Language shift, a change in the primary language of an ethnic or social group, has been characterized in the New World by a shift from indigenous languages to colonial vernaculars like English, Spanish and Portuguese. In the Northwest Amazon of Brazil, indigenous urbanization has been accompanied by a different kind of language shift, in which the many different indigenous languages of the region as a whole are reduced to just two or three which, along with Portuguese are spoken in the urban public sphere. To understand this rather different kind of language shift - here a shift between different indigenous languages - it helps to know that linguistic differences are the primary markers of ethnic differences in the region. Linguistic exogamy, where marriage occurs only between speakers of different languages, is the characteristic social institution of the Northwest Amazon, and ensures that multilingualism was (and still is) the status quo in the region. Using the ethnographic literature on the region as a comparative basis, this dissertation research project by a cultural anthropologist examines the social, spatial and linguistic organization of urban indigenous communities in terms of these related ideologies of language and ethnicity as they are united in the marital practices of urban immigrants. The research will be focused on three indigenous neighborhoods of Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira, and will involve participant observation, focused interviews, digital video records of interactions, and a survey of residence and marriage patterns. The project serves as a good case study to counter unidirectional understandings of the "acculturation" of indigenous peoples seen to occur through institutionalized contact with the nation-state, integration into capitalist networks and urbanization. Such processes, as they appear across the globe, are often thought to have their necessary endpoint in a monolingual speech community that divides the nation-state and its citizenry from the indigenous population, if at all, by a "race" based understanding of ethnicity. In the indigenous urban centers of the Northwest Amazon these three elements - nationstates, capitalism and urbanization - are all in play and yet multilingualism still thrives, as does a vision of ethnicity linked to language. The study hopes to offer a more nuanced account of how native beliefs and institutions condition the forms in which indigenous peoples become citizens of and residents in the nation.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Deborah Winslow
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University of Pennsylvania
United States
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