ELDP Project Highlight: Expanding the documentation of Chini language and culture
Today on the ELAR blog, we are featuring ELDP grantee Joseph Brooks’ project ‘Expanding the documentation of Chini language and culture’. Joseph’s collection with ELAR focuses on the Chini language, spoken by 60 people in inland Madang Province, Papua New Guinea.
Joseph Brooks, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, gives us his community and scientific highlights from his research from 2016.
Impact on the community and speakers:
‘At this point in time, I know the community and the individuals who make it up quite well. I know that what speaks most to them is the access they have, through their relationships with me, to a higher standard of living than what they had before. It would certainly be a welcome development if they actively chose to consider action to reverse shift away from their vernacular language, but such a possibility is far from the reality on the ground, where people are much more concerned with bringing development to their community, and indeed such local goals are part of the same processes that have brought about shift in the first place, inasmuch as I understand the local motivations. A further complexity has to do with the fact it is not just the language that is endangered; the language is one part within a wide range of cultural practices and knowledge that are falling out of use due to local processes of cultural reproduction. While Chini villagers do voice concern about their dying language, it is of much greater concern to them that the knowledge of certain ritual practices is disappearing, and also that younger men have become rather dramatically remiss in their roles as hunters. While there is little if any local energy or desire to revitalize their language, one other thing I will mention is local enthusiasm about me working with the community to produce an Chini-Tok Pisin-English dictionary. While it would not have been realistic to complete such a work during this project period, I am committed to working on this now and into the future.’
The way number works in Chini has not been documented or described in detail for any other language and can be seen as challenging some widely accepted views in our cross-linguistic understanding. In Chini, number operates on a relative (and not absolute) basis where the functionally unmarked value is ‘few, a minimal amount’ and its functionally marked counterpart is ‘many, a maximal amount’. These categories correspond best with those termed ‘paucal’ (or, alternatively: ‘non-plural’) and ‘plural’ in other languages. Formally they are marked in a number of different places in the grammar, especially nouns and verbs, and operate in terms of nominal and verbal number.
‘For nominal number, under elicitation, any speaker of Chini (and also in Yigaves, Chini’s nearest relative to the north, as well as some related phenomena in lski, another near relative to the northwest) will reliably produce the ‘paucal’ form of a noun like amárki ‘woman’ or wutmɨ ‘person’ in NPs with the numbers ‘one’ and ‘two’, while producing the ‘plural’ form (amáriyi, wuti) in NPs with numbers ‘three’ or greater. Highly differentiated human entities operate in this way in discourse with some exceptions. However, for things that come in twos, like human legs, one leg can be expressed as paucal (ña) while two is plural (ñari), because two legs is the maximal amount of legs. Some meanings are more lexically specific and unpredictable but still follow the same principle. The plural form gwrundi ‘lit firewood’ does not just mean multiple pieces of lit firewood, but rather, an amount sufficient enough for starting an actual fire. The paucal form, gwundmɨ, refers then to any amount that is not sufficient for making a fire and so is used in quite different contexts, for example, a piece someone carries to help someone else who does not have anything to start a fire. For insects such as flies (vr-) and ants (akar-), the plural forms (vriyi, akariyi) are almost never used. These insects often come in great numbers, and it is only when the speaker wishes to express the idea of there being an extremely unusual overabundance, that they will use the plural, where the plural has a pragmatic effect similar to “damn this uncanny multitude of flies!”. There is more to the story here as well, since speakers often use these categories and the semantic relativity they are based on, for expressive purposes.
‘Verbal number operates on a similar basis. Verbal number operates as an expression of the iterations of the action of the verb, the degree of effort put into the action, among other nuances that depend on the lexical semantics of the verb and the context of use. Similar to what has been discussed in some of the literature, there is some correspondence between the verbal number category and the number of the (absolutive) participant. (However, there is more to the story here as well, since a great many exceptions in discourse show that agreement is not in fact at issue here). The most common tendency is for singular and dual/things in twos participants to co-occur with the paucactional verb forms and for plural/3+ participants to co-occur with pluractional verb forms. There are also plenty of exceptions to this, but the exceptions still can be seen to work on the same paucal-plural basis. So for instance, in making canoes from logs, on the first day of work the (single) log must be cut – and pluractional, because the full amount of square cuts must be made, up the full length of the log. Importantly, speakers rely on the relative nature of the distinction in order to express their perspective of some entity or event as being minimal or maximal, regardless of the exact number of entities involved, e.g. depending on expectations for each specific situation. So the function of number in this language is not really to enumerate per se but is instead an expressive resource, one that is furthermore responsive to local cultural preoccupations having to do with paucity/scarcity versus abundance.’