Mapping Co-Lexification Patterns in Sahul

It has been noted in earlier literature that some languages of Australia and Papua New Guinea have a single term for two or more of the concepts of 'tree', 'wood', 'firewood', and 'fire'. Recent advances in the use of databases, electronic dictionaries, and digital mapping now make it possible to conduct more extensive surveys of such patterns.  In our survey of 217 Papuan and 83 Australian languages we found that the terms behave quite differently in Australia (where the main pattern is that the term 'tree' are expressed using one word and the concepts of 'fire' and 'firewood' are expressed using another), versus the rest of the Sahul region, where the most common pattern is for all four terms to be distinguished. The distribution of patterns corresponds mainly with language family distribution, but there is some evidence of transfer of patterns to unrelated nearby languages.

Tree Wood Fire 

The paper is to be published in Schapper, A., San Roque, L, and Hendery, R. Tree, firewood and fire in the languages of Sahul: An introduction. In Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm & Päivi Juvonen Lexico-typological approaches to semantic shifts and motivation patterns in the lexicon. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Project Members

  • Dr Rachel Hendery, Western Sydney University
  • Dr Antoinette Schapper, Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde & Universität zu Köln
  • Dr Lila San Roque Radboud University & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics