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Alice Gaby

Monash University

Wednesday, April 8th at 11 AM in AP&M 4301. Alice Gaby (Monash university) will be presenting.

This I tell ya, brother: the mutual dependence of kinship and pragmatics
Australian languages are famed for their classificatory kinship systems, the terms of which extend to everyone in the social universe. But Australian languages are also notable for incorporating multiple subsystems, a fact often ignored in studies of kinship (the papers in Heath, Merlan and Rumsey 1982 being a notable exception). This first part of paper considers what we can learn by considering the wide variety of speech contexts in which kin terms are used. We find that the Kuuk Thaayorre kinship lexicon comprises four hyponymically-related subsystems, only two of which may be considered classifcatory. Such an analysis also reveals culturally significant but covert categories (such as the matriline, patriline and generational harmony), and speaks to the nature of hyponymy and semantic categories more generally.

Just as the study of kinship semantics is enriched by the consideration of the pragmatic contexts in which these terms are used, the second part of this paper explores what kinship can teach us about pragmatics. Research on politeness in Aboriginal Australia has traditionally emphasized indirectness, vagueness and obliqueness (e.g. Eades 1982, 1991, Hughes and Andrews 1988, Keefe 1992, Walsh 1997, Garde 2002). This is far from the whole story, however. In the appropriate context, speakers of Australian languages speak with remarkable clarity and directness (Garde 2008, 2014, Thomson 1935). The key to understanding the respective distributions of direct and indirect speech is the kinship system. This has several implications for both first and second wave politeness theories. Firstly, I will argue that the enduring factors of the politeness calculus—Distance, Power and Ranking (Brown & Levinson 1978)—are insufficient to explain the distribution of: obscenity, ‘half-swear’ words, direct demands, circumspect speech, avoidance, and bereavement taboos. Secondly, we move to consider the Thaayorre concept of nganc ‘sacred, secret, poison, taboo’ and how it relates to Hymes’ (1974) and Sutton’s (1978) careful distinction between politeness in form and politeness in function. This distinction is crucial to understanding how polite linguistic forms may be used in a non-politic way, while extremely impolite forms (such as obscenities and swear-words) may be used in an entirely welcome and appropriate manner (for example in banter and mock impoliteness). Crucially, though, I argue that nganc '~politeness' is part of the conventional meaning of certain linguistic forms, contrary to the current claim that politeness is always defeasible (Terkourafi 2005).

In conclusion, the contextual embedding of language, on the one hand, and the structure and semantics of Australian kinship systems, on the other, are mutually illuminating.