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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Language Contact, Maintenance, and Diversification: A View from Amazonia



Patience Epps


Variable patterns of linguistic diversity around the globe suggest that historical processes of diversification, maintenance, and contact have applied in significantly different ways from one region to the next. While this variability is undoubtedly linked to a range of factors, such as geography, latitude, demographics, etc. (e.g. Nichols 1992, Nettle 1999, Collard & Foley 2002, Currie & Mace 2009, Gavin et al. 2013), it is also anchored in local sociocultural practices and ideologies (e.g. Thomason and Kaufman 1988, Epps forthcoming, Di Carlo forthcoming). This point comes into particular focus in small-scale speech communities, where speakers’ attitudes toward interaction with speakers of other languages – and the linguistic outcomes of that interaction – may vary considerably, both across regions and in comparison with larger-scale urban and/or globalized contexts.

The Amazon basin offers an intriguing illustration of the degree to which processes of diversification and maintenance may vary in global perspective. Despite being the last continent reached by human expansion, Amazonia harbors extreme linguistic diversity on the level of language families; moreover, most of these families have only a few members, and a high proportion are isolates – implying long-term processes of maintenance with constrained diversification. While earlier accounts assumed these outcomes to be a factor of small, isolated populations, recent work suggests that pre-Colombian Amazonia was spanned by intensely interactive multilingual networks.

The Vaupés region of northwest Amazonia offers a glimpse into one region’s version of multilingual interaction, and its linguistic implications. In the Vaupés, where multilingual interaction is enabled in part by the local marriage practice of linguistic exogamy, many of our expectations about the outcomes of contact appear to be turned on their heads: High levels of multilingualism are accompanied by closely constrained code-switching, low rates of lexical borrowing (with more verbs borrowed than nouns), heavy structural diffusion, and the apparent absence and/or invisibility of shift among local languages. While seemingly highly unusual in cross-linguistic perspective, a wider lens reveals that comparable dynamics, and similar linguistic outcomes, are found elsewhere in Amazonia as well. Moreover, a large-scale survey of lexical and grammatical contact effects in some 60 northern Amazonian languages indicates that a close association between language maintenance and language contact has been widespread, despite regional variation.

Finally, a still wider lens allows us to compare the dynamics of language contact, maintenance, and diversity in Amazonia with those in other regions of the world – such as northern Cameroon, Vanuatu, and Arnhem Land – and consider how these dynamics may be structured by particular sociocultural practices and attitudes associating language and social group membership. Given the likelihood that most of human history was characterized by small-scale, multilingual societies, this exploration leads us to consider the degree to which our understanding of processes of language contact and change may be guided by broad-brush uniformitarian principles, and how our understanding of the limitations of those principles depends on fine-grained investigations of languages spoken in diverse regions and sociocultural contexts.

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