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Documenting kinship systems in eastern Indonesia

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Title: Documenting kinship systems in eastern Indonesia
Authors: Holton, Gary
Issue Date: 28 Feb 2013
Description: Kinship represents one of the most complex and rich domains of language knowledge. However, linguists often lack the tools with which to approach kinship documentation, while at the same time the study of kinship systems has fallen out of favor within mainstream anthropology. Yet, kinship systems are among the first semantic domains to erode under conditions of language shift. Classificatory systems are easily calqued onto languages of wider communication, leading to reanalysis and loss. Hence, the documentation of kinship systems must be a priority for endangered language documentation efforts (Dousset 2012).

This paper presents a tentative typology of kinship classification in the languages of the Alor-Pantar family of eastern Indonesia, drawing on data from three years of collaborative field work. Comparing sibling, cousin, and parents’ sibling classifications across four of these languages reveals a significant degree of variation, even between closely related, neighboring languages. The most elaborated systems reflect a cross-cousin pattern in which siblings and children of parent’s same-sex sibling are classed together and opposed to children of parent’s opposite-sex sibling. Additional distinctions are made based on relative age and relative gender. However, some languages have much less elaborated systems which collapse some of these distinctions. Based on these comparisons it is possible to draw some conclusions about the historical evolution of kinship systems in Alor-Pantar languages, as well as possible language contact scenarios, augmenting recent work in historical phonology of the family (Author et al. 2012).

Finally, this paper discusses two significant challenges which face field workers documenting kinship systems in endangered languages. First, kinship terms must be understood as an interrelating semantic system rather than a set of lexical items. In this sense the documentation of kinship is analogous to the documentation of ethnobiological domains, where it is not just the lexical items but also the underlying taxonomy which is important. Second, ongoing shift from indigenous languages to languages of wider communication, as well as increasing intermarriage between language groups, leads to interference from second languages. Such interference may be difficult to detect when original lexical items have been retained but the kinship system itself has shifted semantically. The paper concludes by suggesting several strategies for overcoming these challenges.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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