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Studies Of Amazonian Languages Challenge Linguistic Theories

August 16, 2005
University of Chicago Press Journals
Two studies that appear in the August/October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology challenge established linguistic theories regarding the language families of Amazonia.

Two studies that appear in the August/October 2005 issue ofCurrent Anthropology challenge established linguistic theoriesregarding the language families of Amazonia.

New research by DanEverett (University of Manchester) into the language of the Pirahãpeople of Amazonas, Brazil disputes two prominent linguistic ideasregarding grammar and translation. The Pirahã are intelligent, highlyskilled hunters and fishers who speak a language remarkable for thecomplexity of its verb and sound systems. Yet, the Pirahã language andculture has several features that not known to exist in any other inthe world and lacks features that have been assumed to be found in allhuman groups. The language does not have color words or grammaticaldevices for putting phrases inside other phrases. They do not havefiction or creation myths, and they have a lack of numbers andcounting. Despite 200 years of contact, they have steadfastly refusedto learn Portuguese or any other outside language. The unifying featurebehind all of these characteristics is a cultural restriction againsttalking about things that extend beyond personal experience. Thisrestriction counters claims of linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, thatgrammar is genetically driven system with universal features. Despitethe absence of these allegedly universal features, the Pirahãcommunicate effectively with one another and coordinate simple tasks.Moreover, Pirahã suggests that it is not always possible to translatefrom one language to another.

In addition, Alf Hornborg's (LundUniversity) research into the Arawak language family counters thecommon interpretation that the geographical distribution of languagesin Amazonia reflects the past migrations of the inhabitants. At thetime of Christopher Columbus, the Arawak language family ranged fromCuba to Bolivia. Yet, geneticists have been unable to find significantcorrelations between genes and languages in the Amazonia. Moreover,Arawakan languages spoken in different areas show more similarities totheir non-Arawakan neighbors than to each other, suggesting that theymay derive from an early trade language. As well, Arawak languages aredistributed along major rivers and coastlines that served as traderoutes, and Arawak societies were dedicated to trade and intermarriagewith other groups. But, the dispersed network of Arawak-speakingsocieties may have caused ethnic wedges between other, moreconsolidated language families with which they would have engaged intrade and warfare. Finally, there is increased evidence that languageshifts were common occurrences among the peoples of Amazonia and wereused as a way to signal a change in identity, particularly whenentering into alliances, rather than migratory movement.


Sponsoredby the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, CurrentAnthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research onhumankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarshipon human cultures and on the human and other primate species.Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in awide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physicalanthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology andprehistory, folklore, and linguistics. For more information, please seeour website:

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