it in a easily searchable manner, and display the results on a map. Each major typological parameter (say, grammatical number) is also accompanied by an essay, which lays out the basic definitions and distinctions involved. But the best way to know how it works is probably just to play around with it. I must admit that I find I just enjoy poking around WALS, even when I don’t have any real work to do with it. It has even helped combat my Amazonia-centric typological provincialism ;).


… as they say in Nanti — I’m back. I got my dissertation into the committee about a month ago and have been catching up on everything that has been on hold for the last several months. Quite out of tune with the quiet, monastic life I’ve been leading while I’ve been finishing my dissertation, I actually have something resembling personal news.

First, I have my dissertation defense tomorrow, which I am really looking forward to. Although I at first had to come to terms with needing to omit a few really interesting things, for reasons of space, I’m now mostly pretty happy with the dissertation. (We’ll see what my committee has to say tomorrow!) And what I’m really excited about is being able to get back to some older projects that have been on hold, and to start some new ones. I’ll probably be writing about about some of these in the coming months.

The second major piece of news is that this fall I’ll be starting as an assistant professor in the linguistics department at UC Berkeley. I will be sad to leave Austin, and all my friends and colleagues here, but I am very excited by the prospects of this new intellectual home.

And third, I’ll be heading to Peru on May 13th with my partner Chris Beier for a summer of fieldwork. I’ll try to keep up blogging as far into the field as I can — and it’s quite suprising how far into the Amazon Basin internet connections have spread — but all of my actual field sites are off the grid. Or at least they were a year-and-a-half ago, when I was there last…

NSF ‘Documenting Endangered Languages’ made permanent program

I just today learned that the National Science Foundation has decided to make its Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) initiative a permanent program. For those of you who, like me, were living under a rock and missed the original announcement, I have included it below.

Since all but a few Amazonian languages are endangered, the DEL program will no doubt be a very important long-term funding source for Amazonian language research. This is especially true because two of the other important funding sources for Amazonian research, the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Documentation Programme and the Volkswagen Foundation DoBeS project, are envisioned as non-permanent programs, as far as I know. So kudos to NSF for their long-term commitment to endangered languages!

November 20, 2007

After funding more than $10 million dollars of scientific research and study projects during the last three years to record and analyze some of the world’s most endangered languages, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently made its Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) initiative a permanent program.

The program was established in NSF’s social, behavioral and economic sciences directorate in 2005. It was part of a collaborative arrangement with the National Endowment for the Humanities as a funding partner and the Smithsonian Institution as a non-funding partner.

“By making this a permanent program, NSF is acknowledging both that these efforts have been successful and that much remains to be done,” said Douglas Whalen, the program’s director at NSF. “Of the 6,500 or so languages that are spoken today, fewer than half are expected to survive the century. The world could lose 3,000 languages in the span of 100 years. Many of them are virtually unrecorded, and all have unique linguistic aspects that will be unrecoverable in the near future.”

But new technologies provide hope for linguists, giving them a greater ability to preserve language in a more complete and permanent way.

For the first time in history, researchers can digitally record many of these languages, and new developments in cyberinfrastructure make it possible for the original language material to be accessible to linguists and native speaker communities over the Internet, a capability that did not exist until quite recently.

Whalen says linguists are redoubling their efforts to document endangered languages because time is short. More than 70 languages have received attention through grants from the DEL program.

“While this is a promising beginning, there are many languages still in need of further documentation,” said Whalen. “With a permanent program backing up this work, the field of linguistics can expect to do a better job of recording this uniquely human heritage for future scientists and language users.”

Link to original announcement here

Fellowship opportunity for Amazonian linguists

The University of Florida has recently announced a fellowship program for profesionals and scholars from countries that include areas of Greater Amazonia: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, or Venezuela. The fellowship pays for study at the University of Florida, with the aim of producing academic works linked to the conservation of Amazonian rainforests. A colleague of mine who is involved with this program informed me that they would consider applications from linguists whose work overlaps with issues relevant to conservation, such as work on traditional environmental knowledge (e.g. zoological and botantical lexical knowledge). Further information is available online in Spanish here, Portuguese here, and English here.

Dissertation on Apinajé phonology and education

For those who are not subscribed to the etnolinguistica listserve — a must, btw, for Amazonianists — I wanted to mention the online availability of a recent dissertation, here:

Albuquerque, Francisco Edvige. 2008. Contribuição da fonologia ao processo de educação indígena Apinajé. Universidade Federal do Tocantins.

The dissertation focuses on a re-study of Apinajé phonology, and the implications of the results of this study for the Apinajé orthography and the teaching materials used in Apinajé bilingual education programs. On the phonological front, the author concludes that previous analyses of the Apinajé phonological inventory were flawed due to the inclusion of three nasal mid vowels, which he concludes are not contrastive in Apinajé. He includes a very interesting discussion of the practical and political issues surrounding the Apinajé orthography raised by the new phonological findings.

(For Mac users: The pdf file was not readable with Preview; it comes out fine with Acrobat Reader.)

New research website

Recently I have been putting most of my so-called spare time into putting together a website that describes my research projects and provides links to most of my publications. As a result I have been neglecting this blog, but the site is now up, and can be viewed here. Comments and questions are, of course, very welcome.