Linguistic Diversity and the Amazonian Puzzle


ACLS Fellowship Program




Lowland South America’s striking linguistic diversity presents a major puzzle to scholars of language and human prehistory. This project explores the role that sociocultural practices have played in generating and maintaining this diversity, and argues that linguistic differentiation across Amazonian groups is not so much a factor of isolation, but rather of interaction. Evidence includes the recurrence of multilingual regional ‘systems’ across the Amazon basin, characterized by similarly essentializing views linking language and identity, and accompanied by restrained lexical borrowing and code-switching on the one hand, but convergence in grammar and discourse on the other. These phenomena may be grounded in a widespread view that social identity depends on the active maintenance of contrasts, including those relating to language.