Don Kulick on BookTV.

My wife and I often watch C-SPAN’s BookTV on the weekends, and last night they had one of the best author interviews I’ve ever seen (there’s a transcript, “compiled from uncorrected Closed Captioning”): journalist Carl Hoffman talked with anthropologist Don Kulick about the latter’s new book A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. I only took one anthropology class in college, but it fascinated me, and I’ve read about the subject off and on ever since; I understand the criticisms of anthropology as inherently colonialist, appropriating cultural goods and so on (and Kulick discusses them sensibly towards the end), but I refuse to believe it’s not a good thing for people to try to learn about the lives and beliefs of people different from themselves, and I honor the people who do it well and sensitively. Around the 12:00 mark he starts talking about the languages of Papua New Guinea, how they were first classified (by how they say ‘no,’ among other things), and how they die, as well as how he came to study Tayap; the last question was whether he spoke the language himself, and he said he had spent years studying it and had just written a 500-page grammar, but he never acquired a good speaking ability, because it’s rapidly being replaced by Tok Pisin, and it was in that creole that he had to communicate with the villagers. This hour-long talk gave me so many new thoughts and ideas that I’m listening to it again as I type this so that I can cement them in my memory; if you have any interest in that sort of thing, I promise you it’s worth your while.

Not LH material, but another talk broadcast last night was almost as gripping: “Chris DeRose talked about Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America. In his book he recounted the murder of Francis Scott Key’s son, Philip Barton Key, by New York U.S. Representative Daniel Sickles in 1859.” Absolutely mind-boggling stuff!


  1. Trond Engen says

    Wikipedia says that Tayap is a language isolate with complex verb morphology and a Pandanus language.

  2. David Marjanović says

    It has a pandanus language, a book chapter published last year included it in the Torricelli languages, and check out the personal pronouns!

  3. What about the personal pronouns?

  4. David Marjanović says

    They’re fun. 1sg ŋa like in Generic Sino-Tibetan and some others, 2sg yu.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I feel a Sino-Platonic paper coming.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Me too.

    Clearly Tayap is a Gur language: compare the Tiefo 1sg subject pronoun ŋ and the 2pl independent plural pronoun nayo (where the na component is obviously of the same origin as the West African Pidgin focus particle na.)

    It seems overwhelmingly probable that the Gur languages are closely connected with Sinitic. And Gurmanic, of course.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Miss Ivy wrote some depressingly fine novels.

  8. I took linguistic anthro with Don Kulick in grad school! He’s great. I like his work not only on language, but also on communication and mediation more broadly conceived: His 1994 article with Margaret Willson on the interpretation of a/v media narratives by Gapun villagers in PNG is one of the classic challenges to “media effects” theory, profoundly relativizing notions of mediation that are built into a lot of media theory developed in the West.

    I assure you that critiques of anthropology’s colonial foundations and neocolonial structures of power are a perennial concern of the discipline. Which is not to say that your hesitations are misguided; in fact they’re spot on.

  9. Thanks, it’s great to hear from someone who studied with him!

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Miss Ivy wrote some depressingly fine novels.

    Thanks! You remembered!

  11. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t know what to say, more than that. I read a couple decades ago, and of course was blown away. But that’s of no general interest. If she were still alive I’d send her an anonymous chunk of money.

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