LSA 228: Semantic categorization in Australian languages

Alice Gaby | session 2 | TuTh 8:30 – 10:15, 7205 Dwinelle Hall

Central to our human experience is the division of the world we inhabit into categories (like "human", "food", "boring") and the communication of these categories via language. These categories are not inherent in the world, but are either imposed by our perceptual and other cognitive systems (e.g. categorizing an object in motion as "the same" even as it appears in different locations across our visual field), or learned within a particular cultural context (e.g. an English speaker categorizing both their mother's sister and father's sister as an "aunt").

This course will explore a range of examples of the latter, culturally-constructed categories as codified in the aboriginal languages of Australia, from grammatical systems of nominal and verbal classification to tracing the etymologies of unexpected (from an English perspective) networks of polysemy. After taking this course, you will be able to answer the following questions: What is the antonym of "spear" (in Warlpiri)? Why would birds be classified with human females rather than other animals (in Dyirbal)? What does the back (body part) have to do with "anteriority", "plenty", and "solidarity" (in Murrinh-Patha)? Why is one's elder brother associated with one's brother's sister's daughter, and both of these associated with the shin (in Kuuk Thaayorre)? Why would a single term refer to both a spangled grunter fish and a native white apple tree (in Ndjébbana)?

Reading: Selected materials available online.

Areas of linguistics: Language and thought; Syntax, semantics, and morphology; Languages of Australia and the Pacific

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