Listening to the unsaid: Pacific shades of taboo

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Early taboo research concentrated on studying underlying social structures of Polynesian societies in the Pacific Islands where the term tapu was first encountered by 18th century European explorers. The focus soon shifted to the ancient aboriginal peoples on the Australian continent and their use of taboo. What is left of the original culture-specific taboo system that kept indigenous societies in order? How did the social and spiritual concept that was handed down from one generation to another change under the influence of colonisation and missionaries? In comparison to the original taboo, our understanding and use of it reflects a rather vague collection of social conventions. In this article, I argue that though the term taboo along with its original meaning have been hijacked, it still functions as a protection and order system for modern societies across the world, including the Pacific regions. Taboos are becoming more important in times of accelerated globalisation because they are a vital part in intercultural communication and, once broken, cannot really be repaired. In Polynesian Tonga, Melanesian Fiji, and indigenous Australia, traditional and modern taboo have become intertwined and recreated through intercultural communication. The indigenous voices cited in this article stem from a collection of 24 semi-structured interviews that were conducted between January and October 2014 as part of a larger, ongoing project about taboo. All interviewees are at home in at least two cultures and in at least two languages: only living in another culture enables people to truly focus on their own.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9-24
Number of pages16
JournalKodikas/Code: Ars Semeiotica: an international journal of semiotics
Volume38 (2015)
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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