This is a Round Table meeting of the LCRC, Wednesday 4 July, at 4 pm in A4-222.

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

A language on the move: the ephemeral nature of linguistic contact in Amazonia




The Amazonian region is renowned for its linguistic diversity. Speakers of many Amazonian languages are multilingual. The languages they speak inevitably influence each other, in pronunciation, grammatical categories, and vocabulary items. Intensive contact between closely related language groups may result in a curious situation of language merge — exacerbated by frequent migrations, impending language obsolescence, and high individual variation.

            Kumandene Tariana, spoken by c.40 people in the community of Santa Terezinha on the Iauari river (tributary of the Vaupés River) in north-west Amazonia, is a case in point. The Kumandene Tariana intermarry with the Baniwa, speakers of a closely related language. This agrees with the principle of 'linguistic exogamy' common to most indigenous people within the Vaupés River Basin linguistic area (marrying someone who speaks the same language is 'what dogs do'). Baniwa is the majority language in the community. Over the past fifty years, speakers of Kumandene Tariana have acquired numerous Baniwa-like features. The choice of features varies depending on the speaker, and on the audience. The effects of language contact are in a flux.

            This is reminiscent of some well-known 'merged' languages — Portunhol (an ad-hoc mixture of Portuguese and Spanish on the border areas in South America), Spanglish, and the like. But just how similar are they?