1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Linguistic Anthropology Seminar -- 2009 - 2010

Friday, August 29, 3-5pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Lecture Room)

Ellen Contini-Morava, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

"The Meaning of Agreement"

The phenomenon known as "grammatical agreement" has long been seen as confirming the existence of arbitrary syntax. Although linguists differ in their definitions, most would define agreement as a situation in which the grammatical form of one element in a sentence (the "target", in the terminology of Corbett 1991; 2006) is dependent on morphosyntactic or semantic features of another element (the "controller" or "trigger").

The following assumptions recur regularly in definitions of agreement:

a. feature-matching: the relevant features of the "controller" and "target" must match;
b. directionality: the grammatical properties of the target are determined by those of the controller and not vice versa;
c. redundancy: agreement morphology contributes no independent semantic content to the message being communicated.

Directionality is related to redundancy in that the formal marking of the target is treated as entirely predictable from the properties of its controller. This conforms with the information-theoretic view, prevalent in linguistics, that lack of choice equals lack of informativeness.

I will offer a critique of these traditional assumptions, and propose an alternative view from the perspective that language is a system of meaningful signs used by human beings to communicate messages. In this view, the location of arbitrariness in language is in the relation between signal and meaning. The distribution of linguistic forms is motivated by (a) the contribution their meanings make to the message being communicated; and (b) pragmatic factors such as ease of processing and social conventions that govern human interactions (see e.g. Contini-Morava 1995). From this perspective there is no point in trying to develop a general "theory of agreement" because the notion of "agreement" emerges from a conception of language in which some forms are regarded as meaningful, others not, and the distribution of linguistic forms need have no functional motivation. Instead I will illustrate how sign-based analysis can be applied to phenomena usually described in terms of "agreement", focusing on my own work with noun class/gender in Swahili.


Contini-Morava, Ellen. 1995. Introduction: on linguistic sign theory. In E. Contini-Morava and B.S. Goldberg (eds.), Meaning as explanation: advances in linguistic sign theory. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1-39.

Corbett, Greville. 1991. Gender. Cambridge University Press.

Corbett, Greville. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge University Press.


Tues-Wed-Thur, September 22-23-24, 4-6pm (Harrison Library Auditorium)

William Labov, Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania

The fall 2009 Page-Barbour Lectures:

"The Politics of Linguistic Change in American English"

Tues. Sept. 22: "The Increasing Diversity of Regional Dialects in North America "

Weds. Sept. 23: "The Growing Division between Black and White English"

Thurs. Sept. 24: "Yankee Cultural Imperialism and The Northern Cities Dialect Shift"

A reception will follow each lecture.


Friday, October 2, 1-3pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Lecture Room)

Paul Newman, Department of Linguistics, Indiana University

"The Endangered Languages Movement: A Scientific and Ethical Imperative or a Politically-Correct Boondoggle?"

Over the past two decades, the interest in endangered languages has metamorphosed from half a dozen dedicated fieldworkers crying in the wilderness to a major movement in the discipline of linguistics. The concern about language loss and the need to document endangered languages is manifested in academic talks and papers of senior field linguists such as Michael Krauss (e.g., "Keynote — Mass language extinction and documentation: The race against time," in The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim, ed. by O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama, and M. E. Krauss, pp. 3–24, Oxford: OUP, 2007), to popularizing efforts of younger scholars such as K. David Harrison (e.g., When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge, New York: OUP, 2007; note alsoThe Linguists, the highly successful documentary involving him that appeared at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival).

The view that endangered languages research is of great scientific importance has translated into dramatically increased funding for such research, provided by private foundations such as the Hans Rausing Fund in the U.K. and by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which has a special unit devoted to this topic.

The working assumption has been that endangered languages research deserves precedence over research on larger, non-endangered language both on moral grounds (Krauss’s "moral imperative") and also on strictly scientific grounds. This assumption has been accepted as a given and has gone essentially unchallenged. In my talk, I shall suggest that this attitude cannot be taken at face value and that there are good reasons why the choice to do research on an endangered languages fails a rationality test if viewed from the perspective of sound science (which is what we would hope that anthropology and linguistics would represent).

The knee-jerk preference for endangered languages research by the community of field linguists fails in two main areas. First, in deciding whether to conduct research on language A or language B, the choice should depend on the scientific questions one hopes to answer and the level of complexity of the phenomena one intends to investigate: the fact that one language or the other happens to be endangered is often irrelevant or, worse still, works against studying that language. Second, the realities of fieldwork and fieldwork methodology being what they are, a research trip devoted to an endangered language may achieve results that are greatly inferior both in quantity and in quality to a fieldwork project of comparable time and scope carried out on a non-endangered language.

Having raised questions that have long been ignored, I shall conclude with suggestions about how a valid critique of the non-thinking approach to endangered language can serve to refashion endangered languages research as an essential part of scientific linguistics, which should thus serve to strengthen rather than weaken endangered languages efforts.

Suggested Readings

Hale, Kenneth, et al. 1992. Endangered languages. Language 68.1:1–42.

Newman, Paul. 2003. The endangered languages issue as a hopeless cause. In Language Death and Language Maintenance, ed. by Mark Janse & Sijmen Tol, pp. 1–13. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Thursday, November 5, 7:30-9pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Lecture Room)

Susan Blum, Department of Anthropology, Notre Dame University

"Bakhtin versus Turnitin: Ideologies of Originality"

While anthropologists, conversation analysts, and literary theorists take for granted the ubiquity of intertextuality and the importation of others’ words into interactions, many people still valorize an idea of originality stemming from Romantic notions of creativity, the individual, and the genius. This talk contrasts several notions of originality in language, drawing on evidence from traditional and contemporary China, the academic study of interaction and intertextuality, composition theorists, the discourse of academic integrity, contemporary views of US college students, and writers about artistic creativity. This juxtaposition reveals contradictory and conflicting ideologies coexisting within a single society.

Suggested Readings

Howard, Rebecca Moore. 1999. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Exergue: Standing On and Climbing Down from the Shoulders of Giants, pp. xii-xv, and Introduction: Toward a Pedagogy of (Re)Formative Composition, pp. xvii-xxiii. Stamford, CT: Ablex.

Mallon, Thomas. 1989. Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism. Preface, pp. xi-xiv. New York: Ticknor and Fields.

Swearingen, C. Jan. 1999. Originality, Authenticity, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Augustine's Chinese Cousins. In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. by Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, pp. 19-30. Albany: SUNY Press.

Susan Blum will also be speaking in the East Asia Center on Friday, November 6.


Friday, November 13, 1-3pm (Brooks Hall 2nd Floor Lecture Room)

Eve Danziger, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

"Making Second Nature: Insights from a Forbidden Performance of the 'Great Speech' of the Mopan Maya"

In Mopan, respect-greeting talk among kinsmen cannot be simulated by those who are not in the appropriate relationships to one another, for fear of supernatural consequences. Above all, sexual partners may not engage in such talk. No amount of explicit framing as demonstration or pedagogy can subvert this constraint. On one occasion however, a Mopan husband and wife did agree to perform the genre for my tape recorder. They were well aware that what they were doing was highly taboo, but their forged performance was so close to flawless as to convince my Mopan transcription assistant that it was authentic. However, at certain crucial moments in their speech, the taboo performers giggled nervously. I examine the example closely, to propose that their laughter was effective in mitigating the potentially disastrous performativity of their forbidden discourse where explicit statements could not be, because the laughter made the separation of the performers from their script indexically rather than symbolically apparent. I conclude by noting that even beyond the ritual domain, the well-known subversive effects of such double-voiced genres as sarcasm and parody (and their complement, the essentializing effects of ritualistic "univoicing") can be analyzed at two levels—that of explicit content, and that of indexical demonstration. Of the two, I propose that the latter, because of its appeal to notions of natural necessity, is more basic and more powerful.

This talk is part of the Anthropology Department Friday Speaker Series.


Sunday, November 1, 6-8pm (2611 Commonwealth Dr.)

Linguistic Anthropology AAA Paper Previews (1)

Discourse, Politics, and Stance

Adam Harr: "Words and Pigs: Participant Structure and the Force of Illocution in Lio Ceremonial Councils" 

The Ends of Prosody: Ways of Speaking as Ideological Means and Ends

Suzanne Menair: "Fast, Loud, and Out-of-Control: Prosody and Passionate Discourse on Chicago's Trading Floors"

This event includes dinner. Please RSVP to Eve Danziger <ed8c@virginia.edu>.


Friday, November 20, 1-3pm (Brooks Hall 103)

Linguistic Anthropology AAA Paper Previews (2)

Listening to Discourse and Ways of Telling Stories: Papers in Honor of Virginia Hymes

Eve Danziger: "Ethnopoetics, Evidential Zero, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief"

Lise Dobrin: "Listening as Social Action: Method and Morality in the Collection and Production of Texts"

Dan Lefkowitz: "In Five Year (or other) Patterns"

Liliana Perkowski: "The Curious Case of the Wild Cockerel: Towards the Exploration of Bulgarian Narrative Ethnopoetics"