From patrilects to performatives: Linguistic exogamy and language shift in the Northwest Amazon

Luke Fleming
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania
July, 2010


This study in linguistic and sociocultural anthropology documents contemporary transformations in the social organization of linguistic variation on the Upper Rio Negro in the Northwest Amazon of Brazil. Through an in-depth study of the relationship between language and ethnic identity, it reframes our understanding of the well-documented system of linguistic exogamy traditionally practiced in the region. Drawing on genealogical data documenting continuing clan exogamy under conditions of widespread language shift from Eastern Tukanoan languages to Tukano, it is shown that differences between patrilineally-transmitted languages (i.e. patrilectal variation) are not a necessary condition of marriageability, but rather that patrilectal differentiation is laminated upon clan difference, with genealogical reckoning remaining the essential basis of social group membership. Rather than patrilectal differences being the privileged sociolinguistic resource for the performative fashioning of indigenous identity, gendered registers of language--remarkably consistent in their paralinguistic and discourse-level patterning across different Eastern Tukanoan language groups--are shown to be a more potent site for the interactional figuration of personhood. Indeed, it is the performativity of linguistically mediated indigenous gender identity which patterns language shift from Tukanoan languages to Portuguese among young indigenous immigrants in S Gabriel da Cachoeira, the last Brazilian town up the Rio Negro. Transposition of heightened affective and performative values associated with gendered registers of speech onto indigenous linguistic codes articulates with other processes, often associated with liberal multiculturalism, which heighten the performative effect of emblems of indigenous identity within post-colonial orders. In the final chapters the efficacy of salient signs of indigeneity--a vital rhetorical resource in indigenous political communication--is shown to be produced out of the heightened salience of "indigenous" cultural emblems (i.e., indigenous languages, material culture, and ritual performances) in post-colonial life-worlds in which such emblems are increasingly stigmatized and tabooed. The dissertation concludes by arguing that, ironically, the solicitation to perform indigenous cultural practice in the Brazilian public sphere may feed back into language shift as speakers seek to avoid the now-hypertrophied affective values of indigenous languages.