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Seminar: The communicative ecology of deaf sign languages in the Western Highlands of PNG, 12 October

Alan Rumsey, Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 2 October 2018

Seminar: The communicative ecology of deaf sign languages in the Western Highlands of PNG

Speakers: Lauren Reed, Alan Rumsey, Francesa Merlan and John Onga

When: 12 October, 3.30pm-5pm

Where: Basham Room, Baldessin Building, ANU


New Guinea is widely known to be a land of enormous linguistic diversity. Although it is far less well known, there are also many local sign languages in use there for communication between deaf people and hearing ones. This presentation focuses on deaf sign languages used in the rural upper Nebilyer and Kaugel Valleys in the Western highlands of PNG. It is based on fieldwork carried out since 2015 with 12 deaf signers in the region. Each of them has a network of interlocutors with whom they share communicative resources, which include signing, ad-hoc gesture, mouthing, vocalisation, and pointing. Some of the signs are widely used throughout the region and beyond, while others are specific to particular networks. The various local communicative repertoires vary widely in degrees of elaboration and stability. After providing an overview of these networks and their social dynamics, we present a case study of one local variety in its second generation of users, which stands out for its complexity and emergent normativity. Co-author John Onga will reflect on his experience as a hearing user of aksen, as signing is known in this region. The seminar will close by considering the rise of Papua New Guinea Sign Language (PNGSL), the national sign language of Papua New Guinea, which is used mainly in urban areas for communication among deaf people. We will compare its social dynamics and associated ideologies with those of the local sign languages as ones which are used between deaf people and hearing ones. 

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