Thursday April 6, 2006

Haruai Name Taboos

In the lexical ambiguity seminar I'm auditing this quarter, we just read the second chapter of Jinyun Ke's dissertation Self-organization and Language Evolution: System, Population and Individual.  At one point she discusses a phenomenon in which homophones disappear due to interference from name taboos, and I think her example is worth sharing.

The example is from Haruai, a Trans-New Guinea language:

In Haruai society, one is not allowed to say the name of one’s cross-cousin or of one’s in-laws.  Meanwhile, most personal names, both traditionally and in contemporary Haruai society, are ordinary content words.  Thus, if a person has a taboo relative whose name is identical to that of an ordinary lexical item, that person is also forbidden to use that ordinary lexical item, and then has to find a substitute.  In some cases, the taboo is extended to homophones.  As a result, it is observed that Haruai has apparently borrowed corresponding words from its neighboring languages such as Kobon and Tok Pisin.  For example, when the indigenous lexical item cöc ("tobacco") is tabooed, its homophonous word "church" is tabooed as well, and a word borrowed from Tok Pisin haus lotu is used for "church".

My first thought on reading this was that this custom must provide excellent opportunities for mischief.  Imagine you're annoyed with your in-laws, who grow tobacco.  To get back at them, you name your next child Cöc so they have to come up with some circumlocution or loan word in order to discuss their crop.  When they've settled on one, you have another child and name it after the new term, forcing them to come up with yet another circumlocution.  Repeat as necessary until full familial harmony is achieved.

(It's serious, professional, well though-out notions like this that might explain why nobody's invited me along to help them with their fieldwork.)

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Man, but then you have to wait at least nine months each time. Why not just put in a standing order at city hall and change your own name every month?

Posted by: Matt at Apr 8, 2006 8:03:48 AM