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Seminar: Variation in Matukar Panau Kinship Nomenclature, Danielle Barth

Australian National University, Shape

Date: 19 October 2016

Seminar: Variation in Matukar Panau Kinship Nomenclature

Speaker: Danielle Barth

When: Friday 21 Oct 2016, 3.50pm-5pm

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


Nomenclatures for kinship systems are not stable. As societies evolve, so do their conceptions of relationships and the consequent words for those relationships. Periods of change lead to variation in nomenclature. Changes may come about through expansion or narrowing of particular terms, through derived terms from core kinship terms, through reanalysis of kinship address terms into referential terms and from borrowing (Kryukov, 1998). Often these changes are due to a reorganization of the kinship system, leading to new syncretisms and divisions in the nomenclature (ibid). This is not the case for Matukar Panau. Matukar Panau (Oceanic, Papua New Guinea), although showing a great deal of variation in its kinship terminology in the last 80 years (referencing reported kinship words in Kaspruś, 1942 collected in the 1930s), there is very little change in the overall organization of the core kinship system. In this talk, I will present the variation in the kinship system and show that it is due to address terms entering the referential system and semantic change of generic terms for people and sizes to take on a kinship meaning when possessed. As an example for the first change, take ‘mother’. A Matukar Panau speaker may refer to their mother with the term tinau ‘my mother’ or ngahau nen ‘my mother’ equally felicitously. For the second change, take pain ‘woman’ which when possessed means ‘wife’ (ngahau pain), in variation with yawau ‘my spouse’. An example of the third change, take dabok ‘big’, which when possessed means ‘elder’ (ngahau dabok), in variation with both tibu ‘my elder/grandparent’ and tawau ‘my elder same-sex sibling’ (which is a new syncretism in the system). The older kinship terms are always directly possessed (inalienably, with a suffix) and the second is indirectly possessed (alienably, with a classifier). There is, then, a grammatical consequence of the choice of term. Not all terms in the Matukar Panau kinship system show this kind of variation, but ten different widely-used kinship relationships have both a directly and indirectly possessed referential term. These new kinship terms also have a consequence for the semantic boundaries of (in)alienability (cf. Chappell and MacGregor, 1989).

Following a description of the Matukar Panau kinship system, corpus data is used for a quantitative analysis of choice of directly or indirectly possessed terms. Is the move towards increased indirectly possessed terms due to speaker characteristics like age or gender or networks, or due to features of the kinship words themselves? A random forest analysis (Hothorn et al., 2006; Strobl et al., 2008; 2007) of kin term meanings shows that spousal and parental relationships are more likely to be indirectly possessed than other kind of relationships (i.e. child and sibling relationships, among others) and that female kin are more likely to be referred to using indirectly possessed terminology than male kin. There is a small effect of younger speakers more likely to be using indirectly possessed terms. Taken together, these findings indicate that there is an overall shift towards indirect possession for kin terms (also cf. Meakins and O’Shannessy, 2005; Meyerhoff and Truesdale, 2015) and that the greatest variation is in the domain of intimate relationships likely to be part of a single household (cf. Tyler, 1966).


Chappell, H., & McGregor, W. (1989, November). Alienability, inalienability and nominal classification. In Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society (Vol. 15, pp. 24-36).

Hothorn, T., Buehlmann, P., Dudoit, S., Molinaro, A. & Van Der Laan, M. (2006). Survival Ensembles. Biostatistics, 7(3), 355-373.

Kaspruś, A. (1942). The languages of the Mugil District, NE-New Guinea. Anthropos, (H. 4./6), 711-778.

Kryukov, M. V. (1998). The synchro-diachronic method and the multidirectionality of kinship transformations. In Maurice Godelier, Thomas Trautmann and Franklin Tjon Sie Fat (eds.), Transformations of kinship (pp. 294-313). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lynch, J., Ross, M., & Crowley, T. (2002). The Oceanic Languages (Vol. 1). Psychology Press.

Meakins, F., & O'Shannessy, C. (2005). Possessing variation: Age and inalienability related variables in the possessive constructions of two Australian mixed languages. Monash University Linguistics Papers, 4(2), 43-63.

Meyerhoff, M., & Truesdale, S. (2015). Possession Constraints in Nkep (Vanuatu). Paper presented at New Ways of Analyzing Variation Asia Pacific, 4. April 22-14, Chiayi, Taiwan.

Strobl, C., Boulesteix, A., Zeileis, A., & Hothorn, T. (2007). Bias in Random Forest Variable Importance Measures: Illustrations, Sources and a Solution. BMC Bioinformatics, 8(25). URL<wbr />1471-2105/8/25.

Strobl, C., Boulesteix, A., Kneib, T., Augustin, T., & Zeileis, A. (2008). Conditional variable importance for random forests. BMC Bioinfomatics, 9(307). URL<wbr />1471-2105/9/307.

Tyler, S. A. (1966). Context and variation in Koya kinship terminology. American Anthropologist, 68(3), 693-707

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