Department of Comparative Language Science(+41) 44 63 42859marine.vuillermet@uzh.chmarine.vuillermet

2013 Postdoctoral Studies at UC Berkeley

‘Associated motion’ in Ese Ejja (Amazonian language of Peru and Bolivia): An experimental investigation


Proposal: (pdf)

The description of little known languages keeps uncovering exceptions to language universals. The study is about the Ese Ejja language, spoken in the Amazon basin, a region that displays an extremely high linguistic diversity but a low level of scientific documentation. It focuses on the language’s intriguingly complex system of ‘associated motion’. These verbal suffixes encode a motion associated to an action. To date such systems have only been reported in Australian and Amazonian languages.

   Building on the descriptive study of the Ese Ejja ‘associated motion’ system that I have conducted for my Ph.D., the goal of the present project is the elaboration of a kit of visual elicitation tools that will establish the discourse and pragmatic constraints of the category. Existing stimuli are however often produced by cognitivists little aware of their informants’ reality. The stimuli to be elaborated for the task will take into account the ecological and cultural specificities of the Ese Ejja speakers, so that the data obtained should better reveal their world perception and the way it is encoded in their language thanks to these ‘associated motion’ morphemes.

   The kit will be elaborated at the University of Berkeley and will be discussed with several specialists in indigenous languages and/or in the domain of Space. Data will be then colleted and transcribed in three Ese Ejja communities; they will be analyzed when back to the University of Berkeley. Three papers will be written – one on methodology, a descriptive one and a cognitive one.

   The fine description of such systems will, on one hand, enhance experimental methodology and, on the other hand, feed into investigation on the human language complexity, in taking into account the various world apprehensions possible.



The provisional planning for this study on associated motion has been strictly followed. The stimulus material elaborated for this experimental investigation consists of a 22-page illustrated story book entitled ‘Hunting Story’ and an accompanying protocol. The material was tested with 1 French and 1 English speaker before the fieldtrip, with the expected result of eliciting spatio-temporal landmarks.

   The stimulus kit greatly benefited from discussions within the UC-Berkeley reading group ‘Directionals and Associated Motion’ (DAM), a bimonthly meeting gathering about 8 linguists – graduate students and senior researchers interested in the linguistic expression of Space. 5 fieldworkers (3 Amazonianists, 1 Meso-Americanist and 1 Oceanist) ended up using the stimulus during the summer, at the same time than my first tests in the field.

   The experimentation was very productive and provided valuable data, with many associated motion (AM) morphemes in Ese’eja, and other interesting strategies for framing actions within space and time in the other languages. Upon return from the field, I gave a presentation at the weekly workshop ‘Fieldwork Forum’ of the Linguistic Department in Berkeley in which I presented some of the feedback the other linguists provided me, as well as some preliminary results from my own data. I discussed how some results did not corroborate several initial assumptions. For example, younger speakers did not use fewer morphemes than older ones. However, further investigations measuring the degree of lexicalization of the associated motion morphemes used may moderate this observation, as younger speakers tend to use AM morphemes less productively, i.e they tend to use more conventionalized verb-AM collocations.


   The stimulus kit elaborated for this project therefore proved to be is a valuable tool to elicit associated motion morphemes and other linguistic strategies dedicated to the expression of action and space within a given spatiotemporal frame.

   If you are interested in using the stimulus, please contact me, I would be pleased to share it with you and discuss the protocol that goes with it.