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Words and meaning borrowed through time give clues to early connection

Evolution, Oceania

Date: 24 July 2017

“The borrowing of words is an area of research that can illuminate connections,” says Dr Patrick McConvell, organiser of a recent workshop on Diffusion and Change in Lexical Semantics at the ANU.

He says lack of research on the connections between Indigenous Australians, particularly in the north, to Indonesian, New Guinea and Pacific communities, means Australia is still mistakenly seen as standing alone pre-European contact.

He says the idea of the workshop was to explore a concept and word like tabu, well known from the Pacific, and found in Australia, and begin to map its use.

Dr Patrick McConvell (left) and Dr Paul Geraghty of the University of the South Pacific (Fiji)
Dr Patrick McConvell (left) of the ANU and Dr Paul Geraghty of the University of the South Pacific (Fiji).

During the workshop Dr McConvell explained his initial thinking, “The term tabu and related forms are found in Oceanic Astronesian, but also diffused into Australia (northern Queensland) perhaps 2000 years ago and may have arisen from a Papuan source.”

He says the word was also borrowed into English from the Pacific and became more widely known throughout the English speaking word when Freud and others began writing about concepts like totem and taboo.

Workshop participants shared their knowledge about many words similar in meaning/sound to tabu and used throughout the region. Words like Jabul used by Kuku Nyungkal people in Cape York and Tabur, used in Vanuatu. There was then discussion about if and what the connections might be. The workshop also explored the theory and method of dealing with change in lexical semantics, exploring research on Austronesian, Papuan and Australian languages on colexification and semantic mapping (e.g. François 2013; Schapper, San Roque & Hendery 2016).

Alexandre François addresses the workshop
Alexandre François, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, addresses the workshop.

The group intends to continue testing methods of semantic mapping, and plans an edited volume for 2018.

The workshop, Diffusion & Change in Lexical Semantics, was run on the 5th and 6th of July and was sponsored by CoEDL. 

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

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