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Current Trends in Papuan Linguistics


10 et 11 December 2019



Sebastian Fedden (Université Paris 3 / Lacito), Sylvain Loiseau (Université Paris 13 / Lacito) & Antoinette Schapper (CNRS / Lacito)
LACITO - Langues et civilisations à tradition orale (UMR 7107)


Program and more informations : see conference website (Due to the strikes, the program has been updated. Please check this web site for the last version!)

Program in pdf
Abstracts in pdf

INALCO (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales)
65 rue des Grands Moulins Paris 75013, France
- December 10: room 3.15
- December 11: room 3.11



This colloquium will bring together researchers working on Papuan languages with the purpose of reviewing current research directions. A subsidiary aim is to inform and motivate students and researchers who are considering starting research on Papuan languages.

There are upwards of 800 Papuan languages spoken on and around the island of New Guinea. Papuan languages do not form a genealogical unit, but rather comprise between 20 to 40 distinct families. A language is said to be Papuan, if it is spoken on or near New Guinea, and is not Austronesian or Australian. The proportion of unknown or poorly documented Papuan languages is still one of the highest in the world. Due to the huge number of Papuan languages and the unprecedented speed of their decline in recent decades, much of the effort of linguists in the area has been focussed on the documentation and description of individual languages or small groups of languages.

Great strides have been made in their documentation and these descriptive improvements have, in turn, allowed many new studies into different aspects of Papuan languages. This colloquium will focus on taking stock of the latest research into Papuan languages, discuss what has been achieved, and what the focus of future research would be. We will bring together researchers working on Papuan languages from different sub-fields of linguistics, including, but not limited to, linguistic anthropology, language acquisition, historical linguistics, language description and documentation, contribution to theoretical linguistic, sociolinguistic or typological syntheses, data aggregation and management, etc. The colloquium will also welcome contributions on the wider Melanesian Linguistic Area, dealing with such issues as Papuan language contact with and shift to Austronesian languages.


Confirmed invited speakers

Prof. Dr. Birgit Hellwig (University of Cologne)
Prof. Dr. Lourens de Vries (Free University, Amsterdam)
Dr. Nicolas Brucato (Université de Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier)


Keynote talks (abstracts)

Researching language acquisition and socialization in Papuan languages

Birgit Hellwig, University of Cologne

Language acquisition research is heavily biased towards the major European languages, thereby impacting on the generalizations we can legitimately make about human language and cognitive development. Most empirical research is done on a handful of European languages, and it is estimated that acquisition studies are available for maybe 1-2% of the world's languages only (including languages with only one or two such studies) (Lieven & Stoll 2010: 144). The 850 or so Papuan languages are no exception here: they have received some attention through early work conducted within the language socialization paradigm in anthropology (see especially Schieffelin 1990 on Kaluli, or Kulick 1992 on Taiap), but we still know very little about their acquisition. Recent years have seen a renewed interest, and longitudinal corpora are now being constructed for a handful of Papuan languages, including Ku Waru (Alan Rumsey, Francesca Merlan and colleagues), Nungon (Hannah Sarvasy), and Qaqet (Birgit Hellwig and colleagues) (see also www.acqdiv.uzh.ch/en.html; qaqet.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/).

Following a brief overview of language acquisition and socialization research in the Papuan region, this talk will present a case study of Qaqet, built around a salient phenomenon in the language addressed to children: repetitions and varied repetitions. With the help of this phenomenon, I will discuss a) what Qaqet in particular (and Papuan languages more generally) can contribute to debates within language acquisition research, and b) how the study of child language and child-directed language can inform our knowledge of the adult language.

--Lieven, Elena and Sabine Stoll. 2010. Language. In Marc H. Bornstein (ed.). The Handbook of Cross-Cultural Developmental Science. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 143-165.
--Kulick, Don. 1992. Language shift and cultural reproduction: socialization, self, and syncretism in a Papua New Guinean village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
--Schieffelin, Bambi B. 1990. The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization of Kaluli children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Languages as passing amalgamations. Linguistic field methods, comparative linguistics and language documentation among Greater Awyu clans

Lourens de Vries, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The paper discusses methodological issues of field linguistics, comparative linguistics and language documentation from the point of view of the role and place of language in very small clan communities in the Digul basin of New Guinea. In these dispersed, politically highly fragmented clan-based communities, with on average around 20 people per patriclan, linguistic ideologies and linguistic practices arise that are often in conflict with linguistic ideologies formed in nation-state societies, ideologies that also influenced assumptions and methods of descriptive linguists, for example that languages universally function as emblems of group identities, that languages are bound, discrete, named entities, usually bound to territorial units, with a relatively time stable set of shared grammatical norms and a shared lexicon, that these languages reflect and are constitutive of 'cultures', that isolated, small minority communities far away from urban centers form tight-knit collectives with little room for individualism or residential mobility, with a vast amount of shared contextual and cultural knowledge, that is assumed when speaking to one another in face-to-face communication. The anthropological and ethnolinguistic works of Stasch (2001, 2007, 2008a/b, 2009) and de Vries (2012) present a radically different picture of the place of language, linguistic ideologies and linguistic practices in Greater Awyu clans.

Multilingualism is the default in Greater Awyu clans but it is a type of what van den Heuvel and Fedden (2014: 27) called 'ego-centered multilingualism' in their study of Muyu-Mandobo language contact: "As can be deduced from Stasch (2009), Welsch (1994) and de Vries (2008), multilingualism is high but very much centered around individuals, in that each individual has his own repertory of languages. There is no strong link between language and group identity and one cannot speak of, for example, a general Muyu-Mandobo bilingualism".

Greater Awyu multilingualism indeed cannot be defined and understood at the level of groups such as clans or speech communities. Rather, individuals have a high degree of autonomy to create their own networks of marriage, trade and alliance relations with other people. Notions of personhood are deeply relational and individual, as in many other parts of New Guinea. In the words of Foley (2005: 163) personhood is often "a partitive amalgamation of various substances from the different exchange interactions that one is ultimately built up from. From such a vantage point, the understanding of a speaker, the articulation of personhood through language is also radically different. This has fundamental implications for how New Guineans think about language and questions of language varieties and language purism (the latter notion in fact unintelligible in such a scheme)".

The men in a Greater Awyu clan often marry women of different language groups, and these women bring their languages to the clan territories of their husbands. Children grow up with the languages of both father and mother since bilateral kinship ties are fundamental: the children develop very strong ties with both their mother's siblings and their father's sibling. When the child grows up it develops its own network of friends, partners and relations and expresses the 'partitive amalgam of relational substances' by borrowing, code switching, code mixing, acquiring different speech repertoires (de Vries 2012). A single language is never an emblem of clan identity, nor of individual identity. Languages are unnamed and do not correspond to distinctions of groups of people recognized by, or culturally relevant to, clanspeople, precisely because they are clanspeople, with hundreds of clans around them that may speak more or less similar languages, or very different ones but these languages do not determine who is friend or foe, which clans have marriage relation with which other clans, who 'we' are versus 'them'. Languages as named by linguists are exonyms for arbitrary sections from dialect continua, where A understands B who understands C and so on but A will not understand D or E who live even further up- or downriver.

The role and place of language in these clan-based societies, how they talk about languages of themselves and others, how they view multilingualism as a highly valued expression of who you are, what your relational identity is, have important implications for key aspect of language documentation such as documenting dialect chaining, language names, numbers of languages and numbers of speakers, linguistic ideologies, meta-linguistic repertoires but also for fieldwork methods and comparative methodology.

For example, wordlists are a key tool in language surveys, comparative linguistics, and language documentation. But in Greater Awyu contexts wordlists obtained from speakers do not represent specific 'languages' in the sense of bounded, discrete entities spoken by groups of people in certain areas. From the point of view of a Greater Awyu speaker, it will be very normal to give words for items on the basis of 'how I speak' or 'how we speak' and the resulting wordlist will reflect words from different linguistic varieties and languages dependent on the networks of the speaker, his or her clan affiliations, residential histories. Often, several words will be given for one item on the elicitation list in a contact language used by the linguist, and the speaker will add things like 'where I am from they call it A but my mother's people call it B and you can also call it C like the downstream people'. Heeschen (1998: 24) characterized the Eipo speech variety that formed the basis for his grammar of Eipomek, of the Mek family, as "perhaps only a passing phenomenon in the history of the Mek languages".

Heeschen (1998: 24) writes about grammatical patterns: "When it is stated: 'the Eipo language has the rule x', the reader should bear in mind what has been stated here about the smallness of the speech community and its norms. The rule should properly read: the speaker y or the group of men from such or such a clan...say "x" under certain circumstances."

Greater Awyu people speak about languages with a noun that means 'sound', for example the sound of certain species of birds, or of certain people. Dependent on the context of usage, 'our sound' (our language, how we speak) may refer to a section of a dialect continuum, to a clan, or to the speaker and his or her bilateral kinsmen and kinswomen. The criteria for 'our language/sound' relate to both mutual understandability and the sound systems. Often the emphasis is how people sound, in the sense of different pronunciations. When other people can be understood but they sound differently (e.g. because of regular sound changes between varieties), they may be said to have a different language from 'us'.

The only boundaries that are sharp and stable are the morphological boundaries between language families of New Guinea: the patterns and matter of bound morphology. And these form the reliable, relatively stable methodological bedrock of descriptive and comparative linguistics of Papuan languages. In the words of Foley (2000: 359): "It would appear that bound morphological forms are the most resistant to borrowing [again, however, not entirely immune (see Donohue 1999, Foley 1991)], so that bound morphological forms that appear cognate are the most reliable guide to genetic relationships between Papuan languages."

-- Foley, W.A. 2000. 'The languages of New Guinea'. Annual Review of Anthropology 29: 357-404.
-- Foley, W. A. 2005. 'Personhood and linguistic identity, purism and variation'. Language Documentation and Description 3. 157-180.
-- Heeschen, V. 1998. An ethnographic grammar of the Eipo language. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
-- van den Heuvel, W. and S. Fedden. 2014. 'Greater Awyu and Greater Ok: inheritance or contact?' Oceanic Linguistics 54 (1): 1-35.
-- Stasch, R. 2001. "Figures of alterity among Korowai of Irian Jaya. Kinship, mourning and festivity in a dispersed society". PhD dissertation University of Chicago.
-- Stasch, R. 2007. 'Demon language. The otherness of Indonesian in a Papuan community'. In Miki Makihara and Bambi B. Schieffelin (eds.), Consequences of contact: Language ideology and sociocultural transformations in Pacific societies, 96-124. Oxford University Press.
-- Stasch, R. 2008a. 'Referent-wrecking in Korowai: A New Guinea abuse register as ethnosemiotic protest.' Language in Society 37(1): 1-25.
-- Stasch, R. 2008b. 'Knowing minds is a matter of authority: political dimensions of opacity statements in Korowai moral psychology'. In: Joel Robbins and Alan Rumsey (eds.), Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology and the Opacity of Other Minds. Anthropological Quarterly 81: 443-453.
-- Stasch, R. 2009. Society of others: Kinship and mourning in a West Papuan place. Berkeley: University of California Press.
-- de Vries, L. 2012, Speaking of clans. Language in Awyu-Dumut communities of Indonesian Papua. International Journal for the Sociology of Language, 214: 5 – 26. DOI 10.1515/ijsl-2012-0018


A genetic perspective on the complex settlement of the Melanesian world

Nicolas Brucato, Laboratoire d'Evolution et Diversité Biologique (UMR5174), Université Toulouse 3

The exceptional linguistic diversity of Papuan populations is mirrored in their genetic patrimony. A clear example resides on New Guinea Island hosting a genetic diversity equivalent to the entire Indo-European area. From the Papuan genome, inherited from the Out-of-Africa dispersal 60 000 years ago, to the gene flows from Austronesian groups during the Holocene, and even to the high percentage of genetic introgression from an extinct Homo species named Denisova, the biological diversity of New Guineans is unique. While the dynamics of the interaction of Papuan genes and languages remains unsolved, a complex scenario of the genetic dispersal into Melanesia is emerging. Based on genetic data from Island Southeast Asia, New Guinea Island, Remote Oceania and Australia, I will present the most probable model of human migrations that led to the current human genetic landscape of this region.

I will focus on three periods:
1/ the first migration from Sunda into Sahul;
2/ the dispersal within the New Guinean territory and towards the Bismarck Archipelago;
3/ the late admixture events and the arrival of the Austronesians.

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