New paper on Murrinhpatha children’s understanding of kinship lexicon and grammar (post by Dr Alice Mitchell)

Among the vast number of things children need to learn about language is how to appropriately refer to other people. One way to do this is to use kinship terms—words like ‘great-grandmother’, ‘brother-in-law’, or ‘sister’. The particular set of kinterms a child needs to know will obviously depend on the languages they’re learning to speak.

 

English-speaking children learn different words for mother and mother’s sister (‘aunt’), while speakers of many other languages learn a single term for these relatives.For example, in Murrinhpatha, a language spoken in Wadeye in Australia’s Northern Territory (see map), the word kale can refer to both mother and mother’s sister, among other relations. How do children figure out who can be grouped together under the label kale? From a broader perspective, how do children learn the kinship-related language used in their community?

 

A new open-access paper just published in Language, ‘Acquiring the lexicon and grammar of universal kinship’, explores this question in Murrinhpatha. The paper was authored by Joe Blythe (Macquarie University), Jeremiah Tunmuck (Yek Yederr), Alice Mitchell (University of Cologne), and Péter Rácz (Central European University). Alice and Peter joined the project while they were post-docs working on the Varikin project, having met Joe at a kinship workshop held at the MPI for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Joe then visited the EXCD lab in January 2018 as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor. After that their collaboration continued online across distant time zones.

 

One of the special things about Murrinhpatha kinterms is their ‘universal’ character, by which we mean that almost anyone in the community can be referred to with a kinterm. Working out how to refer to a newly introduced individual involves a kind of mental calculation based on telescoping chains of relatedness: if I know someone is my mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter, I can reduce that down to ‘mother’ and also refer to her as kale.[1] For Murrinhpatha people, information about kinship relations is so important that it’s expressed not just in vocabulary but also in the grammar of their language. In a sentence about two people doing something, part of the verb indicates whether those two people are siblings or not. For example, parraneriwakthadharra means, roughly, ‘They were following’, where it is grammatically specified that ‘they’ refers to two siblings.

 

Interested in how children learn this kind of kinship-related vocabulary and grammar, Joe designed two tasks: the ‘kinterms’ task, testing understanding of kinterms, and the ‘kintax’ task, testing understanding of the grammatical categories relating to kinship. In the kinterms task, Joe and Jeremiah showed children photos of their own relatives and asked them questions about kinship relations. There were three different types of questions: first, the researchers asked children straightforward questions, in Murrinhpatha, like ‘is this your cousin?’, where the children were expected to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The researchers then went through a new series of photos and asked children what they called the person in each photo. In the third part, children were asked what the person shown in the photo would call them. Other research has shown that young children often struggle to identify who they are from someone else’s perspective, so we expected this part of the task to be the hardest. This vocabulary-oriented task was carried out with 24 children aged between five and sixteen.

 

Unsurprisingly, older children performed better on this task. We didn’t see any great age-related breakthroughs but rather a gradual improvement in children’s understanding of kinterms. We also found evidence that closer kin are easier for children to classify. This result is fairly intuitive, too, but what is notable here is that children’s learning partly follows culture-specific ideas about the relative ‘closeness’ of kin: children made fewer mistakes labelling a parent’s same-sex sibling than a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. While these two kinship categories can be considered similarly ‘close’ from a genealogical perspective, the language differentiates them, categorising a parent’s same-sex sibling as a parent, while providing a different term for a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. Nonetheless, biological parents were the easiest of all to identify, emphasising the importance of ‘closeness’ for learning kinship concepts, whether defined genealogically, culturally, or experientially. Our results also supported earlier research in other languages that taking someone else’s perspective on kinship relations is cognitively challenging.

 

The second task targeted participant’s understanding of ‘kintax’. Children saw a brief animation of people doing something, e.g., waving. At the same time they heard a sentence describing the activity, where the verb in the sentence indicated whether the people were siblings or not. Children were then shown two photos of people in the community, one showing siblings and the other non-siblings, and children were asked to choose the appropriate photo (see right for an example slide).

 

They were also shown slides and heard similar sentences that tested the understanding of number and gender, so these contrasts could be compared to their understanding of siblinghood. Joe and Jeremiah conducted this task with 39 Murrinhpatha speakers ranging in age from five to 40 years old. The most important finding here was that children’s understanding of kinship grammar progresses at similar rates to other grammatical categories like participant gender and number. Based on results from both the tasks, a complex picture emerges in which linguistic categories, general cognitive abilities, cultural practice, and individual experience all play a role in learning kinship vocabulary and grammar.

 

This new study moves our field forward on several fronts. It presents the first quantitative investigation of the acquisition of an ever-expanding kinship system; it’s the first study to investigate children’s acquisition of kinship-related grammar; and it’s also innovative in the way it tailored the experimental stimuli to each participant’s own family. This design feature meant that responses were not always directly comparable, which in turn restricted the statistical power of our analysis. Nonetheless, our results showed that children build up a gradual understanding of kinship that focuses on their closest relatives and expands to others as they get older. This supports a ‘focal’ theory of kinship terms, where at least some kinship categories are built from central exemplars and then extend to include more peripheral members. While our approach measured what children know, the next step is to explore how children learn kinship terms—a question that will involve more qualitative methods.

 

As part of my fieldwork with Datooga-speaking children in Tanzania, I’ve been conducting similar studies of children’s understandings of kin terms. Watch this space for updates on more papers addressing this topic.

 

[1] For the curious, this works via what anthropologists call ‘merging’ principles: a mother’s mother’s sister is classified as a mother’s mother, and a mother’s mother’s daughter is classified as a mother.

The Grandparent Naming Survey

The Grandparent Naming Survey

Here at excd.lab we recently launched our Grandparent Naming Survey.  It’s being run by Jo Hickey-Hall, Research Support Assistant, as part of the Usage subproject for VariKin.

VariKin-Usage specifically investigates how people use kinship language by using corpus linguistics, surveys, and interviews to quantify patterns of usage in spoken and written language. How frequently are kinship terms used in different contexts and what meanings are more prevalent? Do patterns vary between languages, and can the patterns of usage at the individual level be linked to historical processes of change? 

In this survey, we’re asking people to share the different names they use for  their grandparents (e.g. Nan, Grandma) to help us better understand grandparental kinship relations within English-speaking families in the UK.

We’re interested in how styles of grandparenting may indicate emotional closeness and whether these are reflected in the different kin terms attributed to each grandparent. We are also particularly interested in whether kinds of relatedness can be determined by line of descent to the grandchild (eg. is there a difference in how mum’s mum relates to the grandchildren compared to dad’s dad etc).

It’s a difficult time for everyone at the moment, but many respondents are enjoying the opportunity to reflect on family relationships, especially thinking of their own grandparents or their children’s grandparents and we particularly want to hear from grandparents themselves!

Here is the link:

https://arts.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/grandparental-terms

Please do take part and share with others.

 

Featured image: Jo’s ‘Nanny and Grandad’ circa 1943.

2019 excd lab Review and Journal Round-Up

Each week, the excd lab take turns to offer journal articles for discussion, or even present our own research.  

August Away Day walk from Botanical Gardens to Leigh Woods

In 2019 Journal Club members enjoyed the company of regular guests Dr Dan Smith, Dr Kit Opie, Dr Catherine Sheard (Biology) and undergrad, Jasmine Calladine. We also welcomed new guests: Philosophy PhD students Shaun Stanley and Arsham Nejad Kourki, visiting Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Anthropology PhD student Arif Jamal and Biology PhD student Gareth Coleman. 

We bid a sad farewell (for now) to core members, Dr Alice Mitchell, now a Junior Professor in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Cologne, and Dr Seán Roberts who became a Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.

Later in the year, we welcomed excd Research AssociateDr Terhi Honkola (University of Turku) to the team; and hosted a fascinating presentation from visiting researcher, Brea McCauley (Simon Fraser University, Canada) on archaeological and anthropological perspectives of finger amputation rituals.

Our continuing interdisciplinary nature means we get to explore and discuss a great range of articles together. 

 

Here’s a round-up of 2019’s offerings: 

Spolaore, E. & Wacziarg, R. (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development? Journal of Economic Literature 51(2): 325–369, (June 2013) 

Ball, C.  (2018) Language of Kin Relations and Relationlessness Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 47:47-60, (August 20 2018) 

Jakiela, P. & Ozier, O. (2018) Gendered Language World Bank Group, Development Economics, Policy Research Working Paper 8464 (June 2018) 

Schulz, J., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. & Henrich, J. The Origins of WEIRD Psychology SSRN (June 22, 2018).   

House, B.R. (2017) How do social norms influence prosocial development? Current Opinion in Psychology Vol. 20: 87-91 

Fortunato, L. (2019) Lineal kinship organisation in cross-specific perspective SocArXiv, March 15 2019 

Tamariz, M. (2019) Replication and emergence in cultural transmission Physics of Life Reviews Vol. 30: 47-71, (October 2-19) 

Mesoudi, A. (2017) Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution PNAS Vol. 114(30): 7853-7860 (July 25 2017) 

Daly, M. & Perry, G. (2019) Grandmaternal childcare and kinship laterality. Is rural Greece exceptional? Evolution and Human Behaviour Vol. 40(4): 385-394, (July 2019) 

Griesser, M. & Suzuki, T.N. (2016) Kinship modulates the attention of naïve individuals to the mobbing behaviour of role models Animal Behaviour Vol. 112: 83-91 (February 2016) 

Cuskley, C. (2019) Alien forms for alien language: investigating novel form spaces in cultural evolutioPalgrave Communications Vol. 5(87), (August 6 2019) 

Vettese, T. (2019) Sexism in the Academy: Women’s narrowing path to tenure Head Case Issue 34, Spring 2019 

Gray, R.D., Greenhill, S.J., Ross R.M. (2007) The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with Phylogenies) Biological Theory Vol. 2: 360-375 (March 20 2015) 

Power, E.A. & Ready, E. (2019) Cooperation beyond consanguinity: post-marital residence, delineations of kin and social support among South Indian Tamils Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, 374(1780)(July 15 2019) 

Everett, C., Blasí, D.E., S.G. Roberts (2016) Language evolution and climate: the case of desiccation and tone, Journal of Language Evolution, Vol 1(1)33–46(February 19 2016) 

Summer intern, Jasmine Calladine’s guest blog post

This summer I worked with Dr Alice Mitchell researching how person reference terms are used in child-directed speech in English. To do this we made use of the CHILDES database (example pictured below), a collection of transcriptions of children’s speech.  Instances of person reference were recorded and coded into five categories, kin terms, kin terms + name, name, noun phrase or pronoun.

An example of the CHILDES database. For more info see https://childes.talkbank.org/

We were particularly interested to see how adults used kinship terms, and whether they used their own perspective on the kinship relation or the child’s. Kin terms represented around a quarter of all person references in child-directed speech. Of these, the vast majority were anchored to the child’s perspective. Adults only rarely anchored kinship terms to their own perspective, and a small proportion of terms were anchored to a third person’s perspective, e.g. “Stefan’s Mummy”. This was most noticeable in the usage of kinterms as self-references. Adults would frequently refer to themselves by the kin term the child calls them, e.g. “Mummy’s going to the toilet, darling”. About half of all child-anchored kin terms were self-references, making this specific kin term usage one of the most frequent types.

There were also variations in the kin terms themselves. For example, the kin term “Mother” had several variations depending on country and the age of the child. “Mummy” was the most frequent term used by UK English speakers whereas American English speakers used “Mommy” the most. In kinterms relating to fathers, use of “Dada” was more likely to be found in corpora with younger children, whereas “Daddy” was used across a range of ages.

Whilst siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins were likely to come up in conversation, these relations tended to be referred to by name rather than by kin term. Names were the most frequent type of person reference. A surprising finding from this research was the amount of times fictional characters, either from TV shows or books were discussed. Out of the 492 instances of name references in the database, “Miffy” a cartoon rabbit was mentioned 42 times! Other popular characters included Winnie the Pooh and Dora the explorer. It is unclear whether fictional characters are this frequent in naturalistic child-directed speech, or whether this is a bias of the way the information was collected as many of the recordings were of play sessions, where toys of those characters triggered discussion.

After finishing data collection I had the chance in my final week of my internship to contribute to the CHIELD project (pictured below). The first two papers I coded were concerned with language acquisition in children. I found it really interesting to learn about what evolutionary mechanisms underpinned the patterns of child-directed speech I had noticed in the database, as well as learn about cultural differences in how adults spoke to their children. Outside of university, music is my main hobby, so having the chance to read about its evolution and its connection to human language was really eye opening. Learning what evolutionary mechanisms are needed to support each part of singing behaviour (i.e. rhythmic and melodic phrasing) and how they could be found in non-human animals was particularly interesting for me.

Section of Jasmine’s CHIELD contribution. For more info see http://chield.excd.org/
Summer Intern, Jasmine Calladine

My four weeks as a summer intern at excd were really enjoyable. I learnt so much in a short period of time. Getting to grips with the practical side of anthropology, through data collection, coding and analysis will be an incredibly useful foundation for next year of my degree. Seeing the range of research being done in the lab has given me plenty of ideas for dissertation topics!