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The toponymy of Ecuador: Evidence for the historical distribution of Chicham languages

Thursday 25 February 2016
Friday Afternoon Lectures
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
2311 BV Leiden


The five languages of the Chicham (Jivaroan) family are currently spoken in the lowlands of eastern Ecuador and northern Peru, in the westernmost edge of the Amazon basin.  Proposals that Chicham languages are related to various neighbours, such as Cahuapanan (Greenberg 1987; Kaufman 1990), Candoshi (Payne 1981; Stark 1985) and Palta (Loukotka 1968), have all been either based on limited evidence or since retracted. The family is generally thought of as an isolated grouping with no known genetic relatives. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence to suggest that Chicham languages have had intense contact over centuries with other languages of the region, most notably with varieties of the Quechuan family.

Piecing together the details of the historical interactions between Chicham speakers and speakers of other languages is extremely difficult because the region has little recorded history to begin with, and the earliest texts only date back to the beginning of the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century.  However, toponyms in Ecuador have remained surprisingly stable over the centuries, and therefore provide an excellent resource to help identify which geographic areas were previously populated by speakers of Chicham languages.

Gnerre (1975) used toponymic evidence from 16th and 17th century documents to suggest that Chicham-speaking groups were likely to have migrated from further west, across the Andean highlands of Loja into their current area.  In this presentation, a thorough analysis of modern-day Ecuadorean toponymy (using computational databases) will confirm Gnerre’s (1975) findings and strengthen the claim that Chicham-speaking people are likely to have also populated areas in the Andean highlands at some point of their history.

Finally, I will explain how these toponymic observations provide plausible and concrete contact scenarios which are consistent with the linguistic evidence for contact found in modern-day Chicham languages. 

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