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

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?

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.


A second fieldtrip was carried out successfully in the Shawi localities of Balsapuerto, Cahuapanas and Sillay, in Peru's Northwestern Amazonia. Fourty hours of controlled linguistic data were collected. On the basis of this, a new variationist phonological analysis was performed, as well as a pioneering analysis on the perception of variation at the syntactic level (in collaboration with Stefan Grondelaers (RU).

Several articles were produced:
(1) A study on numerals and numeral classifiers in Northern Peru was finished in co-authorship with Rita Eloranta (LU).
(2) A set of studies on the linguistic past of Kawapanan languages (Shawi's language family) taking into account its internal historical reconstruction (Proto-Kawapanan) (in collaboration with Andrey Nikulin (), and toponymy (the Chacha language).
(3) A phylogenetic analysis of pronouns in South America was carried out in collaboration with Séan Roberts (MPI; UoB),
(4) An article on the ethnogenesis of the Shawi,
(5) A very systematic study of a particular valency changing in marker, -te, in Shawi varieties was performed. This latter study was divided into two articles: One on mere grammar and another one on the origins of this type of marking.

All these studies are important to understand that a careful sub-systematic analysis of so-called isolate languages in the Americas can shed light on their particular history as well as on the chaotic but existent relations their speakers had with speakers of other adjacent languages.