1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Linguistic Anthropology Seminar -- Spring 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 8-9:30pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room)

Omar Velázquez-Mendoza, University of Virginia

"Verbal Polysemy and the Analogy to the Prepositional Dative of the Old Spanish Personal a"

My presentation focuses on the progressive grammaticalization process through which Spanish has favored the use of the preposition 'a', the indirect object marker, to introduce human, individualized direct objects. My analysis compiles the earliest attestations of this phenomenon coming from documents composed during the Spanish High Middle Ages, between the 11th and the 13th century. These old examples of the personal 'a' clearly show that the animacy marker introduces noun phrases whose verbs develop, through time, multiple meanings. As shown in (1) and (2), this polysemy makes these verbs fluctuate between ditransitivity (the simultaneous coexistence of a direct and an indirect object within a sentence) and monotransitivity (the association of only one object with only one verb).

a. si uero filii mei noluerint seruire a sancto facundo exeant deilla hereditate; si uero uoluerint... [SAHAGÚN, §1029, 1098 CE].
‘If finally my children don’t want to serve (animate) Saint Facundo may they vacate the inheritance; if finally they don’t want…’
b. Do et dono ipso solare tibi suprascripto Diaco propter creacionem quam sub Deo creaui[s]te et propter seruicium bonum quod michi seruisti... [SAHAGÚN, §606, 1059 CE].
‘I give and donate this piece of land to you, aforementioned deacon, for the favor you did under God and for the good service that you did for me…’

a. Me siento un excluido. La Iglesia sigue siendo mi familia, pero intentaré servirla con otros excluidos, en una pequeña aldea de Mauritania [CREA, 1995 CE].
‘I feel excluded. The Church is still my family, but I’ll try to serve it (along) with other excluded ones, in a little village in Mauritania.’
b. Así que le sirvo un whisky bien cargado [CREA, 1981 CE].
‘Thus I serve him a strong whisky.’

The syntactical-semantic fluctuation shown above, I argue, is a factor that has contributed to the analogy embodied by the personal 'a' in Old Spanish—an analogy on the part of individualized, human direct objects toward the oblique marker 'a(d)' that introduces indirect objects. This tenet departs from previous historical accounts of the accusative 'a' in that it conceives of this marker as a morphosyntactic analogy toward oblique phrases functioning as indirect objects, not toward the Latin dative. To support this claim, I offer independent evidence on why noun phrases performing as indirect objects in Modern as well as in Old Spanish are, in form, obliques and not datives.


Friday, February 25, 1-3pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room)

Claire Bowern, Yale University

Patience Epps, University of Texas, Austin

Patrick McConvell, Australian National University

"Hunter-Gatherers and Language Change"

For the vast majority of human history, people have not lived in cities supported by agricultural food sources and reliant on monetary economies. However, most models of language shift, spread and change have been developed with Neolithic farming dispersals in mind, and have either discounted or ignored language spreads by hunter-gatherers. The NSF-funded project 'Dynamics of Hunter-Gatherer Language Change' examines anecdotal (but nonetheless widespread) claims in the literature regarding the properties of languages spoken by hunter-gatherer communities, and the linguistic outcomes of hunter-gatherer groups' interactions with their neighbors. The methodologies employed crosscut linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary biology. Current findings in the domain of language indicate that hunter-gatherer language contact patterns are very diverse, and that some of them replicate the patterns of dominant contact that are more familiar from colonial interactions between indigenous groups and colonizers. That is, we may see differences in language contact outcomes between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists not because hunter-gatherer language contact is different, but because agriculturist language contact is more uniform in outcome. Likewise, systematic study of features of hunter-gatherer languages (such as flora/fauna, numeral systems, and basic vocabulary) is revealing of a much greater diversity than one would expect from the previous literature. In this set of three short talks, we introduce the goals of the project and its relevance to understanding the relationship between social structure and language change, with a focus on rates of lexical borrowing and on variation and change in numeral systems.

The presentation will be followed by a reception in Brooks Hall Commons.


Friday, March 25, 1-3pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room)

Qing Zhang, University of Arizona

"The Enregisterment of a New Mandarin Style: An Integrated Approach to Linguistic Innovation"

The study of linguistic innovation and change in contexts of socioeconomic changes is a prolific area in sociolinguistics. Especially productive is variationists’ work as pioneered by William Labov. While demonstrating the inextricable link between linguistic innovation/change and the social world, most studies have been predominantly concerned with exploring the processes of change, discovering distribution patterns of innovation, and the (lack of) formation of new community norms in a regional variety. The focus on regional variation and change to address the internal workings of the linguistic system and questions of linguistic theory has overpowered the examination of the social meaning in innovation/variation as constructed and contested in human social practices (see e.g., Bucholtz and Hall 2008, Eckert 2008).

In this talk, I present a study on linguistic innovation that integrates variationist sociolinguistic methodology with linguistic anthropological theories of enregisterment (Agha 2007) and indexical order (Silverstein 2003). Based on my research over the past decade, the study shows that a new Mandarin style is emerging in China. It is a supra-regional variety that is undergoing enregisterment, whereby a linguistic variety takes on salient cultural values. It is used by Chinese Mandarin speakers to index modernity and cosmopolitanism. This research is unique with respect to both linguistic anthropology and variationist sociolinguistics. In linguistic anthropology, studies on enregisterment tend to examine historical data on varieties that have already gone through the process. My study traces a variety that is currently undergoing enregisterment. Within variationist sociolinguistics, studies on language variation and change have focused almost exclusively on regional dialects. The current case examines the formation of a new social dialect that is supralocal. The study demonstrates that enregisterment involves (1) a shift in the indexical order of the innovative linguistic forms that constitute the new style and (2) ideological contestation over their social meaning due to the unstableness of their second-order indexical value. The eventual enregisterment of the new Mandarin style depends on the outcome of the ideological struggle over its second-order indexical value.

This seminar is generously sponsored by the East Asia Center.

Suggested Readings

Zhang, Qing. 2005. A Chinese Yuppie in Beijing: Phonological Variation and the Construction of a New Professional Identity. Language in Society 34:431-466. Focus on pp. 449-459.

Zhang, Qing. 2008. Rhotacization and the "Beijing Smooth Operator": The Social Meaning of a Linguistic Variable. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12.2:201-222. Focus on sections 1, 2, 5, and 6.


Thursday, April 14, 5:30-7pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room)

Suzanne Wertheim, University of California, Los Angeles

"Comedic Personal Narratives and Performing Competence/Competent Performance"

This talk focuses on a new genre of comedic performance that I am calling the Comedic Personal Narrative. This emergent genre, ever-increasing in popularity, can be found in 8-15 storytelling evenings each month in Los Angeles, and in mediated presentations as well, on radio shows such as Snap Judgment and KCRW's Unfictional as well as the podcast of The Moth. The most prestigious Los Angeles storytellers presenting comedic personal narratives are industry professionals: stand-up comedians, sitcom writers, producers, actors, etc., and performances are frequently for insider audiences, especially at the most highly regarded storytelling evenings.

Comedic personal narratives - a previously undocumented narrative form - bring together verbal art, performance styles, and identity work in interesting ways. Linguistic and narrative structures give us insights into social positions, social relations, and psychological states; narratives are an important site for the performance and presentation of the self and identity work, and they provide psychological insight into hidden presentations of the self. In addition, they present culture as process, and are frequently used for the transmission of morality and tradition. In this talk I'll be looking in particular at comedic personal narratives as a vehicle for repositioning and re-presenting the self using linguistic and narrative structures such as formal parallelism, tense and temporality, semantic roles, and comedic control of the audience's reaction. These, and other linguistic structures and comedic mechanisms create competent performances of verbal art that are also performances of social and professional competence.

Pizza will be served at this event!

Suggested Reading

Labov, William. 1972. The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax. In Language in the Inner City, 354-396. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Thursday, April 21, 7-9pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Conference Room)

Frank Bechter, University of Virginia

"Stories without Endings: Convert Culture and Conversionary Form"

There are approximately 300,000 deaf signers in the United States, 95 percent of whom come from non-deaf, non-signing homes. Such prelingually deaf individuals often have no exposure to the signing community until school age or later. Deaf signing society consists, therefore, overwhelmingly of “converts,” and its representational forms reflect this fact in many ways.

In this talk, I analyze an enigmatic deaf narrative genre I call “Stories Without Endings.” The label follows a native’s criticism of one such tale perceived, to my surprise, to have no ending. In support of this criticism, however, another tale was brought forward from the interviewee’s school years which, although told now with enthusiasm up to its cut-off point, indeed had no ending—no clear “finalization” at the level of plot—much to the interviewee’s frustration. Over the course of my research, the principle emerged in relation to many deaf stories.

Sign language narratives reorient deaf consciousness to perceive the world as being made of “deaf lives.” Deaf lives are subaltern subject positions that are invisible until conventional frameworks of moral order are interrupted. In Stories Without Endings, narrative logic itself is interrupted.

Suggested Reading

Bechter, Frank. 2009. Dialogism at large. In Of deaf lives: Convert culture and the dialogic of ASL storytelling. Doctoral dissertation (Chapter 5), The University of Chicago.