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Seminar: Variation and change in a polysynthetic language: the case of Bininj Kunwok (Western Arnhem Land), Alex Marley, 27 June

Australian National University, Nicholas Evans, Wellsprings

Date: 13 June 2019

Seminar: Variation and change in a polysynthetic language: the case of Bininj Kunwok (Western Arnhem Land)

Speaker: Alex Marley

When: 27 June 2019, 2pm-3.30pm

Where: Hedley Bull Theatre 1, Hedley Bull Building ANU


Bininj Kunwok is a Gunwinyguan language spoken in west Arnhem Land, one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. Evans' (2003) pan-dialectal description of Bininj Kunwok indicated that in this small speech community (around 2000 speakers), there was significant inter- and intra-speaker variation, much of which we had little understanding of the social or linguistic conditioning factors.

As a polysynthetic language, Bininj Kunwok also offers an opportunity to explore variation and language change from a typological angle. All polysynthetic languages are endangered to some degree (Fortescue 2016) and these languages provide unique perspectives on our understanding of language evolution. Furthermore, there are few studies on the sociolinguistic factors behind their development, a point which can be made about indigenous languages in general (see Stanford and Preston 2009).

Bininj Kunwok is therefore in a prime linguistic and sociolinguistic scenario for exploring questions about language diversification. Documenting and analysing variation and change in a minority language however, requires adapting traditional variationist frameworks and employing mixed methodologies. This presentation will cover in part the methodological and theoretical frameworks used for analysing variation in a small polysynthetic language, with an explanation of panchronic (i.e. synchronic and diachronic) corpus development.

I will also present a case study of variation in Bininj Kunwok, namely that found in the pronominal prefix paradigm. This will include a discussion of the consequences of variation in the paradigm, and an evaluation of the results and approach as a whole.

This event is a part of the Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity Project

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