Societies of intimates

The journal Narrative Inquiry has a special issue of papers about narrative in Australian languages. From the introduction:

When the Australian writer Richard Flanagan accepted the 2014 Man Booker Prize for fiction, he said that “As a species it is story that distinguishes us”. While the prize was given for a literary work written in English, Australia and the surrounding regions are replete with a rich diversity of oral traditions, and with stories remembered and told over countless generations and in many languages. In this article we consider both the universality and the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic diversity of various forms of narrative. We explore the question of what a linguistic typology of narrative might look like, and survey some of the literature relevant to this issue. Most specifically, we ask whether some observed differences in narrative style, structure, or delivery could derive from social features of the communities which produce them: their social density, informational homogeneity, and the high degree of common ground they share.


Is pain a human universal?

Anna Wierzbicka, ANU

doi: 10.1177/1754073912439761

Emotion Review 

July 2012 vol. 4 no. 3307-317

(Includes data from Australian languages)

Pain is a global problem whose social, economic, and psychological costs are immeasurable. It is now seen as the most common reason why people seek medical (including psychiatric) care. But what is pain? This article shows that the discourse of pain tends to suffer from the same problems of ethnocentrism and obscurity as the discourse of emotions in general. Noting that in the case of pain, the costs of miscommunication are particularly high, this article offers a new paradigm for communicating about pain. It shows how the use of natural semantic metalanguage (NSM) techniques developed in linguistic semantics can help in this area, as in other areas concerned with human subjectivity, and can lead to a greater understanding between psychologists, psychiatrists, medical practitioners, social workers, and ordinary suffering mortals.

From passing-gesture to ‘true’ romance

Blythe, J. (2012). From passing-gesture to ‘true’ romance: Kin-based teasing in Murriny Patha conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 44, 508-528. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2011.11.005.

Full paper.

Just as interlocutors can manipulate physical objects for performing certain types of social action, they can also perform different social actions by manipulating symbolic objects. A kinship system can be thought of as an abstract collection of lexical mappings and associated cultural conventions. It is a sort of cognitive object that can be readily manipulated for special purposes. For example, the relationship between pairs of individuals can be momentarily re-construed in constructing jokes or teases. Murriny Patha speakers associate certain parts of the body with particular classes of kin. When a group of Murriny Patha women witness a cultural outsider performing a forearm-holding gesture that is characteristically associated with brothers-in-law, they re-associate the gesture to the husband–wife relationship, thus setting up an extended teasing episode. Many of these teases call on gestural resources. Although the teasing is at times repetitive, and the episode is only thinly populated with the telltale “off-record” markers that characterize teasing proposals as non-serious, the proposal is sufficiently far-fetched as to ensure that the teases come off as more bonding than biting.

Also, see Joe’s publications page for links to a number of other articles and his dissertation.

“Brainwash from English”?: Barunga Kriol Speakers’ Views on Their Own Language

“Brainwash from English”?: Barunga Kriol Speakers’ Views on Their Own Language

M Ponsonnet – Anthropological Linguistics, Volume 52, Number 2, Summer 2010, pp. 160-183

This article deals with the sociolinguistics of Kriol, an English-lexifier creole widely used among Aboriginal people in the north of the Northern Territory in Australia. Some views and ideologies about their own language expressed by four first-language Barunga Kriol speakers in a series of speech interactions are presented, and possible interpretations are suggested, based on understanding of speakers’ local and personal backgrounds as well as sociolinguistic and historical clues. While the youngest speaker was somewhat critical of Kriol, older and middle-aged speakers expressed affection and pride for it, even though their depiction of Kriol as “in between” English and traditional Aboriginal languages was in line with the youngest speaker’s views. One must be cautious about drawing general conclusions from such a small number of cases, but two possible factors triggering the discrepant evaluations may be the older speakers’ greater awareness of the history of Kriol and of its recognition as a respectable language and their mastery of ancestral Aboriginal languages.

Gender agreement in Mawng

How the discourse functions of a gender system can approach those of a classifier system

Author: Singer, Ruth

Source: Studies in Language, Volume 34, Number 2, 2010 , pp. 382-416(35)

Publisher: John Benjamins Publishing Company


The two main types of nominal classification systems in Australian languages — classifiers and genders — are usually easy to distinguish both formally and functionally. However, in the Australian language Mawng, gender agreement carries much of the burden of reference, varies depending on how an entity is construed, and contributes elements of compositional meaning to discourse, with properties usually associated with classifiers rather than genders. The way that semantically-based genders are used in Mawng suggests that we need to add how classification is used to our typologies of nominal classification systems; existing typologies consider mainly morphosyntactic and semantic properties.

Variation in Indigenous Minority Languages

[includes paper by Carmel O’Shannessy on change in Warlpiri]

Edited by James N. Stanford and Dennis R. Preston

Dartmouth College / Oklahoma State University

Indigenous minority languages have played crucial roles in many areas of linguistics – phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, typology, and the ethnography of communication. Such languages have, however, received comparatively little attention from quantitative or variationist sociolinguistics. Without the diverse perspectives that underrepresented language communities can provide, our understanding of language variation and change will be incomplete. To help fill this gap and develop broader viewpoints, this anthology presents 21 original, fieldwork-based studies of a wide range of indigenous languages in the framework of quantitative sociolinguistics. The studies illustrate how such understudied communities can provide new insights into language variation and change with respect to socioeconomic status, gender, age, clan, lack of a standard, exogamy, contact with dominant majority languages, internal linguistic factors, and many other topics.

Discourse and grammar in Australian languages

Edited by Ilana Mushin and Brett Baker. Benjamins.

Discourse and Grammar in Australian Languages is the first major survey to address the issue of the effects of information packaging on Australian languages, widely known for nonconfigurationality. The papers are based on individual fieldwork and describe a wide range of Australian languages of different types, ranging from the polysynthetic languages of Arnhem Land and the Kimberley to the classical types represented by Walpiri. Topics covered include the pragmatics of information exchange, the interaction of noun class marking with polarity and referentiality, the effects of specificity on argument indexing, the discourse uses of the ergative case, the contribution of pronouns to NP reference, the interaction of tense and aspect clitics with information structure, clause-initial position, and discourse and grammar in Australian languages. The volume will appeal to scholars interested in discourse, typology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.