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Inheritance, calquing, or independent innovation? Reconstructing morphological complexity in Amazonian numerals

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The reconstruction of morphologically complex forms offers familiar problems. As illustrated by textbook examples like Bloomfield’s seemingly reconstructable anachronism—Algonquian ‘fire-water’ for ‘whisky’—the existence of corresponding complex forms across related languages can alternatively be attributed to calquing or parallel independent innovation. This paper considers the problem of accounting for the history of complex forms in the context of the northwest Amazon, where lexical borrowing is actively resisted but calquing is rampant. Where complex forms are widely shared across related and unrelated languages, is there any hope of identifying their source, or establishing their relative age in particular groups of languages? I focus in particular on numeral terms, which reveal considerable complexity among northwest Amazonian languages. I evaluate the challenges encountered in gauging the time-depth and reconstructability of morphologically complex forms, and the criteria—comparative, typological, and geographical—that must be brought to bear in weighing more or less probable histories of complex forms.

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