go ask your mother

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Linguistic exogamy is a feature of some multilingual and multidialectal regions. In such places, it is a requirement to marry outside of your language group or dialect group. To marry or have sexual relations with someone who shares your mother tongue is akin to incest, and is ‘what dogs do’ as the saying goes in the Amazon basin. The Vaupés  region of the Amazon is one such place where marriage ties bind a number of language groups together. Many of the participating groups belong to the Tukanoan language family, but it also includes, Tariana, an Arawakan language and a language of the Maku group, the ancestors of the last considered by the others to be the original inhabitants of the area, and surprise surprise socially inferior to the later arrivals. 

This system of marriage  means that there is compulsory multilingualism. Children speak the language of each parent, but identify with the father’s language.In fact, some researchers report that the identification with the father’s language is so strong that speaking one’s mother’s language is considered inappropriate. Linguistic attitudes within the language groups discredit all the mothers’ tongues. Aikhenvald, a leading linguist of Amazonian languages, reports that mixing languages is prohibited among speakers of Tariana, the language she has studied intensively. One might wonder if this is linked to the power of the father tongue, any other languages are conceptualised as feminine. This is not the case though where linguistic exogamy occur. Rather it reveals the strong patrilineality of that group, where descent is reckoned only through fathers. In places such as Cape York, Australia, where different lines of descent or multiple lines of descent are valued, knowledge of both parent’s languages is requisite to validating one’s identity. In that region one belongs to the kingroup of one’s father, one’s mother’s father’, and one’s mother’s mother, producing multilingual multimembership. The observation of exogamy should ensure that language groups remain balanced and none are usurping the others. The Amazonian example, researchers suggests is still going strong. However in the case of Australian languages where intergenerational transmission, I wonder if exogamy is still being observed along linguistic lines or purely on descent lines.

I strongly recommend a visit to Alexandra Aikhenvald’s website  to read more about her work in this region. She has generously posted a great deal of her work online.

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