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Seminar: Placing Bininj Kunwok spatial-navigation system in context, Claudia Cialone, 22 June

Australian National University, Shape

Date: 5 June 2018

Seminar: Placing Bininj Kunwok spatial-navigation system in context

Speaker: Claudia Cialone,

When: 22 June 2018, 4pm-5pm

Where: Seminar Room 3, Hedley Bull Building, ANU


How do Bininj Kunwok people from Western Arnhem Land navigate in the bush? Why do they navigate that way? And how do they verbalize their orientation systems? Also where do we place Bininj Kunwok within typological cross-cultural literature on spatial language and cognition?

These questions still remain unanswered in current literature. To answer them this final seminar will offer an overview of my PhD project 2015-2018 at the crossroads between linguistic/anthropological documentation and cognitive enquiry. It will first show the design and application of an innovative field methodology used to investigate socially and geographically contextualized semi-naturalistic spatial language as well as the navigation strategies in place in the bush. The method involves a synchronization of GoPro cameras and GPS track during Bininj Kunwok people’s walks along what they call Bininj manbolh ‘Aboriginal roads’ in Arnhem Land. Data collected this way also allowed the creation of navigation stimuli on small-scale for further elicitation of navigation-related language. The resulting narratives were compared to existing Bininj Kunwok texts collected with other methods. The emerging differences further endorse the choice to adopt a new technique of data collection for spatial/navigation data.

The project contributes to a scientific exploration of human navigation and the related language of space with qualitative and quantitative analysis of navigation talk. Bininj Kunwok speakers use allocentric orientation constructions such as the cardinal (e.g., N/S/E/W) and the geomorphic (e.g., upstream/downstream and high/low Country) to orient in big-scale environments in the bush and for small-scale spaces. The two types of constructions are not exactly linguistically and conceptually equivalent. This typologically positions Bininj Kunwok amongst those languages characterized by a widespread use of a variety of absolute systems and expands on this literature by distinguishing them. These allocentric constructions are identified within two main strategies of navigation in the bush: proximate – related to the immediate judgment of the eye, and ultimate –related to traditions of land travel. A few main factors have been singled out to be crucial for the choice of the type of allocentric construction as well as orientation strategy including social factors, the physical environment and the elicitation task. Also, a qualitative analysis of free recalls backed up by spatial navigation literature supports the idea that Bininj Kunwok’s already documented mnemonic technique to ease memorization of places, here found to be used slightly differently for directions, may actually act as an oral strategy to create a mental representation of an environment for its future recognition, fruition and navigation.

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