Documenting practices for reference to place in Kula

Williams, Nicholas
Williams, Nicholas
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This paper reports on ongoing research on practices for referring to space and place in Kula, an endangered language spoken in eastern Alor, Indonesia. This research is part of a larger project documenting Kula language use and social interaction. This research differs from much previous work on reference to space (e.g. Senft 1997, Levinson 2006) in its focus on practices for achieving reference to places in social interaction (e.g. conversation). Previous studies of reference to place/space have focused more on cross- linguistic differences in the categorization of space and implications for theories of cognition and debates regarding the relationship between language and thought. Analysis of actual use of spatial language and other practices (e.g. pointing) for referring to places in everyday social interaction is important both for furthering our understanding of “grammars of space” and for expanding our knowledge of how reference is achieved in conversation. While studies of the “grammar of space” (Levinson 2006) have lacked attention to interaction and natural language use, studies of reference in conversation are also focused primarily on the domain of person reference (e.g. Enfield & Stivers 2007, Schegloff 1996, etc.). This paper discusses initial attempts by the author, working closely with local Kula team members, to document spatial language, place names, pointing practices and other ways of referring to places in the Kula community. We have video recorded a variety of speech genres and communicative events to investigate this domain including historical narratives about particular places, route descriptions, and group discussions of current place names. We have also elicited material using well known stimulus materials for the elicitation of spatial parts of the grammar (e.g., topological relations, deictic motion verbs). We will report initial findings from these documentary activities and compare the results with findings regarding options for place reference in other languages (e.g. English, Schegloff 1972) and reference in other domains (e.g. person reference, Schegloff 1996). Some initial findings suggest the highly frequent use of place names (rather than landmarks, for instance), possibly typical for a small community in which all local place names are common knowledge. Also, two kinds of absolute spatial reckoning are used, one based on a local, village-level, uphill-downhill axis, the other based on larger scale seawards-landwards and sunrise-sunset axes. Furthermore, various types of pointing are used in different contexts, including not only index finger pointing, but also facial pointing (nose, lips, eyes).
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