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Linguistic exogamy and language shift in the northwest Amazon

Luke Fleming


The sociocultural complex of the northwest Amazon is remarkable for its system of linguistic exogamy in which individuals marry outside their language groups. This article illustrates how linguistic exogamy crucially relies upon the alignment of descent and post-marital residence. Native ideologies apprehend languages as the inalienable possessions of patrilineally reckoned descent groups. At the same time, post-marital residence is traditionally patrilocal. This alignment between descent and post-marital residence means that the language which children are normatively expected to produce – the language of their patrilineal descent group – is also the language most widely spoken in the local community, easing acquisition of the target language. Indigenous migration to Catholic mission centers in the twentieth century and ongoing migration to urban areas along the Rio Negro in Brazil are reconfiguring the relationship between multilingualism and marriage. With out-migration from patrilineally-based villages, descent and post-marital residence are no longer aligned. Multilingualism is being rapidly eroded, with language shift from minority Eastern Tukanoan languages to Tukano being widespread. Continued practice of descent group exogamy even under such conditions of widespread language shift reflects how the semiotic relationship between language and descent group membership is conceptualized within the system of linguistic exogamy.


My thanks to the Wenner-Gren Foundation and to the National Science Foundation whose generous financial support made this research possible. This article is dedicated to Greg Urban, my dissertation advisor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been a tireless mentor to me over the years. I wish to additionally express my gratitude to Constantine Nakassis who (as is his custom) gave selflessly of his time to edit, reorganize, tweak, interrogate, etc. the manuscript before it was submitted. I should also like to thank an anonymous reviewer who was very helpful. I have incorporated many of their points throughout. This piece is indebted to the work of Elsa Gomez-Imbert. My thanks also to Aurolyn Luykx for all the work she put into organizing this special issue and for her helpful comments on a late draft, and to Jean Jackson who also commented on a late draft.


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Published Online: 2016-05-05
Published in Print: 2016-07-01

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

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