Exploring frame of reference selection in Marshallese
What is the relationship between language, spatial cognition and the environment? Many linguistic communities around the world, especially those in Europe, use egocentric language to locate things in the world around them. They talk about objects being to the left or to the right of other objects, projecting their own left-right asymmetry onto the entities they are talking about. However, many cultures around the world use geocentric directions to talk about space. Objects are described as being north or downhill or seawards of other objects. These differences extend beyond language, as speakers who use egocentric frames of reference in language have also been found to use them in non-linguistic spatial cognition, with the reverse true for speakers of geocentric languages.
Some have suggested that variation between languages is primarily arbitrary and that these arbitrary linguistic differences are then reflected in non-linguistic cognition (Pederson et al. 1998; Levinson 2003; Majid et al. 2004). More recently however, the view that spatial frame of reference preferences emerge as adaptations to the environment (whether physical, cultural, linguistic) which speakers inhabit (Dasen & Mishra 2010; Palmer et al. 2017; Shapero 2017)
This presentation explores these issues using Marshallese as a case study. Marshallese is an Austronesian language spoken in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in the North Pacific. The Marshallese language has a spatial system highly adapted to the atolls its speakers inhabit. Objects are described as being lagoonwards or oceanwards of other objects. This system is not only lexical, these directions are embedded in the grammatical system of Marshallese much like tense on English verbs.
However, in recent decades Marshallese speakers have been migrating at increasing rates to inland urban centres in the United States. This raises the question: with no lagoon or ocean to anchor their spatial descriptions, how do these Marshallese speakers refer to space?
Based on original fieldwork, this presentation explores these questions, examining how Marshallese speakers refer to space in three different topographies: the atoll (Jaluit Atoll, RMI), non-atoll island (Kili Island, RMI) and an inland urban area (Springdale, Arkansas). The spatial system in each of these locales is described and it is concluded that the environment has a larger effect on spatial frame of reference than previously suspected.