Language variation at home and abroad: the case of P'urhepecha in Mexico and its US diaspora
By documenting lexical and morpho-syntactic patterns among P’urhepecha speakers in Mexico and the US diaspora, this project will investigate the sources of language variation. The ensuing online dialect atlas will serve as an online resource for speakers, learners and researchers of the language.
P'urhepecha is one of the 68 indigenous languages officially recognised in Mexico. It is a language isolate; it is not related to any other languages. The language is spoken by around 125,000 people in the state of Michoacán in the centre-west of Mexico. It is spoken as a heritage or home language by several thousand more in communities across the USA, including in California, Oregon, and Illinois.
This individual postdoctoral research project aims to shed light on the understudied grammar of the language, as spoken in communities in both Mexico and the USA (specifically, Chicago and Portland, Oregon).
Language varieties at two levels
The project will focus on how the language varies between communities at two levels: firstly at the geographical level between speakers in different villages; and secondly at the individual level, between speakers of different ages and genders in the same village. This spoken data will be gathered from P'urhepecha individuals, on their own in interviews as well as in conversational pairs.
In these interviews and conversations information will be gathered about certain grammatical features that are claimed (by some researchers) to be more likely to change or be lost in heritage languages; these are known as vulnerable features.
The data gathered will then provide a picture of how P’urhepecha varies between and within communities in Michoacán and the USA resulting in a clearer picture of how the dialects are distributed in Michoacán and what P'urhepecha in the USA looks like. Does P'urhepecha in the USA pattern like the varieties spoken in the homeland (i.e. Michoacán), or is it undergoing changes in its diaspora context?
Importance of the project
This research is important for three main reasons.
- Firstly, the more we know about variation in P'urhepecha, the more we can learn about how the language has changed over time. As a language isolate, dialect data such as these are the only way for linguists to reconstruct previous stages of the language, which perhaps could ultimately help us to identify how the language spread through its current territory.
- Secondly, a more nuanced understanding of P’urhepecha will enable us to develop more location-appropriate teaching and learning materials for the language.
- Thirdly, on a more general level, the results of this project will provide more clarity on the status of so-called heritage languages: are there patterns shared by all such languages? What is the influence of the other languages spoken in these situations? The answers to these questions will, in turn, help us to better understand language variation and change in bilingual or multilingual situations.