Linguistic Innovation and Relationship Terminology in the Pearl Lagoon Basin of Nicaragua

By Jamieson, Mark | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Linguistic Innovation and Relationship Terminology in the Pearl Lagoon Basin of Nicaragua


Jamieson, Mark, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


As purely formal systems of classification, relationship terminologies, especially reference terminologies, tell us very little in themselves about the actual practice of kinship (Zeitlyn 1993).(1) Nevertheless they can provide us with interesting and important clues. For example, Dravidian-type systems imply certain attitudes towards affinity, and Crow-Omaha-type systems betoken the concept of clan membership and exogamy. Relationship terminologies have important work to do in many contexts. It is for this reason that formally identical terminologies turn up in different parts of the world with surprising regularity. Discovering the nature of this work is never easy since informants tend to think and talk about kin classifications as part of the natural order rather than as cultural constructions. We are, however, able to get a sense of the work that relationship terminologies do in those few cases in which we are able to see how they have changed over time. As Eggan (1937) showed, for example, thoughtful consideration of the reasons for the historical changes in the Choctaw relationship terminology revealed many interesting substantive aspects of how the Choctaw imagined their relations with one another.(2) In this article I attempt a similar reconstruction for the Miskitu of Nicaragua's Pearl Lagoon basin, and examine a shift from a classificatory Dravidian-type reference terminology [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] to a descriptively-based cognatic system [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. This exercise, I show, sheds interesting light on the Pearl Lagoon basin Miskitus' practice and understanding of kinship, and further clarifies, in Miskitu terms, the reasons for the 'Anglo-affinity' (or liking for English speakers) which anthropologists, political scientists, historians and other observers have attributed to the Miskitu from the seventeenth century right up until the present (C. Hale 1994).

The history of this particular terminology, I believe, can only be properly understood in terms of the sustained interaction between Miskitu and English speakers in the region. In the first section of this article I therefore present a summarized version of this history, and in the second section I account for the linguistic situation in the present-day Pearl Lagoon basin in terms of this history.

In the third section I present three systems of relationship terminology used by Miskitu speakers at different historical moments. Finally, I reconstruct the historical transformations between these systems in terms of the sociolinguistics of the region and locally attested kinship practices, concluding with a discussion of why these changes took place.

The Anglo-Miskitu encounter

Spanish ships first visited the Mosquito Coast in the early years of the sixteenth century but they found little of interest (Sauer 1966: 123-30, 175-6). Lacking natural harbours, fertile land and a hospitable climate, the region was therefore never settled by the Spanish. However, the area, particularly the Cape Gracias a Dios and Sandy Bay districts near the present-day Nicaragua-Honduras border, was frequented during this period by English speakers [ILLUSTRATION FOR MAP 1 OMITTED]: first in the late sixteenth century by passing corsairs (Holm 1978: 16-17) and later in the seventeenth century by buccaneers and traders, some of whom became residents (Dozier 1985; Floyd 1967; Naylor 1989; Parsons 1954: 8-9).

The Indians around Cape Gracias a Dios at this time were members of one of the small groups in present-day eastern Nicaragua and Honduras speaking Misumalpan languages (Conzemius 1932: 17; see also Helms 1971: 18). With the appearance of both visiting and resident English-speaking traders and buccaneers, some of these Indians, who up to then had only visited the coast seasonally (Helms 1978: 145; Magnus 1978), began to locate their villages more permanently at the Cape specifically to trade with the visitors, some of whom had come to settle (Floyd 1967: 56, 57, ch. …

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