Talking Culture: Women in the production of community in the northwest Amazon

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Chernela, Janet. 2003. Language Ideology and Women’s Speech: Talking Community in the Northwest Amazon. American Anthropologist 105(4)794-806 and also: Chernela, Janet 2019 Language Ideology and Women’s Speech: Talking Community in the Northwest Amazon. Special volume, Hearing Women Talk, eds. Sallie Han and Jason Antrosio. Open Anthropology 7(2). [Republication]


Taking the Northwest Amazon of Brazil as its example, this article argues for the analytic concept of a “speech culture,” combining, but heuristically separating, speech practice and language ideology. In the Northwest Amazon, an ideology of language establishes an equivalence between linguistic performance and descent group belonging. In contrast to the fixed, normative notions of groupness, this article explores the dynamic construction of social relations through women’s ritualized wept greeting speech. In these interactions, linguistic differentiation is countered by the experience of a single speech act based upon shared principles with organized participation in and by different linguistic codes. Through the collaborative nature of the speech act a common ground is produced and revealed. The community in this sense emerges as a cultural artifact whose production is largely the work of women. Through these speech interactions—of similar sentiments and meanings across different linguistic codes—women of the Northwest Amazon construct a community of talk.


Research article based on fieldwork in the Amazon basin of Brazil.