A paper on common ground in demonstrative reference is out

I am happy to (finally) share a link to an article of mine that was published last year: Common Ground in Demonstrative Reference: The Case of Mano (Mande). The paper appeared in a special issue of Frontiers in Psychology, Demonstratives, Deictic Pointing and the Conceptualization of Space, edited by Holger Diessel, Kenny Coventry, Harmen Gudde and Olga Capirci. The argument is very simple and self-evident and at the same time controversial, depending on the kind of language you are used to studying and the kind of linguistics you are used to doing. In short, the idea is that often when we refer to objects physically present at the interactive scene – the so-called exophoric reference – we construe reference depending on the level of familiarity and shared knowledge: whether the act of reference is routine or whether, on the contrary, there is something unexpected that calls for securing additional attention from the addressee. In other words, exophoric reference and reference that presupposes  knowledge of the object from prior discourse and, broader, prior experience become routinely blended. In Mano, there are two sets of demonstratives used for exophoric reference and their use is sensitive to these distinctions: in particular, only items from one set are used in such routinized referring activity, the same items are also typically used when the referent is not physically present but is identifiable through the same common ground.

I do not by any means invent the wheel here. I owe the idea to William Hanks, who is my major inspiration in the studies of deixis. It was very reassuring, but also a tiny bit disappointing to hear from one of the reviewers precisely that the argument lacks novelty. But there is new and exciting data across speech genres, including plenty of overheard stuff, narrative data and data from ritual language, both Christian and “traditional” (the role of genre in itself is also quite interesting, I think).

I have been working towards this argument for quite some time now, and presented a paper at the Discourse Functions of Demonstratives workshop in Oslo in 2018. (That conference had a life-changing effect, because in my strolls across the city I went to a small wine bar, run by an enthusiastic guy from Portugal, a buddy of a Norwegian friend of mine from Paris, and there he made me taste a wine which was nothing I had tasted before and which has become my unbeatable favorite – called Miss Terre, check it out!)

My contribution to the edited volume following the conference received a revise and resubmit. Either the argument was not yet developed, or the reviewer had more of a spatialist mindset and was not inclined to easily accept the role of non-spatial factors in demonstrative reference (so unlike the reviewers of the Frontiers paper!), or, as it is often the case, both. But during the period when I received the reviews – autumn of 2019 – I felt devastated for a variety of personal reasons, and decided not to deal with the uncertainty of the resubmission process, especially in quite a short timeframe given to me. So, for the first time in my life, I withdrew the paper, despite the fact that so much of other people’s work had been put into it. (That, too, had a very strong effect on me, because I knew from then on that personal life may overweigh professional commitments.) And then I had that invitation from Frontiers and a timeframe which allowed me to present my case a bit more convincingly, and I hope it was all worth it.

I should have some time during the summer to cover other publications appeared last year – it was quite a harvest! – so stay tuned!

A paper on the history of religious contact in Guinea, and what is has to do with Bourdieu

A couple of months ago a paper of mine, From the Qur’an to Christianity. Ethnolinguistic contact and religious conversion in West Africa, was pubished by Cahiers d’Études Africaines (n 239 (2020), p. 235-262, https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesafricaines.31573). This piece of research is a very unusual experiment for me, it is an attempt at reconstructing ethnolinguistic contact in the domain of religion and cultural practices accompanying it by using data in Mano, Kpelle and Manding (all Mande, spoken in Guinea). The conclusion I draw is that the language of Islam as practised by the Manding influenced the “traditional” religious language of the Kpelle, which in turn was incorporated in the Catholic religious register. Given a particular ethnolinguistic dynamics in the Catholic church in Guinea, the Catholic register of Kpelle came to influence the Catholic register of Mano (to the point of some prayers being word-by-word translations).

It is curious to look back at where I came from with this research. Continue reading

A new fieldwork-related book (not really about research)

That I have no idea when I will go to Guinea again makes me acutely nostalgic. I am now following an online bookmaking class, which I took because for ages I have had this plan of making a book about Guinea, about my hosting family, about the now 10-year experience of going there. The book I initially planned was more a traditional book with text, and the model I had in mind was Josef Brodsky’s “Watermark“, a depiction organized in short sketches of a somewhat similar experience of escaping to the very same place in the same season for many years (“At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost” — especially at nights as dark as in Guinea). For Brodsky it was Venice during acqua alta, for me it is the dry season in Nzerekore. To my great surprise (I should have prepared better) and anguish and procrastination, what I end up learning is a variety of visual techniques.

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Translating a leaflet about COVID-19 into Mano: does one always have fever AND cough or either counts as a symptom?

Today my language consultant, Pe Mamy, and I finished preparing a translation of a leaflet about COVID-19 into Mano (he translated and I bugged him with my endless questions about Mano). I learned many things, including the following:

  • There is a special word for ‘shop’ (meaning a walled trading area, big, like a supermarket, or small, like a cellphone shop, as opposed to an open stand at a market, for example), pìlìkí
  • I did not know how to say in Mano “to sneeze into an elbow pit” (now I do: tùsóò ɓo kɔ̀ túkpáà yi, and no, tùsóò, which means ‘sneezing’, does not come from French tousser, according to Pe; well I guess the sound is similar for all human beings).

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