Abstracts - Woodbury

Tony WoodburyRelating a language's lexico-grammatical genius to its speakers' ideology, aesthetics, sociality, and history: Inspirations from the work of Alan Rumsey

Tony Woodbury

University of Texas, Austin

I want to discuss a problem that I cannot solve, but whose solutions, I think, may be inspired by the deep, pioneering work of Alan Rumsey over the course of his long, intellectually rich, and emprically wide-ranging career. By lexico-grammatical genius, I mean the eclectic, often unique mix of properties that sensitive descriptive linguists present in grammars and dictionaries of languages. For example these might include the many variations on being ‘non-configurational’, or on being ‘polysynthetic’, or on being ‘tonal’; and the many varying contexts where each may be found.  How do so many different configurations ‘hang together’, that is, persist in time, and coordinate to form different patterns of use, or fashions of speaking? In his work, Alan Rumsey has pointed to answers to these problems by exploring different ways that lexico-grammar and speech practices grow alongside their speakers. He has presented clear relationships between the persistence and growth of coordinated patterns in lexico-grammar like the direct vs. indirect speech distinction in English alongside persistent ideologies about the separability of sense and specific wordings; and he has compared that with the lack of a direct vs. indirect speech distinction in Ungarinyin  alongside an ideology where meaning and wording  are understood by speakers as fundamentally merged (Rumsey 1990). He has argued that Ku Waru traditions of metered sung epic, in the New Guinea highlands, have grown alongside ideologies and aesthetic sensibilities allowing for a sense of convergence between sound shape and word; and has compared that with ecologies of linguistic sound practice and ideology elsewhere in New Guinea, and in Europe (Rumsey 2001). And in recent studies on child language acquisition in Ku Waru, he has taken up the role of patterns of parallelistic enactment in the learning and practice of a range of linguistic activities like translation and the learning of patterned sound contrasts (Rumsey 2014a, 2014b, 2017 ). In all, his work amounts to a massive program to integrate questions of linguistic diversity with facets of human practice, cognition, and art as studied within a wide range of human sciences centered around anthropology. In this talk, I will state the problem, and argue the importance to it of Alan Rumsey’s work using illustrations that arise in my work on the Chatino languages of Mexico and Yupik-Inuit languages of the American Arctic.


Rumsey, Alan. 1990. Wording, meaning, and linguistic ideology. American Anthropologist, New Series 92(2): 346-361.

Rumsey, Alan. 2001. Tom Yaya Kange: A metrical narrative genre from the New Guinea Highlands. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11(2): 193-239.

Rumsey, Alan. 2014a. Language and human sociality,  in N. J. Enfield, Paul Kockelman and Jack Sidnell (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 391-410.

Rumsey, Alan 2014b. Bilingual language learning and the translation of worlds in the New Guinea Highlands and beyond. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Research  4:119-140.

Rumsey, Alan. 2017. Dependency and relative determination in language acquisition: The case of Ku Waru. In N. J. Enfield (ed.), Dependencies in language, 97–116. Berlin: Language Science Press.

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