Abstracts - Reed

Lauren ReedUnderstanding and not-understanding among sign language users in the New Guinea Highlands

Lauren Reed

Australian National University

Sign languages (SLs) in the upper Nebilyer and Kaugel valleys of Papua New Guinea are one-generation-old creations, centred on one deaf individual and (in some cases) a circle of adept hearing interlocutors. SLs in the region vary substantially in terms of elaboration and complexity, depending on how many regular, fluent sign interlocutors a deaf person has (cf. Nyst, Sylla, & Magassouba, 2012, p. 267 in rural Mali; Yau, 1992, p. 228 in China and Indigenous Canada). While Nebilyer/Kaugel SLs share basic lexicon at rates of 57%-79% (Reed, submitted), mutual intelligibility of these SLs is best explained not as a relationship between varieties, but a relationship between users (Hudson, 1996, pp. 35-36). Similarly, “understanding is not an independent state that precedes and affords coordinated social action, but rather a dimension of coordinated social action itself” (Bailey, 2005, p. 398).

In this talk, I present a series of vignettes which explore understanding and not-understanding between Nebilyer/Kaugel signers. For example, in one case a report of ‘not understanding’ seemed due to a lack of desire to understand, because of dislike of the signer. In this way, “unintelligibility is a product of active processes of reception as well as production of utterances” (Wirtz, 2007, p. 436). Similarly, some reported ‘understanding’ appears ascribable to signers greatly enjoying the act of conversing with someone they value, even if meaning is not actually well conveyed. This is similar to a local understanding that some of the prosodic and paralinguistic features of certain speech genres have a metapragmatic function which overrides the literal meanings of what is said in them (Rumsey, 1986, on el ung, ‘fight talk’, especially p. 289). Finally, understanding is not achieved purely through standalone, established linguistic phenomena such as words and grammatical strategies. Rather, it is buttressed by the immense amount of common ground signers share, whether that of each other’s intimate lives, or that arising by virtue of the community of practice all rural Western Highlanders inhabit.


Bailey, B. (2005). Misunderstanding. In A. Duranti (Ed.), A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology (pp. 395–413). Blackwell Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470996522.ch17

Hudson, R. A. (1996). Sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nyst, V., Sylla, K., & Magassouba, M. (2012). Deaf signers in Douentza, a rural area in Mali. In U. Zeshan, C. de Vos, & M. Coppola (Eds.), Sign languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights (pp. 251–276). Boston/Berlin and Nijmegen: Walter de Gruyter and Ishara Press.

Reed, L. (submitted). Sign languages of Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea, and their challenges to sign language typology. MA thesis. Canberra: Australian National University.

Rumsey, A. (1986). Oratory and the politics of metaphor in the New Guinea Highlands. In T. Threadgold, E. A. Grosz, G. Kress, & M. A. K. Halliday (Eds.), Language, semiotics, ideology (pp. 283–296). Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture.

Wirtz, K. (2007). Making sense of unintelligible messages in divine communication. Text & Talk - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies27(4), 435–462. https://doi.org/10.1515/TEXT.2007.019

Yau, S.-C. (1992). Création gestuelle et débuts du langage: Création de langues gestuelles chez des sourds isolés. Paris: Langages Croisés.

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