Aspects of the Semantics of Intellectual Subjectivity in Dalabon (South-Western Arnhem Land)

By Ponsonnet, Maia | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Aspects of the Semantics of Intellectual Subjectivity in Dalabon (South-Western Arnhem Land)


Ponsonnet, Maia, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: This paper explores the semantics of subjectivity (views, intentions, the self as a social construct, etc.) in Dalabon, a severely endangered language of northern Australia, and in Kriol, the local creole. Considering the status of Dalabon and the importance of Kriol in the region, Dalabon cannot be observed in its 'original' context, as the traditional methods of linguistic anthropology tend to recommend. This paper seeks to rely on this very parameter, reclaiming linguistic work and research as a legitimate conversational context. Analyses are thus based on metalinguistic statements--among which are translations in Kriol. Far from seeking to separate Dalabon from Kriol, I use interactions between them as an analytical tool. The paper concentrates on three Dalabon words: men-no ('intentions', 'views', 'thoughts'); kodi-no ('head') and kodj-kulu-no ('brain'). None of these words strictly matches the concept expressed by the English word 'mind'. On the one hand, men-no is akin to consciousness but is not treated as a container nor as a processor; on the other, kodj-no and kodj-kulu-no are treated respectively as container and processor, but they are clearly physical body parts, while what English speakers usually call 'the mind' is essentially distinct from the body. Interestingly, the body part kodj-no ('head') also represents the individual as a social construct--while the Western 'self' does not match physical attributes. Besides, men-no can also translate as 'idea', but it can never be abstracted from subjectivity--while in English, potential objectivity is a crucial feature of ideas. Hence the semantics of subjectivity in Dalabon does not reproduce classic 'Western' conceptual articulations. I show that these specificities persist in the local creole.

Introduction

Subjectivity is a major topic in many social sciences--in anthropologyin particular. However, intellectual subjectivity is a difficult question and has been given scant attention in the anthropological literature. In this paper, I lean on linguistic analysis of a well-defined corpus in order to shed some light on this complex matter. This tangible basis provides a solid grounding that allows me to present further analysis of Dalabon and Kriol on the one hand, and to articulate broader views on intellectual subjectivity on the other. Subjectivity is understood here as the realm of what is specific to the person, the person being understood indifferently either as essentially individual or as essentially constituted by his or her inscription within a social framework. For the sake of clarity and conciseness, I have chosen to deal exclusively with intellectual subjectivity in this paper. Subjectivity of feelings and affects will be the topic of another paper (Ponsonnet in preparation).

Evans (2007) provides a thorough description of the semantic domain of (some) intellectual states and mechanisms in Dalabon. (1) He outlines a description of the morphemes and lexemes used in Dalabon to refer to what we would call 'the mind' in English. Thanks to the corpus gathered recently, it is now possible to elaborate on these suggestions. Evans (2007) identifies the root men, glossed as 'social conscience or attitude', but notes that the noun men-no was not attested at the time that he wrote his paper. In Evans's data, men would only appear as a bound morpheme. It has now been repeatedly and clearly attested, and it is thus possible to refine our understanding of it.

Evans (2007) also mentions the morpheme kodj, which is used to form the lexeme kodj-no, referring to the physical head. It has also been further documented in the interim. Having gained some insight into the compound lexeme kodj-kulu-no, which refers to the physical brain, and about a series of verbs that can be formed with kodj, it is possible to sketch new interpretations of the semantics of kodj and kodj-kulu. These new insights will be used to sketch a new perspective on the semantics of (intellectual) subjectivity in Dalabon. …

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