[Colloquium] My yesterday or your yesterday? - Reconstructing a proto calendar with an intrinsic frame of reference

Scant data and low rates of lexical retention can constrain application of the comparative method, but the semantic oppositions present in a particular domain can make for a lexical system with semantics that can be reconstructed by contrast (Dyen and Aberle 2010). In Avava, Neverver, and Ninde (Oceanic, Vanuatu), the unique structure of the calendrical lexicon for days of the week and for months is particularly amenable to semantic reconstruction, often even in the absence of cognate forms. The days of the week in these languages employ an intrinsic temporal frame of reference. This frame of reference appears to be unusual for large timescales, although it has been described for spatial motion metaphors for rescheduled events (Rothe-Wulf, Beller, & Bender 2014). For example, Ninde maxan ‘tomorrow, the second day (of/from)’ forms part of the larger construction in (1):


            (1)        netou   t-maxan

                        year        rlvzr-morrow

                        ‘next year (from now), the second year (of/from)’


The week extends as far as seven days both into the future and the past relative to a reference day. In contrast to the months, this vocabulary has largely resisted influences of globalization. Throughout Melanesia, months generally bear descriptive names related to the annual yam cultivation cycle. Much has been lost in adapting traditional month names to Gregorian months, but different, yet overlapping retentions of a proto system allow for comparative work to reveal much of the calendrical history.

            To this end, this talk brings together the comparative method, lexical semantic analysis, and ethnography and anthropology of time in Melanesia (Codrington 1891, Leach 1950, Mondragón 2004), especially as they pertain to yam cultivation (Scaglion 1999). This work represents part of a larger community-based historical reconstruction serving the priorities of community members. The unique reconstructibility of lexical systems contributes to long-standing challenges in determining genetic subgroups by sound change in one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world.