Doing referring in Murriny Patha conversation

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Successful communication hinges on keeping track of who and what we are talking about. For this reason, person reference sits at the heart of the social sciences. Referring to persons is an interactional process where information is transferred from current speakers to the recipients of their talk. This dissertation concerns itself with the work that is achieved through this transfer of information.
The interactional approach adopted is one that combines the “micro” of conversation analysis with the “macro” of genealogically grounded anthropological linguistics. Murriny Patha, a non-Pama-Nyungan language spoken in the north of Australia, is a highly complex polysynthetic language with kinship categories that are grammaticalized as verbal inflections. For referring to persons, as well as names, nicknames, kinterms, minimal descriptions and free pronouns, Murriny Patha speakers make extensive use of pronominal reference markers embedded within polysynthetic verbs. Murriny Patha does not have a formal “mother-in-law” register. There are however numerous taboos on naming kin in avoidance relationships, and on naming and their namesakes. Similarly, there are also taboos on naming the deceased and on naming their namesakes. As a result, for every speaker there is a multitude of people whose names should be avoided.
At any one time, speakers of the language have a range of referential options. Speakers’ decisions about which category of reference forms to choose (names, kinterms etc.) are governed by conversational preferences that shape “referential design”. Six preferences – a preference for associating the referent to the co-present conversationalists, a preference for avoiding personal names, a preference for using recognitionals, a preference for being succinct, and a pair of opposed preferences relating to referential specificity – guide speakers towards choosing a name on one occasion, a kinterm on the next occasion and verbal cross-reference on yet another occasion. Different classes of expressions better satisfy particular conversational preferences. There is a systematicity to the referential choices that speakers make. The interactional objectives of interlocutors are enacted through the regular placement of particular forms in particular sequential environments. These objectives are then revealed through the turn-by-turn unfolding of conversational interaction.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Sydney
  • Simpson, Jane, Supervisor, External person
  • Barwick, Linda, Supervisor, External person
  • Walsh, Michael, Supervisor, External person
Award date16 Oct 2009
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • conversation analysis
  • person reference
  • anaphora
  • Murrinhpatha
  • Australian languages


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