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Seminar: Bwénaado: An ethnolexicological study of a culturally salient word in Cèmuhi (New Caledonia), Bert Peeters & Margo Levompte-Van Poucke, 14 Oct

Australian National University

Date: 10 October 2016

Seminar: Bwénaado: An ethnolexicological study of a culturally salient word in Cèmuhi (New Caledonia)

When: 3:30am-5:00pm, Fri 14 Oct 2016

Where: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU


Bert Peeters (Australian National University / Griffith University)
Margo Lecompte-Van Poucke (Macquarie University)


Ever since people have come together in communities, they have felt the need to regulate and control their relationships with members of opposing groups. One way of building and maintaining a harmonious society is by sharing wealth. New Caledonia has developed its own unique system of exchange, referred to as la coutume by its French-speaking inhabitants and by the Melanesian part of the population which also uses indigenous terms that have high cultural visibility and can thus be considered to be key words and carriers of cultural meaning (Goddard 2015).

This paper focusses on one such culturally salient word; it aims to demonstrate that bwénaado (also spelled as bwénando or bwénaando) reflects an important cultural value in Kanak society. Cèmuhi, an Austronesian tonal language spoken by approximately 3,300 people dispersed along the north-east coast and in the valleys of New Caledonia’s rugged interior, has been described in considerable detail by Rivierre (1980, 1994); however, to the best of our knowledge no detailed treatment of bwénaado exists. Our semantic analysis therefore breaks new ground. It will be argued that, even though the Kanak social exchange system seems to be linked to the universal principle of reciprocity, the conceptualisation of this symbolic act is highly culture-specific. To ensure utmost respect for this cultural specificity and to break out of the prison walls of the English language (Wierzbicka 2014), the natural semantic metalanguage will be used to frame the description, and applied ethnolinguistics (Peeters 2013, 2015) will form the backdrop against which the description is carried out. 

Note: This is very much work in progress.


Goddard, Cliff. 2015. “Words as carriers of cultural meaning”. In John R. Taylor (ed.), The Oxford handbook of the word. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 380-398.

Peeters, Bert. 2013. “Language and cultural values: towards an applied ethnolinguistics for the foreign language classroom”. In Bert Peeters, Kerry Mullan & Christine Béal (eds.), Cross-culturally speaking, speaking cross-culturally. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 231-259.

-----. 2015. “Language, culture and values: towards an ethnolinguistics based on abduction and salience”. Etnolingwistyka 27. 47-62.

Rivierre, Jean-Claude. 1980. La langue de Touho: Phonologie et grammaire du cèmuhi (Nouvelle-Calédonie). Paris: Société d'études linguistiques et anthropologiques de France.

-----. 1994. Dictionnaire cèmuhi-français. Paris: Peeters.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2014. Imprisoned in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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