AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Polysynthetic sociolinguistics: the language and culture of Murrinh Patha Youth

by John Basil Mansfield

Institution: Australian National University
Year: 2014
Keywords: life ; language ; kardu ; Wadeye ; Murrinh Patha ; polysynthetic language ; Aboriginal
Record ID: 1049975
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/12687


This thesis is about the life and language of kardu kigay – young Aboriginal men in the town of Wadeye, northern Australia. Kigay have attained some notoriety within Australia for their participation in “heavy metal gangs”, which periodically cause havoc in the town. But within Australianist linguistics circles, they are additionally known for speaking Murrinh Patha, a polysynthetic language that has a number of unique grammatical structures, and which is one of the few Aboriginal languages still being learnt by children. My core interest is to understand how people’s lives shape their language, and how their language shapes their lives. In this thesis these interests are focused around the following research goals: (1) To document the social structures of kigay’s day-­‐to-­‐day lives, including the subcultural “metal gang” dimension of their sociality; (2) To document the language that kigay speak, focusing in particular in aspects of their speech that differ from what has been documented in previous descriptions of Murrinh Patha; (3) To analyse which features of kigay speech might be socially salient linguistic markers, and which are more likely to reflect processes of grammatical change that run below the level of social or cognitive salience; (4) To analyse how kigay speech compares to other youth Aboriginal language varieties documented in northern Australia, and argue that together these can be described as a phenomenon of linguistic urbanisation. I will show that the “heavy metal gangs” are an idiosyncratic local subculture that uses foreign heavy metal bands as group totems. Social connections and loyalties are formed on the basis of peer solidarity, as opposed to the traditional iv totemic system, which is structured around ancestry. Lives are now shaped by the dense (and often conflict-­‐riven) town environment, as opposed to bush life, which was inseparable from the land. Kigay’s in-­‐group language is a “slang” variety of Murrinh Patha (MP), which deploys new words and phrases by borrowing and reinterpreting English vocabulary. It is also characterised by substantial lenitions and deletions in the pronunciation. The MP grammatical system still underlies this speech, but some of its more complex morphosyntactic forms are restricted to the “heavy” speech of older people, and there are various mergers and reconfigurations occurring in the verb morphology. This thesis adds to the growing body of work describing how language contact and changing sociolinguistic dynamics are radically restructuring the linguistic repertoire of Aboriginal communities in northern and central Australia. At the same time, it is one of very few studies providing sociolinguistic description of a polysynthetic language, and is therefore an innovative study…