Pointing to the body: kin signs in Australian Indigenous sign languages

Green, Jennifer, Bauer, Anastasia, Gaby, Alice and Ellis, Elizabeth Marrkilyi (2018) Pointing to the body: kin signs in Australian Indigenous sign languages. Gesture, 17 (1). pp. 1-36. ISSN 1568-1475

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Official URL: https://benjamins.com/catalog/gest.00009.gre


Kinship plays a central role in organizing interaction and other social behaviors in Indigenous Australia. The spoken lexicon of kinship has been the target of extensive consideration by anthropologists and linguists alike. Less well explored, however, are the kin categories expressed through sign languages (notwithstanding the pioneering work of Adam Kendon). This paper examines the relational categories codified by the kin signs of four language-speaking groups from different parts of the Australian continent: the Anmatyerr from Central Australia; the Yolŋu from North East Arnhem Land; the Kuuk Thaayorre from Cape York and the Ngaatjatjarra/​Ngaanyatjarra from the Western Desert. The purpose of this examination is twofold. Firstly, we compare the etic kin relationships expressed by kin signs with their spoken equivalents. In all cases, categorical distinctions made in the spoken system are systematically merged in the sign system. Secondly, we consider the metonymic relationships between the kin categories expressed in sign and the various parts of the body at which those signs are articulated.

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