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Polysemiotic kinship systems as instruments of cumulative cultural evolution

IMC Tuesday Seminar: Talk by Simon Devylder, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Language and Culture, UiT

Info about event


Tuesday 28 February 2023,  at 11:00 - 12:30


Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, 8000 Aarhus C, building 1483, room 312 and online (https://aarhusuniversity.zoom.us/my/imcevent)

When people talk about kinship systems, they often use co-speech gestures and other representations to elaborate (Enfield 2005, Gaby 2016). This paper investigates such polysemiotic (spoken, gestured, and drawn) descriptions of kinship relations, to see if they display recurring patterns of conventionalization that capture specific social structures. I present a case study from Paamese, a Melanesian ethnolinguistic community from Vanuatu, where 40 Paamese speakers were asked to talk about their family in semi-guided kinship interviews (Enfield & Levinson 2003). Analyses of the speech, gesture, and drawings produced during these interviews revealed that lineality (i.e. mother’s side vs. father’s side) is lateralized in the speaker’s gesture space. In other words, kinship members of the speaker’s matriline are placed on the left side of the speaker’s body and those of the patriline are placed on their right side, when they are mentioned in speech. Moreover, when Paamese speakers describe marital relations, they make a distinctive sagittal gesture on the left-diagonal axis or on the right-diagonal axis depending on the gender of the referred relative. Anecdotal evidence from the drawings performed on the ground during the interviews also appear to mark this contrast with crossed diagonals.

We interpret these results as evidence for the existence of a Paamese ‘polysemiotic kinship system’ and make the broader claim that they are instruments of cumulative cultural evolution, used to conceptualize, capture, and transmit knowledge about the structure and practices of a society. 

About the speaker
Simon Devylder is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, Norway.

Free of charge - All are welcome to attend