Ghwǘǜb, an Amazonian language spoken by a single community, initially appears to be the epitome of a linguistic isolate, perhaps the remnant of a formerly wide-
spread language community whose speakers acquired the language of, or were displaced by, those of a different group moving into the area. Recent archeological evidence, as well as data from genetic survey research, has called this interpretation into question, however. This paper argues that an acquired isolation mechanism, driven by a confluence of genetic and cultural factors, is responsible for the “faux isolate” status of the language.
One of the more predictable byproducts of the ongoing enterprise among historical linguists to classify languages into families is the identification of isolates, languages which do not appear to have any extant relatives. The initial assessment of a language as an isolate is typically followed by intensive and careful examination of possible connections that may have been obscured via perfectly normal sound changes; this process has, over the years, decreased the number of languages considered true isolates, but some, of course, remain. Basque is the textbook example; despite varied attempts to relate it to other stocks, such as Etruscan, proto-
Linguists widely agree on what the likely process is that gives rise to isolates: the replacement of surrounding related languages by those of a different family, leaving only one of the originals surviving. In a pure example, one might expect the speakers of this language to preserve cultural traditions different from those of the surrounding communities, but language and culture can be disjoined to some extent, and cultural influences can cross linguistic boundaries. One rarely encounters pure examples in real life. When one does run across an example that seems too perfect to be true, it is reasonable to be suspicious. And this brings us to Ghwǘǜb.
Ghwǘǜb is an Amazonian language, with one community of speakers located on the varzea of the Tairani River, a tributary of the Amazon located in the southwest of the central basin. Initial fieldwork, carried out during part of a survey of several tribal groups in the area, produced a picture of a people whose language (and lifeways) adhered so closely to the archetype of an isolate that the researchers felt it necessary to perform a more extensive study, which became even more strongly motivated when geneticists doing research in the same area announced results that ran exactly contrary to what would have been predicted by linguists, assuming even a very loose correlation between marriage patterns and language groupings. The following sections will detail the characteristics of the Ghwǘǜb-
Initial references to the Ghwǘǜb community are found in Schankelvekker (1898), who refers to them using the name Yaribogenadrea, a label given them by the neighboring Torikara. Schankelvekker did not encounter the Ghwǘǜb herself, and was doing only a preliminary anthropological survey of the Torikara, with whom she communicated via a Guaraní-
Yar- i- bo- gai- ena- re- a those- clothing- provide- mat.parent- bad- ADJL- nzr
Fortunately, the Torikara use this name only for the Ghwǘǜb, not any of the other tribes in the area, so matching them with Schankelvekker’s fieldwork was nonproblematic. Her notes describe the Ghwǘǜb and their language only briefly, as an aside to a discussion of the extensive relations the Torikara have with tribes in the area other than the Ghwǘǜb (p. 629; English translation by the authors):
Most of the villages along this stretch of the river trade regularly with one another, and there is a Torikara term, tasivaodo, [‘go-
and- get- er’ —Ed.] for specific villagers who do this frequently; the trade networks also function for arranging marriages and the frequent potlatch- type dinners by which clusters of villages exchange surplus goods. The only tribe with which they do not often trade is the Yaribogenadrea, whose village lies to the southwest. The Torikara seem to find these people offensive in some way; much derisive laughter accompanied their description of the tribe. They occasionally do trade copper with the Yaribogenadrea, however, in return for the colorful feathers of a bird mostly indigenous to the latter’s territory. I was unable to visit their village, though, and therefore cannot include cranial measurements.1
No linguistic work on the Ghwǘǜb was done until that documented in Schadenpoodle (2008); the portions of this article dealing with linguistic structure are summarized from that monograph. Serendipitously, genetic survey work was being done in the area by Heeliks (2003) under the auspices of the Human Genome Endeavor (partly due to the discovery, reported in Thrennesson (2002), of a FOXP2 mutation and attendant language-
Status of Ghwǘǜb as a Linguistic Isolate
Ghwǘǜb is strikingly different from any of its close (or distant) neighbors, in its phonology and in its lexicon; indeed, it shares none of the areal features that otherwise are widely distributed across languages in this part of the basin. Its phonemic inventory, described in detail in Schadenpoodle (2008), is typologically unusual; it violates at least one putative universal by having more back vowels than front ones, and some of the affricates are particularly distinctive (please note that the authors, for sake of brevity, are adopting non-
Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Stops Voiceless p t k Voiced b d g Fricatives Voiceless φ š Voiced β L ž γ Affricates Nasalized Ћ Ђ Њ Regular λ Nasals m n Liquids Unrounded l Rounded lw Glides Unaspirated y w Aspirated yh wh
- The sound denoted by Ћ is a voiced bilabial stop with voiced velar fricative release.
- Ђ is a voiced dental stop with voiced nasalized lateral release.
- Њ is a voiced velar stop with voiced nasalized lateral release.
- L denotes a voiced lateral fricative with heavy nasalization.
- The position of the affricates within syllables strongly indicates their status as unitary phonemes rather than clusters (Schadenpoodle, forthcoming).
- Since there is no phonemic /h/ in the language, the aspirated glides likewise cannot be viewed as clusters (ibid.).
Front Central Back High Spread i ı ɯ Round ü u Nasal ũ Mid Spread e ə ɤ Round ö o Nasal õ Low æ
- Tone is phonemic in Ghwǘǜb; the tone system is trinary
— rising, falling, and neutral.
While it is conceivable, of course, that extensive historical change could have produced such a system from the same substrate which gave rise to languages like Torikara, it is difficult to lend credence to such an explanation; the number of changes needed to derive Ghwǘǜb phonology from any of the proto-
Using the extended Swadesh list, and a match algorithm keyed to shared phonetic features but not phonemic identity (so, for example, both [t] and [n] were possible matches for [d]), Schadenpoodle (2008.452) carried out a lexical comparison of Ghwǘǜb with eight of the surrounding languages; he found only one word that matched that of another tribe: tarana ‘copper’
The language likewise is unlike its neighbors syntactically, although given the wide variation in Amazonian languages in this regard such a result is perhaps less surprising. While word order in Ghwǘǜb is flexible, the most common, unmarked order is
whàka- žìmЋú ö- waЊìЊ glup- bǜ tiš- nùzi- waáà hut- m.aunt:Gen Indic:Rep- Pres3 Glup- Sbj chew.ann.- srf- rep-3h
‘I heard that Glup chewed annoyingly on his maternal aunt’s hut.’
Again, although this type of construction is dissimilar to that used by any other in the area, it is less convincing as an argument for isolate status than is the fact that none of the basic grammatical functors appear to be cognate to any lexeme in those languages.
Ghwǘǜb as a Cultural Isolate
While it is not uncommon for groups sharing the same geographic area to adopt distinctive cultural traits or artifacts as a way of preserving or enhancing group identity, the Ghwǘǜb seem to represent an extreme case. Four traits in particular, are shared by no other groups in the area (summarized from Pinchtoddle, 2006):
Domestication of the Sloth. Alone among Amazonian peoples, the Ghwǘǜb train sloths (three-
toed) as a kind of living animal trap. Although the training process itself seems to take a very long time, the product is sloths that will fall from trees on animals passing underneath and then cling to them — rather like an avalanche of adhesive bowling balls. They are also, apparently, trained to attack the victim, but the animal is usually recovered by hunters well before any effect of the sloths’ ferocity is detectable. One of the traditional Ghwǘǜb dances, done yearly over the course of four days, depicts a folk story of the origin of the practice, in which Gwiuiu, the Sloth God, offers to help Pləb, the first Ghwǘǜb; the ritual text has not been extensively translated as yet, but Gwiuiu seems to be motivated by a sense of cosmic ennui.3
The Potlatch Catapult. The chief, or bliaabip, of the village is expected to give potlatch-
type feasts periodically (a trait which is shared with other groups in the region). Among the Ghwǘǜb, however, the chief launches food at individual community members using a device rather like a small catapult; catching the food in the mouth without use of the hands is considered a mark of social sophistication (the food item in question is a kind of ball, made up of sticky cooked taro paste with salted slugs embedded in it). The sole item of outside trade pursued by the tribe, copper, is in fact procured specifically for the construction of this device, which is not used in any other fashion. An individual’s order in the line leading to the catapult target site is determined by a complex set of factors.
The yhoγЂuú. This is a type of musical instrument incorporating narrow tubes within which very thin slices of reed are positioned so as to produce high-
A contemporary Ghwǘǜb bwàrp vessel (top diameter 72 cm.), used to hold taro paste during ceremonial feasts. The orientation of designs on Ghwǘǜb pottery is variable; the focal figure is at bottom right on this piece. The piece probably depicts folk- hero Plǝb charming slugs by using a nose- flute. The two figures above him are traditional representations of sloths. The wave- line design may indicate the underworld. pitched sounds when air moves over them. Distinctively, the instrument is inserted into the nose, rather than the mouth, and most players use slightly different ones in each nostril so as to produced variant effects. Adult male villagers usually play these as a group, although individual males play them as part of courtship rituals. Nose- flutes are not unknown among the world’s cultures, but they are not used elsewhere in this geographic region, and the Ghwǘǜb are rather distinctive in their deliberate manipulation of the instrument so as to produce sneezing at particular points. While Pinchtoddle has recorded performances (which can last up to six hours), they have not yet been analyzed by a musicologist. While it is a commonplace observation among anthropologists that music is not universal — one has to be familiar with the conventions of a musical form to interpret it — the basic patterns and scales used in Ghwǘǜb performances are not used by surrounding groups at all. We played recordings to the Torikara, for example, who immediately judged them as unpleasant.4
Ceramics. The other groups in the area use pottery with patterns and motifs common to those associated with the expansion of Tupic groups (cf. Brochado and Lathrap 1982, Brochado 1984, Peixoto 1995), but Ghwǘǜb ceramics are distinctive (most containers have a trapezoidal cross-
section, and decoration is primarily in the form of stick- figure abstractions of local wildlife, particularly sloths and slugs).5
Ghwǘǜb as a Genetic Non-
In complete contrast to evidence from linguistic and cultural patterns, DNA analyses consistently show that the Ghwǘǜb share a large number of markers that are otherwise uncommon in this region with neighboring groups, particularly the Torikara, Yakali, and Nerduru, forming what might be called the GTYN cluster (Heeliks 2003). Kanarati, Qanradi, and Wartaina share a subset of these markers as well, although otherwise show evidence of being closely related to Tupic groups, as might be expected. The GTYN cluster pattern emerges from both mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal analysis, indicating that relatedness is not simply a function of female outmarriage.
Furthermore, the distinctive FOXP2 variant first described by Thrennesson (2002) is also shared among members of the GTYN cluster, although only a few of those tested from the KQW cluster had it. Unlike the variant associated with SLI (cf. Lai et al. 2001; Gutiérrez-
It is important to note that the Ghwǘǜb community genotype itself is distinctive from the rest of the members of the cluster only in its homogeneity
To this point, observations have strongly, almost overwhelmingly, supported a single interpretation of the Ghwǘǜb’s status as an isolate: Proto-
Recently, Pinchtoddle’s work, along with archeological data from Arnheldsen’s (2007) survey of former village sites, has raised serious questions about the validity of the Ghwǘǜb-
More concrete evidence comes from Arnheldsen’s observations of ceramic sequences. Test digs in four abandoned village sites, as well as in midden areas in three current villages (two Torikara, one Yakali), all found Tupic pottery below a layer in which typically distinctive Ghwǘǜb pottery shards occurred, with Tupic pottery again above that. Dating of the shards themselves, as well as other stratigraphic evidence, indicates that Ghwǘǜb pottery was brought into an area already inhabited by groups using Tupic motifs. Further supporting this sequence was the discovery at one abandoned village site (A435) of the remains of a small food-
In short, the Ghwǘǜb appear to be newcomers, not a remnant. This leaves us with an obvious question: Why is Ghwǘǜb a linguistic and cultural isolate? Its speakers came from somewhere, and their descendants still live in the area even though most of them don’t speak the language. But no language related to Ghwǘǜb has been found in any portion of South America (or elsewhere).
Yakisgo may provide an answer to the question, and raise new ones for linguistics at the same time. Anthropologists have long recognized the principles of linguistic and cultural relativity, but Ghwǘǜb may be a limiting case. We must note that the only apparently successful case of non-
Basically, it appears that the Ghwǘǜb difficulty with outmarriage is a direct result of their language, and we surmise that most Proto-
Limiting cases such as the Ghwǘǜb are vital
We are, of course, keenly interested in the question of how Proto- Arnheldsen, Heraklios (2007). An initial survey of village sites in the Tairani headwaters region. Amazonian Archeological Bulletin 32(1):15-86. Brochado, J.; and Lathrap, D. (1982). Chronologies in the New World: Amazonia. Unpublished manuscript. On file at the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana- Brochado, J. (1984). An Ecological Model of the Spread of Pottery and Agriculture into Eastern South America. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor. Gutiérrez- Heeliks, Jacob (2003). A genotypic cluster analysis of fifteen upper Tairani communities. Papers in Amazonian Genetics 4(2). Lai, C. S. L.; Fisher, S. E.; Hurst, J. A.; Vargha- Leonard, Laurence (2009). Some reflections on the study of children with specific language impairment. Child Language Teaching and Therapy 25(2): 169-171. Peixoto, Jose Luis (1995). A ocupação do Tupiguarani na borda oeste do pantanal Sul- Pinchtoddle, Vasily (2006). The Repose of Travel: An Ethnography of the Torikara. Scranton, PA: Psammeticus Press. Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (1989). An initial sketch of Torikara syntax. Occasional Papers in Amazonian Linguistics 12. Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (2008). A Grammar of the Ghwǘǜb Language. Scranton, PA: Psammeticus Press. Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (forthcoming). Toward the resolution of certain problems in the phonemic analysis of Ghwǘǜb. Schankelvekker, Hortense (1898). Eine vorläufige Beschreibung der Völker der Obertairaniregion, mit einem Nachtrag über Kranialmessung. Monograph published as separate issue of the Bulletin der Archäologischen Gesellschaft von Schleswig- Tanekis, Akioni (2008). Divergence models for Ghwǘǜb are less probable than the null hypothesis. Working Papers in Statistical Diachronic Linguistics 18(3):27-34. Thrennesson, Olaf (2002). A novel FOXP2 variant is linked to language-
1 Like many an anthropologist of her era, Schankelvekker was primarily interested in carefully measuring the cranial shapes of those she studied (the Torikara apparently passed down stories of her and her vigorous use of calipers in the form of their term for anthropologists
Arnheldsen, Heraklios (2007). An initial survey of village sites in the Tairani headwaters region. Amazonian Archeological Bulletin 32(1):15-86.
Brochado, J.; and Lathrap, D. (1982). Chronologies in the New World: Amazonia. Unpublished manuscript. On file at the Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-
Brochado, J. (1984). An Ecological Model of the Spread of Pottery and Agriculture into Eastern South America. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.
Heeliks, Jacob (2003). A genotypic cluster analysis of fifteen upper Tairani communities. Papers in Amazonian Genetics 4(2).
Lai, C. S. L.; Fisher, S. E.; Hurst, J. A.; Vargha-
Leonard, Laurence (2009). Some reflections on the study of children with specific language impairment. Child Language Teaching and Therapy 25(2): 169-171.
Peixoto, Jose Luis (1995). A ocupação do Tupiguarani na borda oeste do pantanal Sul-
Pinchtoddle, Vasily (2006). The Repose of Travel: An Ethnography of the Torikara. Scranton, PA: Psammeticus Press.
Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (1989). An initial sketch of Torikara syntax. Occasional Papers in Amazonian Linguistics 12.
Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (2008). A Grammar of the Ghwǘǜb Language. Scranton, PA: Psammeticus Press.
Schadenpoodle, Athanasious (forthcoming). Toward the resolution of certain problems in the phonemic analysis of Ghwǘǜb.
Schankelvekker, Hortense (1898). Eine vorläufige Beschreibung der Völker der Obertairaniregion, mit einem Nachtrag über Kranialmessung. Monograph published as separate issue of the Bulletin der Archäologischen Gesellschaft von Schleswig-
Tanekis, Akioni (2008). Divergence models for Ghwǘǜb are less probable than the null hypothesis. Working Papers in Statistical Diachronic Linguistics 18(3):27-34.
Thrennesson, Olaf (2002). A novel FOXP2 variant is linked to language-
2 We realize that that the degree to which this phonemic inventory is unusual will likely be taken by the reader as evidence that the analysis on which it is based is probably flawed
3 Schadenpoodle (pc) has attested in great detail that such sloths are quite capable of immobilizing even a fully-
4 It should be noted at this point that the Torikara are not in the habit otherwise of being highly judgmental about music
5 The slug figures are particularly distinctive, since no other extant culture, to our knowledge, has ever applied stick-
6 The phrase used in Ghwǘǜb to refer to a successful courtship translates literally as “She got him to shut up”.