PhD Project 5

The Babel Problem: The genesis and maintenance of diversity in human language


PhD-candidate: Luis Miguel Rojas Berscia
PIs: Steve Levinson (WP5) and Pieter Muysken (WP5)
Start date: 01 September 2014

(last update 2019-06-27)

Research Content

Diversity is one of the most extraordinary properties of human communication. An intriguing question is how this diversity - variation between languages and within languages - emerges and is maintained: The Babel Problem. The present project focuses on detailed fieldwork on the micro-level of indigenous communities. Indigenous communities most resemble the situation of prehistoric language diversification. How much internal variation do these show? Given wide-spread multilingualism and contacts with others, how are boundaries maintained? This concerns both sharp (with unrelated languages) and soft boundaries (with related varieties). Do we find variation across all components of language? How is variation perceived?

Progress 2018

A particular form of ergativity was found in Shawi. The results have been written up in collaboration with Bourdeau (UU), Grondelaers (RU), and Thompson (MPI). While the thesis consists of separate papers, an attempt was made to write it up as a coherent narrative titled ‘From Kawapanan to Shawi, topics in language variation and change’. A significant piece of valorisation from the project was a New Yorker article published by Judith Thurman on September 3, 2018.
The formal thesis defence has taken place on April 4, 2019.

Groundbreaking characteristics

This project is among the first to approach language documentation and description from the perspective of variation studies. It not only involves collaboration inside, but also outside our consortium (Roberto Zariquey - PUCP Lima, Hedvig Skirgard - ANU, Friederike Lüpke - SOAS London) on studying variation in small speech communities and comparative methods in Amazonian linguistics. The project combines descriptive methods and issues in language documentation and language typology with methods from sociolinguistics and variation studies.