Home / Colloquium: Linguistic diversification in Amazonia and its social and cultural correlates


Title: Linguistic diversification in Amazonia and its social and cultural correlates

Speaker: Dr. Thiago Chacon (University of Brasilia)

Date: Friday, 30 October, 14:00

Venue: Zoom, Link will be published on the day before the talk


Amazonia is home for 52 language families, a figure that corresponds to more than 10% of the world’s linguistic genetic diversity. Nevertheless, lineages are in general shallow, as only 7 language families (13%) have 10 or more languages. The high but shallow phylogenetic diversity is coupled with a considerable amount of internal grammatical and phonological diversity and a record of intense linguistic and cultural diffusion within regional and long-distance networks (Campbell 2012). While the diversity of Amazonian language families cannot be explained by a monophyletic diversification within Amazonia given the recent dates of human occupation in Amazonia (∼11.000 to 8.500 BP, Heckenberger and Neves 2009) or the Americas in general, the shallow linguistic families might be consistent with a recent radiation at multiple foci points, which correlates with the recent pattern of logarithmic increase of demographic growth achieved after about 3000 BP (Arroyo-Kalin 2017, Arroyo Kalin and Riris 2020). Language and cultural diffusion is also consistent with a gendered pattern of social mobility favoring isolation of male populations and circulation of female individuals (Tarazona-Santos et al. 2001, Arias et al. 2018), as well as with the spread of Amazonia’s largest language families (Arawakan, Tupian and Cariban).
Following up this general perspective, and given what we know about language change and changes in language ecologies, in this talk I will focus on analyzing language diversification and differentiation processes and their social and cultural correlates in Amazonia. More specifically, I will be discussing 5 general hypothesis that make specific claims about a different aspect of Amazonia’s linguistic diversification processes:
1)    Multilateral inputs: multiple sources of migrations throughout history have contributed to a continuous influx of new linguistic families into Amazonia, yet most Amazonian language families also ahve their original homeland in Amazonia
2)    Deeper genealogies: many language isolates, small and mid-sized language families may actually be demonstrated to be genetically distantly related languages, while other families may actually be shown to be more internally diverse than previously thought.
3)    Regional systems: several regional centers have been continuously occupied during long periods since pre-history, suggesting different foci points of language innovations, language contact and situ diversification
4)    Higher rates of divergence despite contact: Amazonian populations have had particular social organization and cultural practices that favored higher rates of language divergence or stronger pressure to language maintenance instead of convergence and homogenization in language contact situations
5)    Divergence after shift: language spread of major indigenous and colonial languages occurred at the expenses of previously local languages, but they produced low rates of clade extinction and triggered the emergence of new target languages as local varieties of the shifting populations
I will explore the above hypotheses from findings in my research on Northwest and Northeast Amazonia, as well as in other historical sociolinguistic contexts in Amazonia and beyond. I will focus more specifically on the different nuances behind hypotheses 3), 4) and 5) which resonates with existing broad social and cultural claims about Amazonia’s linguistic and cultural evolution, such as: (i) lack of large-scale political formations fostering greater multilingualism (Neves 2011); (ii) language functioning as an indexing element of ethnic identities and boundaries against diffusion (Epps 2015); (iii) ethnic identities and social boundaries as fluid constructs promoting diffusion of linguistic and cultural traits and inter-ethnic alliances (Hornborg and Hill 2013). These social and cultural principles are actually compatible with one and another. While varying across different contexts, and making different predictions about language and culture evolution, they can be observed in fieldwork research as well as tested against wider cross-linguistic, geographical and temporal scope. I conclude by suggesting a collaborative research project combining the narrow focus of ethnographic observation of language variation and change with traditional methods in historical linguistics and large-scale quantitative approaches to assess the role of social and cultural dynamics behind linguistic process of innovation, diffusion and change across 10 small and mid-sized linguistic families in different multilingual regions in Amazonia, aiming at covering a time span of up to 5.000 years Amazonia linguistic and cultural evolution.

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