Aspects of the semantics of intellectual subjectivity in Dalabon (south-western Arnhem land)

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12 Citations (Scopus)


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'); kodj-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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-28
Number of pages13
JournalAustralian Aboriginal Studies: Journal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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