Workshop: “Towards a typology of regional multilingual systems: West Africa and Amazonia” by Rachel Watson


museo de indio

At the end of August I was lucky enough to fly out to Rio as part of the London delegation for the second leg of the British Academy International Partnership and Mobility scheme cooked up by Friederike Lüpke, Kris Stenzel and Bruna Franchetto to compare our work on multilingualism on opposite sides of the Atlantic and explore possibilities for future collaborations. Kris and Bruna were in London last December for the first workshop where we had a real broad introduction of all things multilingual in West Africa, Amazonia and beyond. This time, at the beautiful, Museu do Índio, the focus was less exploratory and more detailed, we really got into the nuts and bolts of many different diverse multilingual situations.

For someone who works in a region (Casamance) that can be traversed in any direction in a day it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the area across which our Brazilian colleagues fieldsites are spread.  We had more than 10 presentations on different multilingual settings within Amazonia and West Africa which each painted pictures of such different situations, showing how subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences in history, geography and culture can result in important differences. We hope that these observations will be published as a collaborative paper in the not too distant future – in the meantime there follows a (relatively) brief summary of what we learnt. For me the talks could be roughly divided into 3 themes: multilingual settings, contact phenomena, and methodology, although of course all talks contained aspects from each of these.

Multilingual settings

Cariban bilingualism in the Tumucumaque Area: the Wayana-Apalaí and Katxuyana-Tiriyó cases

Sergio Meira, Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR), Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil

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Sergio spoke about patterns of apparently permanent bilingualism between groups in the Tumucumaque Area who live together and often intermarry. Interestingly the patterns of multilingualsim do not appear to be fully symmetrical – some groups are less inclined to acquire the language of their neighbours.  He also spoke about the difficulty of working on multilingual data and doing comparative work between closely related languages – something we definitely relate to working on Joola languages in Casamance.

The Kheuól from Uaçá: aspects of its formation in a multilingual and multiethnic context

Glauber Romling da Silva, Federal University of Amapá (UNIFAP)


Glauber also provided a detailed social and historical account of the factors leading to the emergence of the creole Kheól  (the only creole language spoken in the Brazilian territory) and its role as an L1 identity language for some populations in the Indigenous Land of Uaçá (city of Oiapoque, state of Amapá, Brazil, on the French Guyana border). This talk also stimulated some very lively discussion on how we can understand the terms creole, L1, identity language etc.

Upper Xingu, a multilingual regional system in Southern Amazonia

Bruna Franchetto, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)

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Bruna took us through a journey of the history, culture and languages of the Upper Xingu, a multi-ethnic and multilingual regional system of southern Amazonia.  She distinguished between micro-level multilingualism involving dialect diversity, as compared to macro-level multilingualism involving interaction between groups speaking languages with different genetic origins. In yet another parallel that is recognisable from the Casamance situation she spoke of the dialectic between linguistic purism and the notion of ‘mixed languages’ and ‘mixed people’.

The Upper Rio Negro – a brief introduction

Kristine Stenzel, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)


The Upper Rio Negro is yet another wildly multilingual system composed of over twenty-five ethnic groups, (speakers of East Tukano, Arawak, Nadahup, and Kakua-Nɨkak languages, in addition to Nheengatú – a widespread lingua franca of Tupi-Guarani origin transported to the region in the early eighteenth century) in which multilingualism is maintained and motivated by exchange relations including trade, marriage networks, political alliances and cultural practices. Kris also spoke about ideologies of linguistic purity – linked to notions of social identity –  being a major force in counteracting convergence.

Language in multiethnic societies in Rondônia

Hein van der Voort, Emílio Goeldi Museum, Pará (MPEG)


Hein introduced us to the astonishing linguistic diversity present in Rondônia where over 25 languages from 10 different stocks and as many as 7 isolates are found in a region the size of Germany, as well as a fascinating account of the history of linguistic research in the area. Sadly this was one of the more sobering talks, as Hein showed how most of these languages are critically endangered for reasons of the many violent acts committed by settler colonists including deforestations, relocation, introduction of disease and other atrocities. It is certain that such things affect all levels of identity, language use, ideologies at the most profound level. While the Upper Guinea coast has surely seen more than its fair share of violent acts these are qualitatively and temporarily distinguishable from those having taken place in Amazonia and these facts must be taken into account when comparing multilingual systems and speakers on the two sides of the Atlantic.

People and languages in the Trombetas and Mapuera rivers region, Pará

Leonor Valentino, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)


Leonor showed how myriad and very recent historical factors have shaped multilingualism in  the Trombetas and Mapuera river basins (in the northeastern part of the state of Pará), again sadly underlining colonist violence, but also presenting linguistic diversity as a form of resilience. Many of the Carib and Arawak populations of the region were wiped out by epidemics and conflicts aggravated by contact with colonizers, and many of their descendants either migrated or were transferred to Christian missions. This has resulted in a delicate configuration of a surprisingly large number of languages, many of which are highly endangered.

‘Tikinhü ake kitandu ügühütu engagü: the pathways of marriage with other people’

Mutua Mehinaku


Mutua was the second indigenous student of the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at UFRJ (National Museum). He presented a synthesis of the second chapter of his master’s dissertation, defended in 2010. Marriages between individuals who speak different languages is one of the paths leading to the maintenance and reproduction of the Upper Xingu multilingual system. The ethnography of his own parents’ marriage (father Mehinaku, a speaker of an Arawak language and mother Kuikuro, who speaks a variety of the Upper Xinguan Carib language) was the starting point for Mutua to discuss the tensions between an ideology of maintaining linguistic differences and the concept and (negative) value of tetsualü (in Kuikuro), the current mixture of people, languages and traditions.

Ritual language and politics in the Upper Xingu multilingual society

Antonio Guerreiro, Universidade Estadual de Campinas


Antonio treated us to an account of language in musical genres, where people from different groups in the Upper Xingu creatively and strategically use their own or neighbours languages in songs to produce political relations both at local and regional scales. This again seems to echo the hypothesis that retaining distinct languages is motivated by the need to index and exploit strategic political alliances.

Listening to Nheengatu history through the voices of Baré, Baniwa and Werekena

Aline da Cruz, Federal University of Goias (UFG/NTL)


Aline presented both a historical background on the development and spread of Nheengatu, and a contemporary account base on personal testimonies from Baré, Baniwa, and Werekena people. This talk also simulated interesting discussion – this time largely based around Aline’s reactions to a question she often receives from colleagues and indigenous communities, about the ethics of spending time and money documenting a ‘killer language’. Of course, as has already been mentioned, a particular sensitivity to  factors contributing to language endangerment are appropriate in such settings. However, we must remember that it is not the languages themselves that are killers, and that the greater understanding we have of all situations of language endangerment the better equipped we may be to mitigate them.

Pantanal bugre

Gustavo Godoy, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (PPGAS, Museu Nacional-UFRJ) 


Gustavo gave us another demonstration of complexity in a multilingual system – this time with regards to the history of multilingual and multicultural indigenous populations of the Pantanal region and its environs, and their relations of interaction based on the trade of metals.  Since this indigenous configuration has been destroyed by colonization, epidemics, natural disasters and national wars, Gustavo showed the importance of archaeological and historical evidence in interpreting the dynamics of multilingual settings.

Minha vida com cinco línguas – My life with five languages

Francineia Bitencourt Fontes, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)

my life.jpg

Francineia is an indigenous student of the Graduate Program in Social Anthropology at UFRJ (National Museum). In her talk, she discussed some of her experiences as a speaker of Baniwa and Nheengatú, two of the major languages spoken in the multilingual environment of the city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira. She also described her work at the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Upper Rio Negro (FOIRN), which allowed her to travel extensively throughout the region and gain additional insights into the regional multilingual system.

The Casamance conceptualised as an area hosting small-scale multilingual societies

Friederike Lüpke, SOAS, University of London


Friederike carried the torch for the eastern side of the Atlantic space introducing the relatively small but richly diverse region of the Casamance. Again, we were shown how a small and diverse area reveals ever deeper strata of internal diversity contingent on differing constellations of interaction on the local and individual levels. Yet again, the tension between purist ideologies (for both speakers and researchers) and variation in multilingual discourse was discussed, and moreover the fact that conceptualization of language in any situation is dependent on perspective.

Contact phenomena

On the long duration of linguistic diversity in the Northwest Amazon: the Tukano, the Arawak and the regional systems

Thiago Chacon, University of Brasília (UnB)


Thiago presented data providing evidence for ancient and continuous contacts between Arawakan, Tukanoan and neighbouring languages from the Northwest Amazon. It is inspiring to see historical methods being used to show patterns of contact and how Thiago draws subtle distinctions between direct and indirect diffusion processes, dominance patterns as well broader patterns of areal relationships are also explored.

Languages in contact in the Upper and Middle Rio Negro: the contribution of the Nadahup family

Luciana R. Storto, University of São Paulo (USP)


Luciana also presented lots of complex data from the Nadahup language family, including from phonetic and phonological, aspectual and lexical domains. I really appreciate these talks, because speaking personally it can become easy to become lost in the overwhelming complexity of variation. These talks are welcome reminders of good solid linguistic techniques that can be applied with high levels of success to illuminate patterns of contact between the human beings who spoke these language, provided that, as these presenters underscored, they are interpreted in conjunction with rich sociolinguistic, historical, anthropological, and basically any other information we can get our hands on. In fact for me this seemed to be pretty much the manifesto that emerged from the workshop.


Several presentations focussed on methodologies. I gave two talks that discussed some of the challenges we have encountered and solutions we have come up with regards to epistemology and data management respectively.

Describing the indescribable: towards a multidimensional research model for the study of small-scale multilingualism

Rachel Watson, SOAS, University of London


This talk described the challenges I (and other team members) have faced in analysing multilingual data, when we have no real reliable benchmark for what constitutes the languages involved, how people’s repertories are structured, and which sort of communicative contexts affect the use of different languages in discourse. The conclusions (which also became a running theme in the methodology talks) are that research of this type requires in-depth investigation of naturalistic data combined with rich ethnographic data, and conducted in an iterative fashion.

Going with the (work)flow: tailoring data management protocols to a complex research cycle

Rachel Watson, SOAS, University of London

My second talk was purely procedural and detailed the process we have been through in designing a robust data management workflow that ensures our large amounts of primary language use data pass smoothly through numerous people, places and stages of processing to become a useable corpus.

Multilingual interactions and code-switching in a Desano-Siriano community (Northwest Amazon)

Wilson Silva, Rochester Institute of Technology


Wilson works in the Vaupés Region in Northwest Amazonia and importantly draws attention to the fact that many communities are highly multilingual despite persistent claims to the contrary in the literature. In this talk he gave some insights into practical solutions for investigating this sort of multilingualism in the face of prevailing monolingual and/or purist ideologies on the part of both speakers and researchers – play games!

Developing/conducting sociolinguistic surveys in multilingual regions

Hein van der Voort, Thiago Chacon, Flora Cabalzar & Kristine Stenzel. Luciana Storto


Here we had several short presentations on different methods of sociolinguistic data collection. Kris presented a pilot study of multilingualism and language vitality in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Some 1200 high school students responded to an extensive sociolinguistic questionnaire developed for the region and some administered the same questionnaire to members of their families. Data from the study revealed different linguistic profiles among the city’s five high schools, highlighted patterns of language use in different public and home settings and tendencies toward language loss, and provided an initial look at speakers’ attitudes toward indigenous and national languages.

Hein and Thiago presented the detailed surveys of the type administered to indigenous communities in Amazonia. While there was some discussion about the type of essentialist ideologies (with respect to both language and ethnic affiliation), for me these questionnaires present an important perspective (one of many) into the dialogue on multilingualism in Amazonia, and are probably emblematic of some sort of crucial difference between the Amazonian and West African cases.  A particular light-bulb moment for me came from Luciana’s presentation of research using biographies and maps to gather rich sociolinguistic information from individuals. We know that time and space are so central to language use at all levels so this enterprise to represent this was really inspiring.

Puck and Pajek (Antonio Guerreiro)

antonio networks

We also had an inspiring impromptu presentation from Antonio on the possibilities on the kinship software Puck and networking software Pajek. These applications can do impressive stuff – although its often been my experience that, they can sometimes fail to do such impressive stuff when it’s me and not the IT whizz who is calling the shots. Nonetheless I am a keen if inexperienced convert to the possibilities of digital humanities tools and approaches and am going to put some time and energy aside to play with these tools, particularly Pajek for which I see possibilities not just for mapping social or kinship networks but for visualizing lexical and grammatical distance between different named languages.

The post is already too long, so I’ll spare the details of our long (2 day!) discussion session, the two films showing multilingualism in Senegal and Amazonia, the private view of the collection of beadwork of our hosts Museo de Índio, and not to mention the Friday night party at Kris’s.  If I were to crystallize what I took away from the workshop it would be a reinforcement of the notion that multilingualism is really a natural and pervasive state of human societies, while the exact nature of that multilingualism is contingent on many and complex factors that we are just beginning to better understand. As I may have mentioned we plan to get out a paper with a rather lengthy list of authors in the not too distant future so watch this space…



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