Language and culture research group: Cairns Institute, JCU, Australia

Alexandra Aikhenvald a.y.aikhenvald at LIVE.COM
Thu Jan 15 09:56:15 UTC 2009

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 Sasha.Aikhenvald at or nyamamayratakw at
 Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, PhD, DLitt, FAHAProfessor and Research Leader (Peoples and Societies of the Tropics)The Cairns Institute James Cook UniversityPO Box 6811CairnsQueensland 4870Australiamobile 0400 305315office 61-7-40421117home 61-7-40381876 sasha.aikhenvald at 
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