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Proposal for a shared classificatory tree for DOBES language documentations and other socio-cultural data bases.

publicado a la‎(s)‎ 14 feb. 2014 10:06 por Administrador Sociedad Bosquesina   [ actualizado el 11 feb. 2015 11:24 ]



This article proposes a classification for socio-cultural and linguistic data bases, especially those that document society, culture and language of Amazonian indigenous or rural mestizo people. The proposal was elaborated in the context of a DOBES language documentation project about the language use of the “People of the Center” (Bora, Witoto, Ocaina, Nonuya, and Resigaro). The basic principles of this proposal are derived from Bakhtin’s/Vološinov’s theory of the proposition.




Amazon, Indigenous people, Witoto, Bora, Ocaina, Resigaro, data base, socio-cultural classification, Bakhtin / Vološinov.




El artículo propone una clasificación para bases de datos socio-culturales y lingüísticas, particularmente las que documentan la sociedad, cultura y lengua de pueblos indígenas y población mestiza rurales de la Amazonía. La propuesta fue elaborada en el contexto de un proyecto de documentación lingüística en el marco DOBES dedicado a documentar el uso de las lenguas de la “Gente del Centro” (Bora, Huitoto, Ocaina, Nonuya y Resígaro). Los principios de esta propuesta fueron derivados de la “teoría del enunciado” de Bajtin / Vološinov.




Amazonía, pueblos indígenas, Huitoto, Bora, Ocaina, Resígaro, base de datos, clasificación socio-cultural, Bajtin / Vološinov.


1. Introduction


The social organization of the People of the Centre, a multilingual cultural complex in the North West Amazon, has been analyzed in the framework of the study of forest dweller society (Spanish: sociedad bosquesina; Portuguese: sociedade florestina) (Gasché 2007; Gasché & Echeverri 2004; Gasché & Vela 2004; Gasché, Vela, Vela & Babilonia 2005). The categories heuristically employed in that analysis give an extensively account of the social and ecological interactions of the People of the Centre. These categories underlie the classification of types of speech events, which is used in the People of the Centre documentation project to organize the sessions in a hierarchical corpus tree (Seifart, Fagua & Gasché 2009). This classification is at the same time a tool for ensuring completeness of the documentation, in the sense of inclusion of examples of each major event type identified in such a classification (Seifart 2008). Such a classification underlies and facilitates research in a number of linguistic and cultural aspects, including, for example, comparative rhetorics (Kennedy 1998). This programmatic paper discusses a number of basic classificatory criteria (which can probably be applied – with certain modifications – to most “tribal” societies) in order to invite a collective reflection on common criteria for setting up classifications of language (and socio-cultural) documentation data, as collected by, e.g., DOBES projects, and to facilitate transparency and comparative research.


2. Aims of a general classificatory tree


The ideal aim of a linguistic and socio-cultural documentation can be defined as trying to grasp any possible use of language that may occur within a society. To approach this aim we base ourselves on Mikhaíl Bakhtin’s concept of situation (see section 3, below) in order to establish a pragmatic framework for each form of discourse[1], which is embedded in a concrete – materially, socially and culturally – definable situation. In our approach, these are the central concepts in defining the branches and nodes of a classificatory tree of a language documentation.


But what is the evidence for such forms of discourse and situations? We know from experience that not every single situation corresponds to a proper form of discourse that can be defined by itself. It is also obviously not necessary to document any possible situation in order to set up an inventory containing all existing forms of discourse within a society (and a language). Therefore, the proposed criteria should also be useful to find out in which situations the speakers of a given community use different forms of discourse and in which they do not.


The proposal is thus to work towards the establishment of an analytical instrument for the definition of situations covering the totality of social practice in the society that is subject to investigation.[2] The establishment of such an instrument has four main aims:


(1) to get a global view of real-life situations in a society in order to be able to explore consciously a great variety of situations and to observe the different forms of discourse that occur in such speech communities with the final goal to discover the nature and functions of the linguistic variations and to document them following an appropriate sampling method.

(2) The second aim of this analytical instrument is, far beyond the compliance with common documentation principles, to allow us to conceive a complete socio-cultural documentation of a determined society. Thus, this instrument does not only aim at keeping records of language use, but all kinds of social and cultural practices of indigenous people in the Amazon region (and in others where societies are similar), also including communities at various stages of transculturization or communities of entirely “Western” ancestry. In accordance with this intention it is very useful to have a conceptual and analytical framework at hand which allows for a classification of all the social situations that might occur.

(3) The third aim consists of setting the stage for creating, in collaboration with other language documentation projects, a comparable classification throughout most DOBES projects. Many classifications applied by projects until now appear idiosyncratic and are often not transparent to outsiders. Common criteria for data classification would facilitate comparative research, such as research on comparative rhetorics, and on everyday and ritual behavior. More generally, it facilitates the comparison of similar situations in different societies and the varying discourse forms that are linked to them in order to get a broader and deeper understanding of how speech forms in human societies are shaped for socio-cultural and pragmatic purposes. It is an essential tool to help us understand by what linguistic and rhetoric means people “act” (in the concrete sense of “do things”) in society. Are they similar all around the world? Are there geographical or cultural areas of similarity?

(4) A rich and common classification also aims at a shared contextualization of linguistic means. Only when the linguistic elements (in a more narrow sense) are characterized through a comprehensive and broadly accepted classification as situation-specific and functional means, they acquire the necessary pragmatic value we have so long been unaware of, and human linguistic creativity will be better captured, illustrated, and understood.

 3. Basic principles of classification


For setting up such an analytic instrument, we follow Bakhtin’s (Bajtin 1995, see also Todorov 1981) concept of situation which defines a social, material, cultural, and pragmatic, frame in which the form of discourse corresponds to the performance of a discourse activity, i.e. a speech act. The speaker “acts” by means of a certain form of discourse that is applied in a certain situation with a specific intention which has a particular cultural form and social value. The situation is evidently not a state, but a moment or sequence within a complex activity, which inevitably serves a social purpose. If we want to explore the situations that can possibly occur within a society, we have to ask ourselves: which are the possible activities of their members? It is therefore necessary to combine Bakhtin’s approach with that of Leontiev (1984) who defines the mutual interrelations of activity, conscience and personality, - a theory which was later broadened and enhanced by Klaus Holzkamp (1985, 1995, 1997-2006), founder of the school of “critical psychology” and “intersubjetive science”.


The following explanations show by what conceptual means we define the universe of socio-cultural situations in which the discursive activities occur or possibly occur in a tribal society, as that of the People of the Centre. This socio-cultural universe – in which the situations due to the presence and activities of the Western researchers is included – is represented graphically by a classification tree that establishes a hierarchy between the categories through which we analyze and define generic and various more specific criteria. Through these criteria, every possible and observable situation in which a speech act or event in a specific form of discourse can occur and can be considered (together with the corporal gestures) as constituent of an activity, which has to be understood as socially conditioned and culturally formed.


 As a consequence of this hierarchy, going from the generic to the specific, the definition of a concrete situation by means of the multi-branched classification tree (see Appendix) results from multiple links we establish between terminal nodes of this tree. To illustrate and justify this procedure, we will discuss the categories in their hierarchical order that will help us to approach and to characterize the observed and possibly occurring situations in one type of tribal society and to situate the linguistic documents (as being always part of an activity) in their real and practical socio-cultural context.


In the classification tree we first distinguish two main branches: (1) a branch called “Linguistic classification” and (2) a branch called “Socio-cultural classification”. Each session documenting a specific situation is linked to the language, languages or dialects used by the people involved in the situation documented. The classification of documents according to languages (or dialects) is relatively straightforward. The socio-cultural classification which allows us to identify by means of a situation all the speech acts we are documenting within the totality of socio-cultural practices, on the other hand, is a more complex issue and will be the focus of the remainder of this paper, using the People of the Centre as our main example.


The documentation of variable language functions, which are connected to different situations, requires to distinguish at a basic level between situations in which we as collectors from the “outside” participate as dialogue partners and situations in which we do not intervene beyond being present as observers. The social frame of the latter situation is characterized by an everyday occurrence of such situations within the local community. Thus we distinguish situations we create ourselves for our research and documentation purposes (2.2) from situations produced by local activities, which we can observe and document (2.1). The latter do not necessarily imply that we are not addressed by the speakers, which in turn documents the specific form of discourse that refers to situations where people from outside the community get involved in the context of a local event. “Observed situations” (2.1) and “situations created by a linguist or anthropologist” (2.2) are the next branches in our tree hierarchy, to which a third branch (2.3) is added which contains sessions documenting the habitat and the geophysical circumstances of the society, without necessarily containing discourses in the indigenous language.


[1] This concept is derived from the bakhtinian concept of forme de l’énoncé as it appears in Todorov 1981. A recent publication makes us suspect that this theory originally was Vološinov’s (2010).

[2] We have in mind here primarily so-called “tribal”, fundamentally subsistence-based societies (today generally with some involvement in modern market relations), in which most of the endangered languages are spoken that are documented by DOBES projects, be they in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Australia, or America. The definition of situations (with their corresponding discourse forms) in complex and modern societies would be more complicated, requiring a new and perhaps bigger effort, but we assume, this would not be impossible.

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