Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Danny Law (Vanderbilt University) "Parallel Development and the Case of Wastek"

Fri, February 8, 2013 | CLA 1.302B

3:00 PM - 4:30 PM


Danny Law is a candidate for a position in Historical Linguistics. 

Wastek is a Mayan language spoken today by around 150,000 people in northern Veracruz and San Luís Potosí, México, hundreds of miles from the other 29 contemporary Mayan languages. Wastek's linguistic profile, which is substantially different from other Mayan languages, and its geographical distance from related languages imply a long period of separation from the rest of the family. However, Wastek also shares multiple phonological and morphological innovations with the Ch'olan-Tseltalan subgroup of Mayan, which suggests a close relationship between them. This paper will present evidence that the similarities between Wastek and Ch'olan-Tseltalan are not inherited. Two processes of change have spurred Wastek's convergence with Ch'olan-Tseltalan languages: linguistic drift—the tendency for related languages to develop in similar ways because of common structural predispositions, and language contact. Some of the similarities between Wastek and the Ch'olan-Tseltalan languages, I argue, are innovations that have happened independently in several Mayan languages at several points in the history of that family. However, many of these shared similarities are features that my previous work has identified as characteristics of the Lowland Mayan linguistic area. This suggests that Wastek was an active participant in that linguistic sphere of interaction, despite its current geographical isolation. The case of Wastek demonstrates the significant implications of inherited linguistic structure, even for processes of language change that might be considered 'external'. It also highlights the importance of interpreting linguistic similarity through a holistic lense. Identifying and tracing the historical development of features that Wastek shares with Ch'olan-Tseltalan requires attention to patterns of linguistic innovation across the entire language family in order to disentangle the complex interweaving of contact, inheritance and drift.

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