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Lecture | Retired and Kicking

Second 'Retired and Kicking' symposium

Thursday 18 April 2024
Retired and Kicking series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


14:15-14:20 Opening

Willem Adelaar: Arawak language diversity as observed in Johan Natterer’s Basel wordlists (1817-1836)


Harry Stroomer: The adventurous journey towards a Tashelhiyt Berber dictionary

15:20-15:35 Tea/coffee break
15:35-16:05 Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade: Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) – a semi-literate Cornish painter’s letter writing

Arie Verhagen: Linguistics and sign typology – finally deconstructing Peirce

16:35-16:40 Closing

*Drinks afterwards in LUCL Common Room, Reuvensplaats 3-4, first floor

If you wish to attend the symposium online, please register by sending an email to I.M.Tieken@hum.leidenuniv.nl.


Johann Natterer was an Austrian explorer, naturalist and taxidermist who spent almost twenty years in the Brazilian Amazon region preparing animals and collecting ethnographic objects to be displayed in Vienna’s imperial state galleries. Less known is his contribution to the documentation of the indigenous languages of the Amazon region. During his stay in Brazil between 1817 and 1836 Natterer also recorded language samples of about 70 indigenous languages, which were preserved in hand-written form out of sight of the academic community until their rediscovery in the University Library of Basel (Switzerland) at the end of the 1970s. Many of the languages recorded by Natterer are nowadays extinct or dormant, as is the case of 16 of 26 languages belonging to the Arawak family of which he collected data. Natterer’s language samples consist of a standardized lists of vocabulary items and short phrases, which make them eminently suitable for comparative work. They offer an extraordinary view into a lost world of Arawak nations which occupied large parts of the Upper Amazon and the Rio Negro river basin, as well as the area south of the Amazon river in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, where very few Arawak peoples remain today. The internal diversification of the languages of the Arawak family is clearly visible in the data and is suggestive of Arawak dominance and distribution in the area around 1820, which are lost today. At least one previously unknown branch of the Arawak family can be established on the basis of Natterer’s data alone.

Tashelhiyt Berber is spoken in the South Morocco and is in number of speakers the greatest of the 10 Berber languages in the world. This language has been the focus of my research for a long time. I started a dictionary-glossary project when I started to teach Berber at the University of Leiden in 1986. In 1989 I was so fortunate to find the archives of Arsène Roux in Aix-en-Provence, a scholar who had lived 42 years in Morocco (in the French protectorate period (1912-1956)) and a passionate collector of everything concerning Tashelhiyt Berber. In my contribution I will sketch what I kind of materials found, what I did with it and where my dictionary project ended.

Kettle’s Yard, a small museum of contemporary art that is part of the University of Cambridge (UK), houses a vast collection of paintings by Alfred Wallis (1855–1942). Wallis used to be a fisherman for most of his life, but later turned to painting, developing his own unique style that specialists think would be wrong to call “naïve”. The museum also contains the letters he wrote to Ketlle’s Yard’s former owner, the art collector Jim Ede (1895–1990), and others. Though Wallis clearly was familiar with the art of letter writing, these letters (in contrast to his paintings) can be called naïve, both in style and in language use. In this paper, I will analyse Wallis’s letter writing practice as well his struggles with English spelling, and I will show how through his writings he may be seen as a rare early informant of Cornish English spoken during the first half of the twentieth century.

Linguistic text books rarely pay serious attention to sign theory (“semiotics”) beyond the observation that linguistic signs are arbitrary. Yet for some linguistic projects, a deeper theoretical understanding of principles governing various types of signs may be crucial – for example, an explanatory account of perspective taking in discourse (Verhagen 2023), or more generally, the ubiquity of language change (Keller 1998). On a deeper level, the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign cannot have emerged all of a sudden in the hominin lineage; it must have evolved gradually out of more elementary, non-symbolic forms of communication. Hypotheses on the evolution of language thus also require a proper understanding of types of signs, in such a way that a gradual transition from non-symbolic, non-arbitrary to symbolic, arbitrary signs is explainable.

Part of the reasons for the relative lack of attention for the conceptual foundations of sign typology may lie in the complexity of the ideas of the most influential philosopher of semiotics, C.S. Peirce (cf. Peirce 1991, 2020). One feature of Peirce’s notion of ‘sign’ is that it is not a simple matter of one thing ‘standing for’ another, but comprises a triadic relationship: between a signifier, its object (what the sign stands for) and its ‘interpretant’ (the mental effect of an act of interpretation). Yet his characterization of the differences between the most basic types of signs –in his terms: index, icon, and symbol– involves the relation between signifiers and objects: contingency, resemblance, or neither (respectively). In contrast, Keller’s (1998) characterization of the types of signs, although inspired by Peirce’s, is entirely grounded in relations between signifiers (belonging to the world of observables) and their users: causal knowledge (symptoms), structure mapping/simulation (icons), and knowledge of conventions (symbols). I will outline why Keller’s approach is both a considerable improvement over Peirce’s, certainly from a linguistic point of view, as well as simpler – especially when supplemented with independently motivated basic insights about human communication, in particular on common ground (Clark 1996).


Ton van Haaften

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