Australia: Language and culture research group at James Cook University

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jan 16 22:07:55 UTC 2009

Language and culture research group at James Cook University

It gives us pleasure to announce the establishment of the Language and
Culture Research Group within the Cairns Institute at James Cook University.

The Language and Culture Research Group (LCRG) brings together linguists,
anthropologists, social scientists and those working in the humanities,
under the leadership of Professor Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and Adjunct
Professor R. M. W. Dixon. The primary aim of the LCRG is to investigate the
relationship between language and the cultural behaviour of those who speak
it, and the relations between human biology, cognition studies and linguistics.

The LCRG is concerned with the fundamental business of linguistics and
especially anthropological linguistics--our faculty and research students
undertake intensive studies of previously undescribed (or barely described)
languages, with a primary focus on the languages of the Pacific (especially
the Papuan languages of New Guinea), the languages of Amazonia, and of
Aboriginal Australia. We also concentrate on studying minority languages,
including languages of immigrants, within the context of the majority
populations. We work in terms of basic linguistic theory, the cumulative
framework which is employed in most linguistic description, providing
anthropologically informed grammars and analyses of languages and language
areas. Our work has a sound empirical basis but also shows a firm
theoretical orientation, seeking for explanation hand-in-hand with description.

Building on reliable descriptive studies, the LCRG also puts forward
inductive generalizations about human languages, cultural practices and
cognition. We enquire how a language reflects the environment in which
people live, their system of social organization, food production
techniques, and the ways in which people view the world. For instance,
groups living in mountainous terrain often have to specify, for any object,
whether it is uphill, downhill or at the same level as the speaker. And if
there is a chiefly system, a special term of address may be required for
speaking a high chief, and a different term for a minor chief. Why are
languages the way they are? We seek scientific explanation and motivation,
combining the expertise of linguists, anthropologists and social scientists
from other domains.

Another focus of study concerns the ways in which languages influence each
other. What kind of words, and meanings, are likely to be borrowed between
two languages spoken next to each other, and under what social
circumstances? Are some kinds of systems particularly open to diffusion, so
that they are likely to spread over all the languages in a geographical
area, and are other kinds of systems less likely to be diffused?

The Group comprises a number of students and research staff. Its scope
includes work within a number of projects funded by the Australian Research
Council, including 'Are some languages better than others?' and 'The world
through the prism of language: a cross-linguistic view of genders, noun
classes, and classifiers'. Each year, we plan to attract PhD students and
Post-doctoral Fellows, and invite leading national and international
scholars as Visiting Fellows and Honorary Visiting Fellows, to spend their
sabbatical in the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of the Cairns Institute
at JCU.

The LCRG organises international workshops on topics in ethnolinguistics
and linguistic typology, continuing the tradition laid by A. Y. Aikhenvald
and R. M. W. Dixon since 1997.

The Cairns Institute is an exciting new initiative which aims to establish
JCU as the world's leading research university in the area of peoples,
societies and cultures of the tropics. Our mission is consistent with that
of the Cairns Institute as a whole-to enhance human life in the tropics,
with particular focus on Australia, the Pacific and South America, so as to
materially contribute to a brighter, more enriching future for tropical
peoples. This will be achieved by assisting them with linguistic and
cultural maintenance and understanding of their identity and heritage, and
through globally-informed scholarship, research excellence, and a
mobilising commitment to social justice. We envisage working in close
collaboration with colleagues from the Department of Anthropology,
Archaeology and Sociology, in particular, Associate Professor Rosita Henry,
Dr Mike Wood, Dr Nigel Chang, and Professor Bruce Kapferer, the Cairns
Institute's International Strategic Advisor.

Cairns is a vibrant town, a centre for numerous Aboriginal and Torres
Straits Islanders communities, and a multiplicity of immigrant groups. It
is strategically located with respect to the Pacific Islands and to New
Guinea, a real gateway to the world of tropical people.

The LCRG is jointly coordinated by Professor Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald and
Adjunct Professor R. M. W. Dixon.

Alexandra Aikhenvald has worked on descriptive and historical aspects of
Berber languages and has published, in Russian, a grammar of Modern Hebrew
(1990). She is a major authority on languages of the Arawak family, from
northern Amazonia, and has written grammars of Bare (1995, based on work
with the last speaker who has since died) and Warekena (1998), plus A
Grammar of Tariana, from Northwest Amazonia (Cambridge University Press,
2003; paperback 2007), in addition to essays on various typological and
areal features of South American languages. Her comprehensive grammar, The
Manambu language from East Sepik, Papua New Guinea, was published by Oxford
University Press in 2008. Other monographs with OUP are Classifiers: a
Typology of Noun Categorization Devices (2000, paperback 2003), Language
Contact in Amazonia (2002), Evidentiality (2004, paperback 2006) and
Imperatives and commands (due in 2010).

R.M.W. Dixon has published grammars of a number of Australian languages
(including Dyirbal and Yidiñ, both spoken in the Cairns area), in addition
to A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian (University of Chicago Press, 1988), The
Jarawara language of southern Amazonia (Oxford University Press, 2004) and
A Semantic Approach to English Grammar (Oxford University Press, 2005). His
works on typological theory include Where have all the Adjectives Gone? and
other Essays in Semantics and Syntax (Mouton, 1982) and Ergativity
(Cambridge University Press, 1994). The Rise and Fall of languages
(Cambridge UP,1997) expounded a punctuated equilibrium model for language
development; this is the basis for his detailed case study Australian
Languages: their Nature and Development (Cambridge UP, 2002). The first two
volumes of his seminal study, Basic Linguistic Theory, will be published
by OUP in late 2009.

For further information, research opportunities and visits, contact us at or

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