Linguistics Department

Rusty Barrett (University of Kentucky) "Braiding words: Grammatical differentiation and the place of contemporary poetry in indigenous language revitalization"

Tue, January 31, 2012 | BEN 2.104

4:00 PM - 5:00 PM

Grammatical differentiation refers to the exaggeration of structural differences between
languages in contact (e.g. Campbell and Muntzel 1989, Gal and Irvine 2001). Prior research on
grammatical differentiation in Mayan language revitalization (Barrett 2008) has shown that in
everyday conversations, younger speakers of Sipakapense Maya are avoiding structures that
overlap with Spanish, even in cases where the overlap is coincidental (and does not result from
contact). However, new research suggests that this differentiation is limited to specific parts of
grammar. Although some features of Sipakapense (word order, null object NPs, and resumptive
pronouns) show differentiation, other parts of the language show convergence in which marked
Mayan structures are in decline (e.g. ideophones and the instrumental voice). In language
revitalization, as specific structures come to be associated with new domains for indigenous
language use, grammatical differentiation plays a central role in the development of indexical
markers of discourse contexts. Thus, the patterns of differentiation found in everyday
conversation will differ from those found in other discourse contexts, such as formal speech or
verbal art. This talk presents research on grammatical differentiation in the emergence of
syncretic forms of verbal art, focusing on the use of ideophones in contemporary Mayan poetry.
The talk will describe a quantitative analysis of three types of K’iche’ poetic language:
traditional ceremonial language, poetry written by children in a bilingual education program, and
the work of Humberto Ak’abal (the most prominent and widely published poet writing in
K’iche’). The findings demonstrate that the use of ideophones is comparatively higher in
Ak’abal’s poetry even though his work does not preserve the traditional structural forms
associated with traditional K’iche’ verbal art (such as the use of couplets). The results suggest
that the development of syncretic forms of verbal art may aid in the conservation and
documentation of marked grammatical forms that are declining in other discourse contexts.


Dr. Barrett is an Assistant Professor, English Department/Linguistics Program, University of Kentucky.

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