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Subsistence pattern and contact-driven language change

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A view from the Amazon basin

image of Language Dynamics and Change

While it is well known that processes of contact-driven language change are sensitive to socio-cultural factors, the question of whether these apply differently among hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists has engendered considerable debate. These dynamics have been particularly underexplored in the Amazon basin, where high linguistic diversity has until very recently been coupled with a dearth of quality documentation. This investigation undertakes a systematic assessment of the effects of contact on fourteen languages (representing six distinct language families/isolates), spoken by northern Amazonian peoples whose subsistence practices all involve a relative emphasis on hunting and gathering. The effects of contact are assessed via an extensive survey of lexical and grammatical data from nearly a hundred languages of this region, and take into account lexical borrowing, Wanderwort distributions, and grammatical convergence. This comparative approach indicates that most Amazonian foraging-focused peoples have been heavily involved in regional interactive networks over time, as have their more horticulture-dominant neighbors, but that the linguistic effects of contact are variable across subsistence pattern. While subsistence thus does not appear to be correlated with the degree of contact-driven change experienced by the languages of this region, it is, on the other hand, a strong predictor of the direction of influence, which favors a unidirectional farmer-to-forager linguistic transmission.

Affiliations: 1: University of Texas at Austin


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