The three living members of the small Misumalpan family represent the majority of the population still using an indigenous language in Nicaragua, and the family is well represented north of the Coco River, in Honduras, as well. Thus, despite its small size Misumalpan is the most important indigenous linguistic entity in the region popularly termed the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. It is important sociopolitically, since speakers of the two largest languages, Miskitu (70,000 speakers) and Northern Sumu (8,000), have been strong and effective proponents of the political, cultural, and economic rights of the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic Coast, and they have worked successfully to secure a position of dignity and official status for their languages within the Autonomy Project of the Nicaraguan government of the 1980's, Speakers of the third much smaller, Misumalpan language, Ulwa (or Southern Sumu, with approximately 400 speakers), have also been vocal and effective in expressing their right to have their language documented and to reverse the process of language loss which, if unchecked, will quickly lead to its disappearance. Ulwa is now confined to Karawala, a village of 750 people, predominantly Miskitu in linguistic practice, near the mouth of the Rio Grande de Matagalpa, a dramatic reversal of its fortune, given that it was the most widespread Misumalpan language in the 17th century. Although there are great numerical disparities among the languages of this small family, there is a sense of common interest among the speakers, a sense that the fate of even the smallest language is relevant in the general program of promoting the welfare of the indigenous languages and cultures of the Atlantic Coast. The proposed Manual of Misumalpan Languages is inspired very largely by the clearly perceived need for a single reference work which brings these linguistic traditions together for use by the growing number of Misumalpan-speaking scholars and teachers, as well as other Nicaraguan involved in various ways with language matters on the Atlantic Coast and a Nicaraguan public becoming increasingly aware of the country's diverse cultural and linguistic heritage. In the domain of linguistic scholarships the Misumalpan family is important for both historical and synchronic research, It is a classic example of the effects of intense bilingualism, developed since the Miskitu ascendancy of the 17th century and resulting in large-scale changes making the languages very close in grammar, while maintaining differences in vocabulary, This has given rise to a number of theories about the origin of Miskitu which the present project will attempt to evaluate through careful comparison of grammatical features and vocabulary. In the realm of grammar, Misumalpan furnishes us with new data on certain important linguistic processes, including among many others the expression of possession (e.g., the child's dog), cause (e.g., 'the wind makes the house shake') the problem of "keeping track" of the participants in a sequence of events (e.g., who is 'he' in John came in and he sat down' -- is it John or someone else? Misumalpan makes this clear at all times). The manual will cover these and the full range of other constructions and processes which are of central interest to linguists and language learners. It will contain three parts - Grammar, Lexicon. and History and it will be prepared for publication in Spanish and English.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Catherine N. Ball
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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