January 30, 2004

Tariana tales

This week's New Scientist has an interesting interview with Alexandra Aikhenvald.

The editors' spin is to invite the reader to "[i]magine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out." I suppose that this is a sly dig at Andrew Gilligan and the whole BBC "who's your source for that" scandal.

The implication seems wrong, though, since (in the systems of this kind that I'm familiar with) the epistemic status "somebody told me ..." is always available, and would always serve the needs of both honest and dishonest journalists. The linguistic system that would really improve journalism would be one in which witless topical framing and silly pandering were impossible to express. In pursuit of this Leibnizian dream, we'll scour the Amazon basin in vain. We can't, it seems, even hope for syntactic/semantic coherence in XML streams.

Myself, I think it's more interesting that Tariana speakers practice linguistic exogamy, that is, they "traditionally marry someone speaking a different language." This generalization of incest taboos (?) is apparently common in Eastern Amazonia, and I gather is also found in New Guinea.

Anyhow, it's nice that the documentation of endangered languages has become a popular topic.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 30, 2004 06:19 AM