Early Descriptions of Gender in Pama-Nyungan Languages

Clara Stockigt
University of Adelaide

There is little correlation between the existence of a system of gender in Pama-Nyungan languages and the inclusion of a discussion of these systems under the heading “Gender” in early grammatical sources.

Of the small minority of Pama-Nyungan languages which have a system of gender, a handful exhibit systems of noun classes in which agreement is marked on a nominal modifier (Dixon 2002:450-453). Only one of these languages, Minjungbal, was described in the nineteenth century (Livingstone 1892). Another comparably small group of about a dozen Pama-Nyungan languages make a two-way gender distinction in third person pronouns (Dixon 2002:461). A disproportionate number of these are among the few Australian languages that were grammatically described in the pre-contemporary era. They are Hunter River Lake Macquarie language/Awabakal (henceforth HRLM) described by Threlkeld (1834); Diyari, described by four Lutheran missionaries between 1868 and 1899 (Flierl 1880; W. Koch 1868; Reuther 1981; Schoknecht 1947); Minjungbal, described by Livingstone (1892); Pitta Pitta, described by Roth (1897); and Kala Lagaw Ya, described by Ray (1893).

Grammars written in the classical European tradition employing the framework and schema of Traditional Grammar (see Koch 2008:87) discuss the grammatical category Gender within an initial chapter dedicated to the word-class Nouns. Gender is presented alongside the two nominal inflectional categories, Number and Case (see for example Ramshorn 1824 and Gildersleeve 1895). In recognition of the lack of grammatical gender in Pama-Nyungan languages, some grammarians abandon the traditional category altogether (Taplin 1867, 1872; Ridley 1875; Günther 1892). Others state that the language has no gender (Teichelmann and Schürmann 1840:4; Meyer 1843:10; Taplin 1880:7; Kempe 1891:2; Strehlow n.d, n.page). Lutheran missionary C. Schürmann for instance, who co-published the second grammatical description of an Australian language with Teichelmann (Kaurna 1840) and a second description of a related South Australian language shortly after (Barngarla 1844) noted:
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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Australia, Field linguistics, Grammars, History, Linguistics, Syntax, Typology

“Some Americans could not by any means count to 1000”: the cognitive effects of the lack of names for numbers in exotic languages from the perspective of linguistic theorists before Humboldt

Gerda Haßler
Universität Potsdam

The limited number word vocabulary in some languages for quantities above a specific amount has for some time been a much-debated topic. A study published in 2008 (Butterworth, Reeve, Reynolds, Lloyd 2008), which attracted much attention, found the development of numerical cognition to be independent from the presence of number words. Test participants from two Australian Aboriginal communities, both of whose languages only have words for ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘few’ and ‘many’, performed just as well in a counting test as a comparable group of Aboriginal people who spoke only English. From these results it was concluded that abstract concepts for numbers are based on innate mechanisms and not on socially learned words.

These findings appear contrary to the position propagated since the 1990s in which the discussion about the linguistic relativity of thought[1] was revived, based on the specific example of number words. In the history of the theory of the linguistic worldview, usually associated with Wilhelm von Humboldt, there are several conceptual fields that repeatedly attract attention as potential targets of linguistic influence, such as space-time relationships, kinship or religious terms. Perhaps numbers did not belong to these categories due to the non-linguistically motivated process of counting. Nevertheless, the lack of number words was noticed particularly in exotic languages, causing communicative difficulties and encouraging speculation about cognitive effects. In the following text, we want to explore the assumption of cognitive effects of the lack of number words prior to Wilhelm von Humboldt.
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Posted in 18th century, America, Germany, History, Linguistics

Sapir’s form-feeling and its aesthetic background

Jean-Michel Fortis
Laboratoire d’histoire des théories linguistiques, Université Paris-Diderot

I find that what I most care for is beauty of form, whether in substance or, perhaps even more keenly, in spirit. A perfect style, a well-balanced system of philosophy, a perfect bit of music, the beauty of mathematical relations — these are some of the things that, in the sphere of the immaterial, have most deeply stirred me.
(Sapir, letter to Lowie, 29 September 1916, cited in Silverstein 1986: 79)

In several texts, Sapir uses the term form-feeling, or closely related expressions (e.g. relational feeling, form intuition, feeling for form / relations / patterning / classification into forms, to feel a pattern / form etc.), to refer to the grasp of an unconscious linguistic or cultural and behavioral pattern. This grasp is what directs the subject of a given culture and speaker of a given language to act and speak in accordance with the patterns set down in his social and linguistic environment.

The following post is about the possible source of the notion of form-feeling. It is divided into two parts. First, I present the notion of form-feeling and the form-function duality in Sapir’s thought (sections 1 and 2). Next I come to the possible source of the notion, which I argue is to be found in German-speaking aesthetics and the concept of Formgefühl (sections 3, 4 and 5). Lastly, I will say a few words about Sapir’s striving for form and, again, its possible aesthetic origin.

My pathological lack of a feeling for concise form has resulted in a lengthy post. I beg to be forgiven. Many thanks to James McElvenny and Nick Riemer, who reviewed this post and checked the English.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics

(Non-)universality of word-classes and words: The mid-20th century shift

Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

While looking at a range of views by grammarians on word-class distinctions (noun, verb, adjective etc.) and word division in two recent papers (Haspelmath 2011; 2012a), I was struck by what appears to have been a major shift of perspective: While the first half of the 20th century emphasizes the uniqueness of languages and the categorial differences between them, the second half starts out from the assumption that languages do not differ in their basic categories. (Elsewhere I called this distinction categorial particularism and categorial universalism; Haspelmath 2010.) There are some signs that the perspective adopted in the first half of the 20th century is now getting more attention again.

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Posted in 20th century, History, Linguistics, Typology, Uncategorized

German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910

David Moore
University of Western Australia

My research aims to investigate documentation and research in the languages of Central Australia, providing a valid interpretation of the materials of the earliest work on the Aranda (Arrernte, Arrarnta) language of Central Australia. I examine the linguistic influences and language ideologies underpinning the analysis and description of Central Australian languages by German Lutheran Missionaries from 1890 to 1910. The Arandic languages in Central Australia are among the most researched languages in Australian linguistic history. German Lutheran missionaries conducted fieldwork in Australian languages in the late nineteenth century at Lake Killalpaninna in South Australia (Harms 2003; Kneebone 2005) and Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory (Kenny 2008; J. Strehlow 2011). The period 1890-1910 saw the first comprehensive grammars and wordlists of Central Australian Aboriginal languages by missionaries from Hermannsburg (Kempe, 1891) and Neuendettelsau (Strehlow 1909).


The background to the missionary linguistics of Central Australia is events which occurred in Germany in the early sixteenth century. The Lutheran Reformation set the stage for philology with Martin Luther establishing the use of vernaculars in church services rather than Latin. Protestants engaged with the Hebrew and Greek, Classical source languages of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible was translated in Protestant countries with the German New Testament published in 1522 and the complete German Bible in 1534. The resulting social context involved the need to read the Bible in vernacular languages with High German adopted as the literary standard. Kral (2000) has explored Lutheran practices of literacy at Hermannsburg and the central role of the text. The principles of translation and exegesis developed for the translation and understanding of Biblical texts. The first published translations of the Bible were made by Lutherans, Dieri (1897) and Aranda (1956).

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Posted in 19th century, Australia, Field linguistics, Grammars, History, Linguistics

‘You don’t see what you don’t know’: examining material aspects of manuscripts (Part I)

Anna Pytlowany
University of Amsterdam

Part one: Paper, ink, watermarks

My interest in manuscripts as material objects was sparked when I started my PhD research into the history of Dutch descriptive linguistics. Ultimately, I want to create a virtual digital archive of linguistic documents from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) period (1600-1825). There are many vocabularies, wordlists and grammars of the “exotic” languages that the Dutch encountered in the course of their trade expeditions. However, since the Company had no real policy regarding language documentation, most of the manuscripts are scattered around various libraries and archives all over the world – and largely forgotten.

But when, how, and by whom were they created and what were their itineraries? How can we read between the lines of these old texts when the explicit historical information is missing? Can the paper, the ink, or maybe the crease indicating the way the page was folded hold clues to unravelling the story of a particular text-carrying object – the manuscript?

“You don’t see what you don’t know”, the saying goes; you won’t be able to recognise the important hints unless you know what you are looking for.

I would like to give you a glimpse into the science of codicology, which I wish I was offered when I first held a 17th-century manuscript in my hands.[1] Read more ›

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Posted in 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Europe, History, Netherlands

The lost Tesoro del ydioma ylocano

Rebeca Fernández Rodríguez
Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro

At the end of the 18th century, Russian Empress Catherine II wanted to compile an atlas of the world’s languages. She commissioned first the German Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) and then the Serb Fyodor Jancovich de Mirievo (1741-1814) to publish a book containing the translation of a list of words into as many languages as possible. In 1785 Pedro Normande, Spanish chargé d’affaires at St. Petersburg,  sent a letter to Spanish king Charles III. It was a petition including two lists: the first a list of fourteen grammars and vocabularies from America and the Philippines, including such titles as the Vocabulario de pampango en romance (1732) by Diego de Bergaño (1690-1747), and Arte breve de la lengua aymara para introducir el Arte grande de la misma lengua (1603) by Ludovico Bertonio (1552-1625); and the second a list of 445 words to be translated into the different languages spoken within the territories of the Spanish Crown. Charles III agreed to the petition and directed the viceroys and governors in America and the Philippines to buy or copy the books and translate the words. They did so; and from 1789 to 1791 boxes of books and documents arrived in the Archivo de Indias in Seville and in the Real Biblioteca in Madrid. However, Charles III soon died and his son, Charles IV, inherited the Crown. This fact, among others, contributed to the lists and books never leaving Spain.

Apparently, although it was not in the list of books sent by the embassy in Russia, a bilingual Ilokano dictionary, Tesoro del ydioma yloco, was sent among others from the Philippines. For more than 200 years, scholars thought it lost, but it has in fact been in the library of the Palacio Real in Madrid all along. It is a copy made between 1781 and 1784 in Batac for the personal use of the Augustinian monk Agustín Pedro Blaquier (1749–1803), who loved books and whose library was believed to be one of the richest in the Philippines. It is made up of two volumes, one Spanish-Ilokano (1782–1784) and the other Ilokano-Spanish (1781–1782).  It is, so far, the oldest Ilokano dictionary currently available.
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Posted in 18th century, Lexicography, Philippines

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