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Recognition for well written papers

Caroline Jones, Felicity Meakins

Date: 30 December 2016

Congratulations to our CoEDL researchers Felicity Meakins and Caroline Jones as well as Cassandra Algy from Karungkarni Arts for being awarded co-runners-up for the Language Sciences award for best article published in 2016. Their article titled Bilingualism, language shift and the corresponding expansion of spatial cognitive systems was published in Language Sciences Volume 54, pages 1–13.

The annual Sebeok-Love Award for the best paper in the journal went to Charles Lassiter for Aristotle and distributed language: capacity, matter, structure and languaging (Language Sciences Volume 53 Part A, pages 8–20). The other runner up was Jonathan Owens for  The lexical nature of idioms (Language Sciences Volume 57, pages 49–69). Our congratulations to Charles Lassiter and Jonathan Owens.

The article by Meakins, Jones and Algy examines the Neo-Whorfian hypothesis which claims that the way we talk about space shapes the way we think about it. They present a case study of inter-generational language shift and consequent spatial cognitive shift in the Gurindji community of Kalkaringi (northern Australia).

Traditionally in this community Gurindji speakers use cardinal directions: kayirra ‘north’, kurlarra ‘south’, kaarnirra ‘east’, karlarra ‘west’ which have 28 different forms encoding spatial cases, landforms and planes. They use cardinal directions in both large-scale and small-scale space to locate objects. For example, someone walking into a house will be told a saucepan is on the south-end of the shelf along the eastern side of the wall. Younger Gurindji people speak Gurindji Kriol, a systematic admixture of Gurindji and Kriol, which uses only 4 of the 28  forms for each cardinal point. They continue to use cardinal directions for large-scale space such as way-finding, and only in small-scale space in cases where the hearer can’t see the speaker so pointing and demonstratives are not possible, for example travelling in the back of a car or at night time. Younger people also have been exposed to the English left/right system through the Western education system but do not use left/right system in discourse. The authors questioned whether this change in language use meant younger people no longer orientated themselves in the world like older generations.

To answer the question, the authors invited 107 members of the community to undertake the ‘Animals-in-a-row’ rotation task. The task involves a participant memorising a sequence of toy animals positioned perpendicular to themself. The participant then rotates 180° and reconstructs the pattern of animals. The task is open-ended, but the participant has two options of interest. They may position them in relation to themself (viewpoint dependent) or position them with respect to external cues such as points of the compass (viewpoint independent).

The results showed that both Gurindji and Gurindji Kriol speakers gave strong viewpoint independent responses, so that language change did not seem to be affecting younger generations’ mental map of the world. However, a change in result did come from those with a tertiary education, who gave significantly more viewpoint dependent responses. The authors attribute this to participants’ exposure to English and familiarity with left/right terms, and perhaps to associated literacy practices. They argue that increasing bilingualism has an additive effect on spatial cognition where participants essentially become bi-spatial.

In determining the prize winner and two runners up, the editorial team of Language Sciences said they “felt that all three submissions were accessible to general linguists, impressively clear in how they were written, and extremely well-argued.” They were also impressed “by the connections made in the articles to neighbouring disciplines such as philosophy and psychology, and the meta-theoretical discussions that emerged from such connections”. 

Above photo: Cassandra Algy (left) conducts a spatial description task called ‘Man and tree’ with Gurindji Kriol speakers Amanda Vincent, Rosie Smiler, Thelma Smiler and Lisa Smiler (l-r). Amanda is using cardinal directions to describe objects in relation to each other to elicit the equivalent picture from Thelma. Responses to this ‘Man and tree’ task were also described in the paper by Meakins, Jones and Algy.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University