A Postcolonial Semantics of Personhood: Anglicizations, Reinventions and Contradictions in Urban Bislama

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Abstract

This paper explores the semantics of personhood constructs in Urban Bislama, an English-relatedcreole variety spoken in Vanuatu’s capital (Crowley 1990; Meyerhoff 2013). Personhood constructsare words such as mind, soul, and heart in English, and similar conceptual constructs in otherlanguages that provide an answer to the question: “what makes up a person?” The paper aims toarticulate semantic explications and cultural scripts for personhood constructs in Bislama, beingmindful of the anglicizations, contradictions, and reinventions that are characteristic of postcolonialdiscourse.‘Postcolonial Semantics’ draws on both cognitive semantics and linguistic ethnography, butadds to these perspectives an analytical focus which is inspired by recent developments inpostcolonial language studies (Anchimbe & Janney 2011; Stolz, Warnke & Schmidt-Brücken 2016).Cross-linguistic research has revealed that personhood constructs differ radically across geographicalareas and linguistic communities (Levisen and Jogie 2015; Wierzbicka 2016; Levisen in press/2017).Precisely therefore, the study of personhood constructs provides a great starting point for exploringlinguistically-specific worldviews, as well as for studying the dialectic of how socio-cultural andsemantic change emerge.The paper provides an overview of the emerging semantics of personhood constructs inBislama, comparing Camden’s findings in colonial New Hebrides (1979) with results from recentsemantic fieldwork in postcolonial, contemporary Port Vila, 2013-2015 (Levisen 2016a, 2016b). I willfocus on the keyword tingting ‘mind, heart’ (from English ‘think-think’), and the related concepts speret(from English ‘spirit’), devil (from English ‘devil’), and pija (from English ‘picture’), as well as morerecent imports from English: maen (mind), sol (soul), and had (heart). The meanings of these words,some of which are competing in discourse, will be carefully compared and discussed from theperspective of colonialism, universality, innovation and areal semantics. My research shows thatpersonhood concepts in Bislama appear to be undergoing change, on multiple levels. Traditionalterms like devil and pija are being problematized by urban speakers, and are both in decline. Sol,maen, and had have become more common, and speret/spirit has undergone a semanticanglicization. Tingting remains the key construct, around which Bislama personhood semantics isorganized, but the postcolonial urban Bislama concept differs from Camden’s descriptions of tingtingin colonial Bislama.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date28 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2017
EventStudies of Paradise: Where Language Meets Culture in the Pacific: Where language meets culture in the Pacific - University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
Duration: 9 Mar 201710 Mar 2017

Conference

ConferenceStudies of Paradise: Where Language Meets Culture in the Pacific
LocationUniversity of Bern
CountrySwitzerland
CityBern
Period09/03/201710/03/2017

Keywords

  • Personhood constructs
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Bislama
  • Cultural Keywords
  • Postcolonial Semantics
  • Postcolonial Language Studies
  • Natural Semantic Metalanguage

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