Group in American Indian Languages (GAIL)

The Group in American Indian Languages (GAIL) meets twice each semester and brings together individuals interested in indigenous languages of the Americas for a potluck dinner and presentation.

News about recent and upcoming events can be found below, and a list of past talks can be found here.

If you would like to receive periodic emails updating you about our activities, join the Friends of the Survey email list by writing to scoil-ling@berkeley.edu.  


Upcoming events:

October 18, 2018: Andrew Garrett (UC Berkeley)

Yurok rhotic vowels and vowel harmony: Why did it take so long to identify two new phonemes?


November 15, 2018: Leanne Hinton (UC Berkeley)


The GAIL meetings this semester will be on Thursday, October 18 and Thursday, November 15. Please save those dates and check back soon for more information about these two events! Note that we currently plan on changing the time so that the talk will begin earlier and before the dinner.


Recent events:

March 14, 2018: Konrad Rybka (UC Berkeley)

Affordances as determinants of lexical outcomes of language contact: a study of fire fans in northeastern Amazonia

A fundamental question of contact linguistics is what factors determine the outcomes of language contact. Amazonian languages play a key role in this investigation because Amazonian peoples deprecate lexical borrowing as the linguistic counterpart of miscegenation. Yet, lexical borrowing sometimes occurs, raising the question what other factors moderate its rate and how its paucity is compensated by other processes, such as lexical innovation or semantic extension, when cultures come in contact. A particularly felicitous domain to investigate these questions is the vocabulary of man-made objects. A comparative study of the actual artifacts can determine in which cases they were borrowed, providing an independent benchmark against which the linguistic results and their determinants can be gauged. One hypothesis suggests that the names of artefacts are borrowed when a novel function for an object is introduced. Borrowing is also often linked to a need to designate new entities. By looking at lexical borrowing, lexical innovation and semantic extension against the borrowing of the objects, I explore how functions and needs regulate the lexical outcomes of language contact more broadly. The methodological contribution of this work is to couple continent-wide linguistic and continent-wide ethnographic comparison to uncover important large-scale cultural and linguistic processes and reveal smaller-scale processes of contact from which areal patterns arise. 

For this purpose, I analyzed South American fire fans, tools for fanning cooking fires, using museum objects and ethnographic sources (Fig 1). I first determined the distribution of different models and their dispersal to identify cases of material borrowing. I then analyzed the cases of material borrowing against the names of the fans. The results suggest that the linguistic outcomes of contact may be mediated by affordances: a relationship between functions and needs. I illustrate this on fans from northeastern Amazonia, designed specifically for the processing of bitter manioc, a key crop for many Amazonian societies. Borrowed by bitter manioc horticulturalists, for whom the fans afford optimizing its processing, their names are borrowed as well, often in complex Wanderwörter chains. The same fans borrowed by groups that rely on other crops, for whom they do not have new affordances (via-à -vis the group’s antecedent model), trigger semantic extension. The results speak to the importance of linking linguistic forms not only to their users but also to their referents when analyzing language contact patterns and highlight the impact that bitter manioc has had on the material culture and languages of indigenous people in South America. (A PDF version of this abstract can be found here.)


April 18, 2018: Crystal Richardson (UC Davis)

Araráhih Kich Nuchuphêesh: Indigenous Breath Only We’ll-be-utilizing!

American Indigenous languages are typically spoken of as ‘highly’ or even ‘severely’ endangered in current academic discourse.  Although all minority languages are not also American Indigenous languages, it can be assumed that all American Indigenous languages are minority languages. 

Writing about minority languages, rather than allowing these language communities to voice their own perspectives in academic discourse, poses a problem to smaller languages because it allows external research Institutions to disempower minority voices by defining the terms of their existence (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000; Leonard, 2011; Lara-Cooper, 2014).

In contrast, utilizing an emic-systemic framework to investigate Indigenous language revitalization and reclamation efforts, empowers Indigenous language communities.  Those researchers who come from a tribal scholar positionality, and allied researchers who embrace Indigenous linguistic paradigms are able to do better work by embracing the freedom to utilize their full repertoire of cultural literacies to both gather and analyze data within the context of Endangered Language documentation and revitalization projects.

This presentation seeks to address the following questions: 1) What is currently being done to keep Karuk vital; 2) What are current issues the Karuk language teacher & educator community is grappling with?  The paper being presented explores these fundamental concepts using a variety of qualitative data including: interviews, survey information, field notes, and pedagogic materials. 

By returning to our Indigenous processes and definitions, rather than accepting the deficit-based definitions projected into and upon our extant language communities (by ‘authorities’ like the ethnologue), Karuk speakers are part of the movement towards Indigenous linguistic sovereignty.  “[Indigenous] knowledge need no longer be subsumed or assimilated into Western knowledge systems, but can stand side by side with other knowledge systems as a viable expression of spatial/temporal engagements” (Louis, 2017, 174).