UT researcher talks about clues to Amazonian language diversity

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Sociocultural factors might explain the large variety of distinct languages in an Amazonian region of Brazil, linguistics associate professor Patience Epps said during a Department of Anthropology seminar Monday. 

Epps said the diversity of languages spoken in Lowland South America is not because of geographic isolation but rather cultural contact between different language groups. 

“If we look at the ethnographic and archaeological record for Lowland South America, it doesn’t look like there’s been a great deal of isolation — at least not in the last thousand years or so,” Epps said.

Epps collected much of her data from the Hup people in the Upper Rio Negro, in a region that, worldwide, is rivaled only by New Guinea in the number of distinct indigenous languages it boasts. Her work has been funded by a variety of sources, including the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities. 

According to Epps, multilingualism is notably widespread in the region where, because of unique marriage practices, people grow up in communities speaking half a dozen languages. 

“One of the things that’s been most stressed in the ethnographic literature about this region is the practice of linguistic exogamy,” Epps said. “This means you have to marry somebody who comes from a different language group.” 

Epps said the use of language as a symbol of ethnic affiliation and ritual ceremonial discourse as a vehicle for language transmission can also be used to explain high levels of language diversity and suggested there may be other regional systems that parallel these patterns she observed in her work with the Hup people. 

“My argument is that, if one really gets into the ethnographic and linguistic literature and explores it, there are in fact quite a number of these places that could be called regional systems that bear such striking parallels to what we’ve just seen in the Upper Rio Negro region,” Epps said. 

Anthropology professor Deborah Bolnick said the seminar series is a way to bring in scholars who are working on topics of interest that intersect with work that people in the department
are doing. 

“There’s a lot of people in the department who work on different kinds of research with indigenous Americans in North America and South America, with archaeology, with linguistics, with genetics and this intersects with that work,” Bolnick said.