Linguistic inheritance, social difference, and the last two thousand years of contact among Lowland Mayan languages

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Law, Danny, 1980-

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The analysis of language contact phenomena, as with many types of linguistic analysis, starts from the similarity and difference of linguistic systems. This dissertation will examine the consequences of linguistic similarity and the social construction of difference in the ‘Lowland Mayan linguistic area’, a region spanning parts of Guatemala, Southern Mexico, Belize and Honduras, in which related languages, all belonging to the Mayan language family, have been in intensive contact with each other over at least the past two millennia. The linguistic outcomes of this contact are described in detail in the dissertation. They include contact-induced changes in the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the languages involved of a type and degree that seems to contravene otherwise robust cross-linguistic tendencies. I propose that these cross-linguistically unusual outcomes of language contact in the Maya Lowlands result, in part, from an awareness of the inherited similarities between these languages, and in part from the role that linguistic features, but not languages as whole systems, appear to have played in the formation of community or other identities. This dissertation investigates two complementary questions about language contact phenomena that can be ideally explored through the study of languages with a high level of inherited similarity in contact with one another. The first is how historically specific, dynamic strategies and processes of constructing and asserting group identity and difference, as well as the role that language plays in these, can condition the outcomes of language contact. The second is more language internal: what role does (formal, structural) inherited similarity play in conditioning the outcome of language contact between related languages? These two questions are connected in the following hypothesis: that inherited linguistic similarity can itself be an important resource in the construction of identity and difference in particular social settings, and that the awareness of similarity between languages (mediated, as it is, by these processes of identity construction) facilitates contact-induced changes that are unlikely, or even unavailable without that perception of sameness. This proposal carries with it a call for more research on contact between related languages as related languages, and not as utterly separate systems.




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