With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Robert Van Valin will direct a research project to document and analyze the interaction of information structure and syntax in selected Amazonian languages. Information-structural distinctions may be signalled by word order, syntactic forms, morphological markers, and prosody. While descriptive grammars often contain some information about the morphosyntactic indicators, there have been few non-impressionistic analyses of prosody as a signal of information structure in non-Indo-European languages, and in particular from indigenous languages of the Americas. The research involves a significant fieldwork component in the Brazilian Amazon on three highly endangered languages: Piraha (Mura), Satere-Mawe (Tupi) and two closely related Arawan dialects, Banawa and Yarawara. This research project is a collaborative venture between the PI at the University at Buffalo, and Prof. Daniel Everett of the University of Manchester, England.
The significance of the project lies in the description of the interaction of information structure and syntax in these languages and of the role that prosody plays in signaling information-structural contrasts in them. We will be documenting facts that have never been documented from endangered languages on phenomena of intense current theoretical interest, both within phonetics and phonology, on the one hand, and syntax and discourse-pragmatics, on the other. This will constitute the most extensive analysis of the interaction of prosody, information structure and syntax done on any indigenous language of the Americas, and as such it will be valuable both for the cross-linguistic study of these subsystems of grammar and also for testing different theories of information structure. The broader impact of the project will be first and foremost its contribution to the documentation of three highly endangered languages of the Amazon basin.