Tag Archives: thede dynamics

Linguistic identity in Vanikoro

In sum, the three languages of Vanikoro can be characterised by two contradictory properties. On the one hand, their fundamental genetic relatedness is blurred by a high degree of dissimilarity in the phonological forms of words, whether in the lexicon or in the morphology. But on the other hand, their grammatical categories and semantic structures show no equivalent to this formal diversity: instead, the three languages reveal perfect isomorphism, in each and every corner of their system. To paraphrase a formula by Sasse (see fn.19 below), they could ultimately be described as “a single language with different vocabularies”.

The question arises of what historical scenario would best explain this paradox, where divergence goes along with convergence. A simple explanation that comes to mind when accounting for the lexical diversification of cognate languages, might focus on the physical separation between language communities. The absence, still today, of any land path relating villages across Vanikoro island, and the stories of ongoing fierce territorial fights between its three tribes, would then be understood as genuine evidence for geographical or social isolation, and thus as a possible key for the high degree of formal divergence between Teanu, Lovono and Tanema. However, several facts seem to contradict this diagnostic. First, the relatively small size of the island is at odds with the notion of a neat separation between the three tribes. And more crucially, their extreme degree of structural isomorphism is likely to reflect not only cases of shared retentions from a common ancestor, but also later linguistic convergence induced by language contact. In other words, the explanation resorting to the mere physical separation between communities does not tell the whole story.

The solution to the puzzle will probably have to be found not in the factual features of geography, but in the more subtle dimension of sociolinguistic behaviour. Indeed, a conspicuous characteristic of cultures in certain parts of Melanesia – in comparison, for example, with the Polynesian world (see Pawley 1981) – seems to be a social preference for small-scale social communities with no marked hierarchy between them, as well as a strong emphasis put on whichever anthropological or linguistic features may differ from one community to the other. Heterogeneity between villages or village groups tends to be socially valued as a way to construct a world of diversity, where each community is endowed with its own identity. In this framework, a local innovation in cultural and linguistic forms will tend to be perceived, and eventually retained, as emblematic of a specific group. Over time, this behaviour favours the emergence of cultural and linguistic divergence between erstwhile homogeneous communities. Interestingly, some language groups can be said to have only gone down this track to the point when the languages began to lose mutual intelligibility; but what is conspicuous in the case of Vanikoro languages, is that they seem to have pushed the process of differentiation far beyond that point, as though they were to keep diverging for ever.

In order to account for similar facts in other parts of Papua New Guinea, Thurston (1989), and later Ross (1996; 2001:155), have used the term “ESOTEROGENY”:

Esoterogeny is a process that adds structural complexity to a language and makes it more efficient as a medium of communication among people of the same social group, while making it more difficult for outsiders to learn to speak well. (Thurston 1989)

Esoterogeny arises through a group’s desire for exclusiveness. (Ross 1996:184)

If the members of a community have few ties with other communities and their emblematic lect is not usually known to outsiders, then they may use it as an ‘in-group’ code, an ‘esoteric’ lect from which outsiders are consciously excluded. Innovations leading to increased complexity and to differences from neighbouring lects will be favoured. (Ross 1997:239)

One could probably discuss the degree to which such sociolinguistic processes are “conscious”, and also how they interfere with motivations of various kinds (semantic, structural, pragmatic) in bringing about change. This being said, one can probably accept the general idea behind Thurston’s concept, that language differentiation in Melanesia, far from being just an accident of geographical isolation, is largely influenced by a certain social attitude whereby each group tends to produce – whether consciously or not – its own distinctive speech tradition.

Now, while this hypothesis may help explain the high amount of lexical innovation and formal divergence that took place between Vanikoro languages, it seems at odds with the remarkable stability that we’ve observed among their structures. I would suggest this mismatch can be explained by the different nature of the linguistic components involved here. For one thing, the phonological form of the words (Saussure’s “signifiant”, Grace’s “lexification”), whether lexical or grammatical, is the component most salient and conspicuous to the speakers’ conscience, and therefore most likely to be preempted by motivations based on social emblematicity. Conversely, the structural and semantic dimension of language (Saussure’s “signifié”, Grace’s “content form”) would fall out of reach of the speakers’ immediate linguistic awareness, in a way that would make it exempt of the sociolinguistic force of esoterogeny. Instead, structures tend to obey a totally contrary force, typical of language-contact situations, that leads them to diffuse and converge: this is when multilingual speakers feel the “pressure towards word-for-word translatable codes” (Gumperz 1971). The structural isomorphism that can be observed today among Vanikoro languages has the considerable advantage, for the bilingual speaker, of reducing any translation loss, thereby increasing the efficiency of cross-linguistic communication, and facilitating the cognitive processing of speech. …

The comparison of Teanu, Lovono and Tanema reveals the intricacies of the island’s local history. The strong isomorphism found between the structures of these languages betrays their remote common ancestry, as much as it points to a history of intense language contact which the three tribes, nolens volens, have lived through over the centuries. On the other hand, the actual word forms found in their vocabularies and morphology have tended to follow a powerful tendency towards diversification, in accordance with the speakers’ tacit perceptions that the three communities, often caught in conflict and territorial hostilities, should sound and feel to be distinct social groups.

Overall, the paradox observed among the three modern languages of Vanikoro – dissimilar forms, similar structures – results from the interplay between these two contradictory forces: a socially driven push to increase language differences vs a functionally grounded tendency to minimise them.



Capitalism and bureaucratic modernism

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functioning social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, via Isegoria.

If the informal processes aren’t intuitively obvious to most of the bell curve, they will have to be passed down. If enough new people come into the same place at the same time, the processes are unlikely to be passed down, or even to survive — as happened in Usenet’s eternal September. The same thing applies if there’s no need to learn those processes — why put in the effort if there’s no payoff?

What sorts of informal processes animate a city or a village?

Some of these processes are negatively affected by increases in diversity, as Robert Putnam has shown. And they would be: one process is the existence of homogeneity itself. Thedish homogeneity increases both the ability to coordinate and the likelihood of coordination: ability because less inferential distance, more similar cognitive styles, and greater ability to mentally model others, and likelihood because it fosters a sense that “we’re all in this together”, whereas thedish diversity gives rise to competing factions, a principle demonstrated most vividly by the well-known but rarely-considered phenomenon of the ethnic gang war.

Scott compares capitalism to the high-modernist bureaucratic-totalitarian states of the last century:

Large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety. (In Enlightenment’s Wake, John Gray makes a similar case for liberalism, which he regards as self-limiting because it rests on cultural and institutional capital that it is bound to undermine.) The “interruption,” forced by widespread strikes, of France’s structural adjustments to accommodate a common European currency is perhaps a straw in the wind. Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.

The high-modernist states often saw community and civil society as threats to their power: consider the Communists’ attacks on the churches, networks of hidden informants and spies, and attempts to incorporate all of civil society into the state in order to control and monitor it.

Cultural distance

For the most part, such transactions do not actually happen at all. This is in a sense the “missing trade” in the world. It is most visible at the level of countries. As Pankaj Ghemawat shows in World 3.0, the cultural distance between countries is a very strong predictor of bilateral trade levels, and the strength of border restrictions between two countries can be measured in terms of missing trade: the trade that would exist if the border didn’t exist. If I recall correctly, Ghemawat estimates that the missing trade across the US-Canada border (the strongest economic bilateral relationship in the world, grounded in very deep cultural affinity) is missing several trillion dollars.

When they do happen, there is usually a trader-mediated market in the middle, one of whose primary functions is to create a certain amount of anonymity, by obscuring the origins and destinations of goods and services in order to preserve the fictions on either side.

This allows, for instance, ideological foes to trade things like agricultural produce, oil and minerals.

It is no accident that things traded via intermediary trader markets are typically commodities. It is much easier to obscure the origin and destination of things like oil than things like movies. To the extent that a product or service is not  a commodity, it carries with it the values of the producer culture.


I’m not convinced that the US/Canada cultural affinity is that deep. The two seem pretty different; and after the revolution, when the monarchists were chased out of the States, most of them went to Canada.

Also, is the operative thing here really cultural distance in general, or is it cultural distance between elites? The latter is more relevant in things like war: consider that Washington entered America into two wars for the purpose of siding with Britain to crush Germany. (The main reason the Anglosphere didn’t knock Germany back to the Stone Age after WW2 was that USG worried that, if they did that, it would go Communist.) The elites were Anglophiles, but many of the common people were Germans.


03:27 < nydwracu> “i liked being able to countersignal with this but now liking it is only signaling so i have to find something else to countersignal with against that”
03:28 < nydwracu> in this sense, hipster identity is fundamentally defined in terms of opposition
03:28 < nydwracu> the plus side of this is that it incentivizes a great deal of innovation
03:31 < nydwracu> but the oppositional mode leads to [and could be caused by] the political positioning-against that contributes to cthulhu’s leftward drift and the colonial-officer mentality of the demographic from which hipsters are drawn
03:32 < nydwracu> “my thede has no characteristics and in fact is not a thede at all, it’s just further along on the unidirectional and universal Progression of History”
03:32 < nydwracu> my thede defines itself musically in no terms at all and in fact there’s no such thing as a hipster and i’m not one