Texan for Linguists—Katy Jo Parker and Truman ‘Tex’ Beauregard SpecGram Vol CLXI, No 3 Contents Book Review: Van Der Fort’s Guide to Field Linguistics by J. S. S. van der Fort—Webley Louis Severson III

The Cycle of Language Exchange in Pinnacle Sherpa:
new evidence for the reversibility of language shift

Keith W. Slater
Nile Kinnick Institute of Ironmen Linguistics

In Slater (2006), Slater (2010a), Slater (2010b) and Slater (2011), I reported on a series of amazing changes in Pinnacle Sherpa and its daughter languages. Briefly summarized, these changes include a massively elaborated evidential system, a secret language which is undoing its previous historical changes, a newly-created logographic writing system, and bilateral modal bifurcation resulting in no less than four instantaneously emergent daughter languages, some of which are historically older than their parent language.

It turns out I was wrong. Partly.

For those who forgot to renew their subscriptions and thus missed the previous papers, we need to reiterate that Pinnacle Sherpa has recently split into four daughter languages. Two of these are normal (more or less) historical daughter languages, but two of them are actually older than their parent language.1 These four languages are summarized in Table 1:

LanguageMediumAge groupPosition in genetic tree
Oral Modern Pinnacle
Sherpa (OMPS)
YouthDaughter of
Pinnacle Sherpa
Mediated Modern Pinnacle
Sherpa (MMPS)
(SMS only)
YouthDaughter of
Pinnacle Sherpa
Oral Classical Pinnacle
Sherpa (OCPS)
EldersSister of Proto-
Pinnacle Sherpa
Mediated Classical Pinnacle
Sherpa (MCPS)
(Telephone only)
EldersSister of Proto-
Pinnacle Sherpa
Table 1: Four Daughter Languages of Pinnacle Sherpa

In Slater (2011), I reported that speakers of these four linguistic systems refuse to relate exogamously at all, such that none of the codes is ever used with outsiders, and no one is bilingual in any two of them. Thus, I concluded that these are four distinct languages.

All of the fieldwork for these studies has been conducted entirely by modern communication means: primarily Skype, IM, and SMS. Recently I caved in and signed up for Facebook, which, it turns out, added a powerful new tool for observing language use in the Pinnacle Sherpa community, and for eliciting speakers’ descriptions of the sociolinguistic situation.

Analysis of this new data has revealed that, although the four languages are in fact held rigidly distinct from one another, in any given communicative interaction, in fact the entire community is proficient with all four language and indeed, the entire community swaps languages with some regularity, rotating through the various forms of Pinnacle Sherpa in what we can only call a Cycle of Language Exchange. The reason for this is cultural.

The most important festival on the Pinnacle Sherpa traditional calendar is a Day of Rotation, which perhaps had its origins in the rotation of crops or (more likely at the relevant elevations) the rotation of foodstuffs stored for the winter. Over time, rotation became an abstract cultural value which continued to manifest itself primarily on the Day of Rotation. In recent generations, this festival was celebrated by a ritual in which a married couple’s maternal uncles reciprocally moved into each others’ houses, each assuming not only the other’s living arrangements but in fact all of their culturally-prescribed social roles as well.

The festival originally lasted seven days, but semantic shift caused its name to become equivalent, roughly, to Friday, and thereafter it was promoted to a weekly occurrence, much to the consternation of those uncles who had invested heavily in home improvements.

With the massive upheaval that I have documented in the Pinnacle Sherpa linguistic code, and under a sort of protest from a couple of men whose sisters have numerous offspring, the festival has now been shifted again, such that instead of exchanging kin, the entire community exchanges languages. This exchange of languages proceeds in a rotating cycle, as illustrated in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Language exchange on the Day of Rotation

One could think of the languages as being passed around a sort of historical circle, in clockwise fashion, with Pinnacle Sherpa occupying a metaphorical central pivot point. Thus, the subgroup speaking OCPS shifts to MCPS, while the erstwhile speakers of MCPS shift to MMPS, and so on. After rotating, each group of speakers remains monolingual in the language it has just rotated to, and remains so until the next Day of Rotation (one week later under most lunar conditions).

This rotation, of course, is actually language shift, and it appears to be language shift in a totally new form, unknown to linguists before I discovered it in the past three weeks. In this system, a community which shifts away from its language is guaranteed to shift back to that same language in less than a month! The Cycle of Language Exchange of the Pinnacle Sherpa community thus demonstrates that language shift is not irreversible; quite the contrary, the seeds of its reversal lie dormant within the very societies in which it arises, given only a modest cultural mandate such as the Pinnacle Sherpa Day of Rotation.

Surely all language communities bear within their cultural systems equally effective means of reversing language shift, and this ought to be a major research point for linguists in this day and age of intense language endangerment.

By now, I presume that the Pinnacle Sherpa language use situation must be the envy of all fieldworkers; indeed, Pinnacle Sherpa is aptly named, for it represents nothing less than the pinnacle of complexity in human language, in at least two respects: the massively complex evidential system of the two forms of Modern Pinnacle Sherpa, and the culturally-primed Cycle of Language Exchange in which the entire community participates. As we have seen in this paper, the Pinnacle Sherpa language rotation is a veritable linguistic celebration of all that is admirable and publishable in the field of sociolinguistics.

1 See Slater (2011) for elucidation of this situation, which is without precedent in the history of human language. In brief, two of the daughters of Pinnacle Sherpa have reversed the effects of numerous historical changes, such that they are now sisters of the parent of their parent language.

Texan for LinguistsKaty Jo Parker and Truman ‘Tex’ Beauregard
Book Review: Van Der Fort’s Guide to Field Linguistics by J. S. S. van der FortWebley Louis Severson III
SpecGram Vol CLXI, No 3 Contents