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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Unravelling the Development of Grammatical Relations in Shiwiar (Chicham, Ecuador)



Martin Kohlberger


Since the early 1990s there has been an increased concern for language endangerment in the field of linguistics (Hale et al. 1992). Especially in the last fifteen years, unprecedented financial support, technological advancements and more developed standards of practice have made it possible for linguists to document natural discourse and interaction in many endangered languages. In this presentation, I will highlight the importance of naturalistic data in enriching our understanding of language use and, consequently, the functional motivations underlying language change. Specifically, I will show that the development of the complex system of grammatical relations in Shiwiar, an endangered language of eastern Ecuador, can be unravelled by examining patterns of language use in interactional data collected during fieldwork between 2011 and 2016. The interaction of syntax, semantics and pragmatics is known to play an important role in the marking of grammatical relations in many languages (Croft 2003; Dixon 1979; Silverstein 1976), resulting in varying degrees of syntactic complexity in the marking of core arguments. Shiwiar is a Chicham language spoken by 1,200 people in the north-western Amazon. It is a highly synthetic language with both head and dependent marking. Grammatical relations are manifested through a complex system involving morphological coding (case marking on nouns and cross-referencing of core arguments on verbs) as well as syntactic behaviour (switch-reference and nominalisations). Interestingly, arguments behave differently depending on their person and number. In terms of pronominal indexing on the verb, Shiwiar distinguishes subject (S/A) and object (P/T/R). In finite clauses, subjects are always indexed, but only objects which are speech act participant (1st and 2nd person) are indexed. In ditransitive clauses, only one object is indexed: if there is more than one speech act participant object, the 1st person object is indexed preferentially. This suggests that there is a person hierarchy (1 > 2 > 3) at play in Shiwiar argument marking.

Example 1
wii nuatkuŋɡa, amiŋɡa waanak ajuɾatɲuithjamɨ̃.
wii nua-t-ku-n=ka ami-n-ka waa-na-k a-ju-ra-t-ɲu-it-hamɨ̃-i
‘If I marry you, I’ll only feed you tinamou (a bird).’

On the other hand, in terms of morphological flagging on nouns and pronouns, Shiwiar manifests a pragmatically conditioned alignment split: clauses with 1SG/3 subjects have nominative-accusative alignment with accusative-marked objects whereas in clauses with 1PL/2 subjects, speech act participant objects are accusative-marked and 3rd person objects are not marked for case (examples 2-3). This split is much more difficult to account for hierarchically. 

Example 2
numin atʃikhjaj.
numi-n atʃi-k-ha-i 
stick-ACC grab-PFV-1SG-DECL 
‘I grabbed a stick.’
Example 3
numi atʃikmɨ̃.
numi atʃi-k-mɨ̃-i 
stick grab-PFV-2SG-DECL 
‘You grabbed a stick.’

The data from Shiwiar raises questions about the diachronic origin of this complex system of argument marking. While differential object marking is common in the world’s languages, a split between 1SG/3 person and 1PL/2 person is rare. Unlike the case of object indexing on verbs in Shiwiar, it is difficult to account for this pattern with a straightforward hierarchical explanation. However, the motivation for this split becomes apparent when examining natural discourse in Shiwiar.

A 21-hour corpus of Shiwiar collected over the past five years, including 11 hours of conversational and interactional data, reveals that the vast majority of clauses in discourse have first person singular and third person subjects. Second person and first person plural subjects occur much more rarely, and have a similarly low frequency of occurrence. Furthermore, in the cases when second person and first person plural subjects are used, the object of the clause is overwhelmingly a speech act participant. Crucially, the frequency of occurrence of specific person/number combinations precisely mirrors the distribution of differential accusative marking in Shiwiar, suggesting that the alignment split may have been motivated by patterns of frequency in usage.

Without natural discourse data, a usage-based motivation of morphological marking of grammatical relations in Shiwiar would not have been uncovered. Examining discourse practices, stylistic behaviour and language contact (as shown by Mithun 2012) can shed much light on the historical development of these systems. This highlights the central importance of collecting natural discourse and interaction data when documenting endangered languages.


Croft, William. 2003. Typology and Universals. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1979. Ergativity. Language 55:59–138.

Hale, Ken, Michael Krauss, Lucille J. Watahomigie, Akira Y. Yamamoto, Colette Craig, LaVerne Masayesva Jeanne & Nora C. England. 1992. Endangered languages. Language 68(1). 1–42.

Mithun, Marianne. 2012. Core argument patterns and deep genetic relations: Hierarchical systems in Northern California. In Bernard Comrie, ed., Typology of Argument Structure and Grammatical Relations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 257–294.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Hierarchy of features and ergativity. In Grammatical categories in Australian languages, ed. R. M. W. Dixon, 112–71. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

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