Lost Amazonian languages on the Mediterranean

Deep in the last weeks of my dissertation work, I started 2018 doing something unusual. Earlier this year I went hunting for Amazonian languages in Malgrat de Mar, a small city on the Catalan coast north of Barcelona, in the comarca of el Maresme. Anyone who knows anything about Amazonia would not go to this beach town expecting to discover lost Amazonian languages, but under its unassuming appearance Malgrat de Mar hides a small linguistic tresure.


Malgrat de Mar. Source: ca.viquipedia.org

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Darmok and Jalad in the Amazon

Language is firmly linked to communication but, just like there is more than only communication to language, communication also involves a lot more than language.

A classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Darmok features an incident involving the crew of the USS Enterprise and a starship of Tamarians, a civilization previously uncontacted by the Federation. Science-fiction is a genre heavily influenced by contacts of civilization in our own history, with aliens alternatively playing the part of destructive colonists (The War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Edge of Tomorrow) or threatened indigenous people (Avatar, District 9). The Star Trek episode Darmok is not an exception.


Captain Picard and the Tamarian captain. Video still from startrek.com

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Mythological figures: The generative field linguist

           Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead!
           Large Man: Here’s one.
           Dead Collector: Nine pence.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not dead.
           Dead Collector: What?
           Large Man: Nothing. There’s your nine pence.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not dead!
           Dead Collector: ‘Ere, he says he’s not dead.
           Large Man: Yes he is.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not.
           Dead Collector: He isn’t.
           Large Man: Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
           “Dead” Man: I’m getting better.
           Large Man: No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.

A situation similar to this scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail has played out over the last month or so in the discipline that we call linguistics. Generative linguistics has been playing the role of the “dead” man, and other linguists have tried to hand us over to the collector of dead theoretical linguistic frameworks. This all started with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech earlier this year, followed by an article by Ibbotson and Tomasello.

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Diné Bikéyah: Visiting the Navajo nation

The last of the many activities in this frenetic summer was moving from Montreal to California by car. In spite of a tight timing, we were able to squeeze in little treats along the 6000 kilometres of the route. One of them was a quick visit to Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. Known to linguists for their their Athabaskan language and to the general public for a very complex spirituality in their approach to life, the Navajo live in a breathtaking land and have a fascinating history.


Tségháhoodzání, the Window Rock.

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A Panará visiting Ottawa

This post was published at Hiatus, the newsletter of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Ottawa.

In April, the Linguistics Department received the visit of Perankô, a speaker of Panará, directly from the Brazilian Amazon.  He came to Ottawa as the first step of a documentation grant awarded to Bernat by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) to document the Panará language for digital archiving (http://elar.soas.ac.uk/deposit/0418), but also as a way to contribute to his understanding of the Western world, of the situation of native American societies and languages in North America, and as an enriching personal experience. All along the 20 days that he spent here, we filmed him explaining his experiences in Panará so that he can have a vivid token of his visit.

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