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Culture and communication in the Kewa language of Papua New Guinea

A group of men talk together in a Kewa village (circa 1980s)

A group of men talk together in
a Kewa village (circa 1980s).

Yombo's letters demonstrate that the grammatical and cultural context is crucial to understanding the full meaning and ramifications of Kewa complaints…We believe that the extensive data and analysis in this study also offers a unique and significant point of comparison for future pragmatic research on letters written in either related languages, or Papuan languages in general.

-Dr. Karl Franklin and Dr. Karol Hardin, “Complaints in Kewa Letters”

(July 2012) A study co-authored by SIL International Anthropology Consultant Dr. Karl Franklin and his daughter, Dr. Karol Hardin of Baylor University, was published in the latest issue of the journal Oceanic Linguistics (Vol. 51, June 2012). “Complaints in Kewa Letters” provides insight into the language and culture of the Kewa community of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Franklin and his family first became involved in language development work in East Kewa in 1958 and then in West Kewa in 1967 and have maintained a connection with the West Kewa community ever since. Hardin, who was raised in the community, now specializes in linguistic pragmatics and medical Spanish.

The study examines sixty-three letters written by one West Kewa speaker (Yombo, a pseudonym) over a period of about fifteen years. Franklin provided the transcriptions and grammatical analysis and Hardin contributed the pragmatic analysis. The authors demonstrate how the complaints relate to various cultural scripts and scenarios. For example, the complainant often avoids direct confrontation and mitigates the offense. The study also demonstrates how a newly literate man used various styles and features available in the language to discuss the events of his life and to complain about some of them.

Another Kewa study authored by Franklin, “Kewa figures of speech: Understanding the code,” was included in the recent book Endangered Metaphors, published by John Benjamins.

Related links of interest