Ling Fridays: Obert on motion verbs in Amazonia

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@ 3:00 pm

Language in motion: terrain-based motion verbs and on the move documentation in Northwestern Amazonia

Karolin Obert, Lund University

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Mobility is of central concern to the humanities. This is because mobility is everywhere: It is a
ubiquitous part of human existence, and it is a constant context for actions to happen and concepts
to unfold. Mobility as a domain of perception has received special attention for mobile Indigenous
groups in the field of anthropology especially in the context of cultural practices, social
interactions, subsistence, and environment (see Ingold & Vergunst 2008; Ingold 2008). However,
these approaches have often bypassed the possible ways in which motion can be expressed by
Indigenous communities themselves (O’Meara et al. 2020). Language opens a window to
systematically investigate the concept of motion through its linguistic instantiations in Indigenous
lexicons and grammars (see Burenhult 2008; Burenhult & Levinson 2008). Although the field of
linguistics has made great advances in the domain of motion from a descriptive and theoretical
perspective (see Talmy 1985, 2000; Slobin 2004; Guillaume 2021) motion typology has not yet
systematically explored the semantics as manifested in real-time and real-world contexts of the
speakers’ own motion. That said, the degree to which cultural and environmental real-world
parameters may be catalysts for fine-grained semantic distinctions in the domain of motion verbs
of remains underexplored. This leads us to two central questions:
How can occurrences of motion verbs
map onto identifiable environmental and cultural features of a given culture, and how might these features motivate
fine-grained semantic distinctions?
In this talk, I explore these questions based on an investigation into
Naduhup (Northwestern Amazonia) representations of motion in context, i.e., while speakers are
on the move. Specifically, Dâw and Nadëb walkers were videorecorded during foraging trips with
action cameras in tandem with a time-aligned GPS record, allowing for posterior analysis of
motion verb instantiations in the landscape. The results reveal how properties of the terrain can
systematically structure the basic motion verb inventory. This challenges prior predictions on the
impossibility of ground conflation in motion verbs in semantic theory (Talmy 2000:60-62), and at
the same time, allows for intriguing insights into less conventional ways of how languages can
structure and represent the domain of motion. The results also underscore how such an approach
can provide us with typological surprises revealing intangible Indigenous categories as present in
language and grammars, which account for the interactive, cultural, and historical contexts in
which these languages are spoken. This also opens windows into what is conceptually important
to speakers as visible in grammatical and lexical systems (see Talmy 1983; Heine 1997; Enfield
2002; Palmer et al. 2017). At the same time, on-the-move documentation can be a powerful way
of supporting communities in their potential desire to document and maintain vanishing cultural
and linguistic heritage related to mobility and territory.

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