t-shirts as child abuse?

July 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Okay, its clearly not just us as *b-ling* who are interested in t-shirts.

A range of clothing for really young children with discourses such as “I’m living proof my mum is easy” has been released, riling some in the community:



Seminar on Maaori place names

July 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Below is a link to a seminar run by Manu Ao an inter-university group devoted to Maaori leadership in the academy

The speaker is Sir Tipene O’Regan, an extremely important figure, not the least for his role on the NZ Geographic Names board. Here here discusses Maaori place names including the spelling of Whanganui…


syntax and a change of heart

July 21, 2009 § 2 Comments

You might think we are fashion obsessed here at *b-ling*, but here is another interesting t-shirt ripe for analysis:

 We love TShirts web

image from www.korero.maori.nz

I am particularly interested in the expression we ♥ te reo.   Here we have an English subject pronoun, a Maaori object NP and a logograph representing the verb love/aroha. Disregarding the symbol for a moment, this is an interesting example of  code-switching. Presumably this expression is interpretable to most New Zealanders, but as a linguist I would like to analyse the syntax of this statement. Numerically the number of Maaori words outweighs the number of English words, and technically ♥ belongs to neither language.

The Maaori Noun Phrase is perfectly formed –  it has a preposed determiner, te, but no other modification. The same goes for the English NP acting as the subject here.  Syntactically though the sentences looks like it is modelled on English. The subject is the first element in the sentence, which follows the S(ubject) V(erb) O(bject) basic order for English rather than the VSO ordering typical of Polynesian languages. Both languages, however, have objects in the last place in sentences so we might think at first glance that the presence of Maaori lexical items suggests a switch to Maaori syntax. This is possible, yet one vital element of Maaori grammar here is missing. Objects are usually introduced by the particle isignalling the role of the NP as the object. If a switch in language really was occurring here we would expect the phrase to read we ♥ i te reo.

I would like to dwell for a moment on the English subject pronoun. We  is the only option for the 1st person plural in English, but this is not the case for Maaori

  • māua ‘the two of us’
  • tāua   ‘the two of us’

These are the dual first person pronouns. The difference between them is important. The first refers to the speaker and one other person. That other person is not the listener, i.e. the person being addressed. For this reason this form is referred to as an exclusive as it excludes the listener. The other form, tāua,on the other hand could be glossed as you and me as long as we understand that only one person is being addressed. As the listener is included in the meaning of this ‘we’ we can call it the first person inclusive dual.

An inclusive exclusive distinction must be made in the plural forms

  • mātou  we  plural exclusive – me and some other people but not you the listener/s
  • tātou  we inclusive plural – me  and others who are not listeners and all of you listeners.

So the choice of pronoun for ‘we’ in Maaori is very important. It lexicalises a number of different types of ‘we’ that English does not distinguish in the pronominal system but needs to be disambiguated by listeners. So for example, if we substituted the English ‘we’  in  we ♥ te reo with mātou, we would be telling readers of the t-shirt that the wearer and associates support the Maaori language but that possibly the reader does not. Substituting tātou  for ‘we’, the t-shirt wearer would be speaking on behalf of the t-shirt readers.

The choice of heart is also interesting. It is easy to interpret this as a symbol of emotional attachment.  After all, In English we speak from the heart, get heartbroken, and downhearted. Just recall the advertising around February 14 and you will see the connections of hearts and love is strong … in our culture.

Maaori too seems to use the heart as the seat of emotion. Here are some expressions from the Ngata dictionary:

  • ngākau pouri             the blues, downhearted
  • ngākau hari               cheerful
  • ngākau whakawiri   hard-hearted

The dictionary illustrates the meaning of ngākau as follows:

ngākau He ngākau aroha tōna.
heart She has a kind heart.

But there are other words for heart. Manawa can refer to both the organ and be used in expressions describing emotions and characteristics of people much in the same way as ngākau.  Other dictionaries though list another meaning for this term. The Williams Dictionary (7th Ed) gives the primary sense of ngākau  as

  • ‘vitals, viscera, with the comment  (It is questionable whether it should be applied to the physical heart).

The second sense returns us to the metaphorical:

  • heart, seat of affections or feelings,  mind

Perhaps then the seat of affections in Maaori where either the heart or the intestines – or a generalised internal organs of the torso – there are many terms in Maaori that utilise puku ‘stomach’ as well, pukuaroha ‘sympathetic’, for example.

English too, has not always used the heart as the location of emotions and desires –  From the Oxford English Dictionary online

  • 1832 LYTTON Eugene A. ii, I am a man that can feel for my neighbours. I have bowels{em}yes I have bowels.
  • 1537 CRANMER Let. to Crumwell Misc. Writ. (Parker Soc.) II. 348 Your good mind to~wards me concerning my debts to the king’s highness, which of all other things lieth most nigh unto my stomach.
  • 1697 DRYDEN tr. Virgil Georgics III, in tr. Virgil Wks. 108 When Love’s unerring Dart Transfixt his Liver

If the emotions have been zooming around the body in both Maaori and English language  cultures for a while now, I will leave you to ponder what apppropriate symbols could be use to replace the ♥ on the t-shirts!

human-animal interactions

July 19, 2009 § Leave a comment

As many of my students will know I am very interested in the hows and whys of humans speaking to animals. I think we can find out quite a bit about the nature of communication and the role of animals in human society by examining patterns of animal-directed talk. Apparently though there are benefits for the animals too. Here is a little link to a very interesting part of the British Library site on birdsong and bird communication. I like how the birds featured in this section apparently initiate communication with humans for their own purposes … though there is a little reward for us in it too.


new languages formed from ducks!

July 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

The story of the tower of Babel links multilingualism with God’s wrath induced by the threat of human co-operation. It seems, then, that this a discourse of multilingualism as punishment, as impediment.  Other cultures recall a time where humans shared a single language – a unity which disappeared due to the dispersal of groups.  Here’s one such story from the Salishan tribes of the North West of the Americas.

In a certain place in the winter months, the ducks collected in great numbers. When any one approached them, they would rise and fly away, making a whistling-noise. One morning two hunters went down to a river to kill some ducks. They had each obtained one, when a dispute arose over the question whether the whistling-noise was made with the bill or with the wings when they rose to fly. Neither could convince the other, and the words became bitter. Finally they agreed to take it to the chief, and let him settle the dispute.

 The chief heard the story, and looked at the ducks. Both of them were dead and could not make any noise. Therefore he called a council to listen to the dispute. The people came from all around to deliberate. They spoke one language and had only one chief.

 The ducks were brought in, and the chief explained the question. The people said, “We do not wish to be unjust, we will go to the river and hear for ourselves. These ducks can do us no good.” So they went down to the river and frightened the ducks which flew over their heads. Part of the Indians said the noise was made with the bills; part said it was made with the wings. They could not agree. There- fore the ducks were made to fly once more. The people began to quarrel violently, and separated in an ugly mood.

 All during the winter the feeling grew, until in spring the mutual hatred drove part of the Indians south to hunt for new homes. This was the first division of the people into tribes. They selected a chief from their own division, and called themselves by another name.

 Finding new objects, and having to give such objects names, brought new words into their former language; and thus after many years the language was changed. Each split in the tribe made a new division and brought a new chief. Each migration brought different words and meanings. Thus the tribes slowly scattered; and thus the dialects, and even new languages, were formed.

From Franz Boaz (Ed) (1917). Folktales of the Salish and Sahaptin Tribes. Journal of the American Folklore Society, Vol 11, 111-112.

Non-Salishan linguists would pretty much agree with the general analysis suggested here. New languages form over time as cultures split and migrate to new places and new contexts. Changes in cultural patterns are likely to be mirrored by divergences in language and language use.

So how come some people’s proposals get called science and some people’s just get called folklore? It seems that it depends on who is speaking and how they are saying it.

In the link below scientists from Columbia University admire the folk art of the indigenous peoples of the Andes in being able to predict potato crop success by analysing the stars.

Perhaps institutions such as universities bestow the label science on discourses produced by those who are supported by the academy. Outside of the academy knowledge is reanalysed as intuition which is a very powerful discursive move. Or as David Peat (1994, p.42)  puts it

When western science claims to speaking the truth, then, by implication other people’s truths become myths legends, superstitions, and fairystories. A dominant society denies the authenticity of other peoples’ systems of knowledge and in this ways strikes at the very heart of their cultures

Perhaps another issue is the way in which knowledge is encoded. The Salishan analysis of multilingualism is unmistakeably a narrative. We have characters-the original two duckhunters and the chief-and there is an episodic structure. Becuase of this we may pay too much attention to genre and misinterpret the meaning of the narrative.  The contrast between narrative and science made by some in the west is in istelf a construct.  The construction of scholastic scientific texts of that tradition require the defacing of the protagonist-The I of the narrator is hidden in agentless passives … the compound was soaked in nitric acid for 24 hours and then viewed under the microscope. Nor can we deny that there is a sequencing of events in the reporting of experiments which match the scrupulous seqeuncing of events in the Salishan narrative-no flashbacks no flashforwards, suggesting that science writing indeed is a narrative. 

After all, who doesn’t like a good story? And if all sciences are encoded in a narrative genre of some kind,  can we not say that all cultures produce both narratives and sciences?


Linguistics – early American traditions

July 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

The following excerpt is from the first volume, Genesis, in the Memory of Fire trilogy by Eduardo Galeano which presents a multi-sourced multi-viewpointed history of the Americas …

The First Father of the Guaraní rose in darkness lit by reflections from his own heart and created flames and thin mist. He created love and had nobody to give it to. He created language and had no one to listen to him.

Then he recommended to the gods that they should construct the world and take charge of fire, mist, rain, and wind.  And he turned over to them the music and words of the sacred hymn so that they would give life to women and to men.

So love became communion, language took on life, and the First Father redeemed his solitude. Now he accompanies men and women who sing as they go.

We’re walking this earth,

We’re walking this shining earth.

Eduardo Galeano (1985, p.11)

 Investigating the explanations of language(s) and the origins of communications from any source or perspective perhaps reveals something about the explainers’ views about the important functions and features of languages. This is true not just of the explanations of the groups such as the Guaraní of South America given above, but also of more quote unquote scientific explanations, which for example focus on language as a distinctive human feature separating us from other animals, who may or may not communicate, and especially our evolutionary forebears the other primates.

Is it not interesting that the Guaraní suggest that love and language predate community – or at least a sense of it? This proposal and the phrase language took on life is a strange precursor of many sociolinguistic views of contemporary scholastic linguistic traditions that see language or discourse as the stuff of which identity, culture, and community are made 

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