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Landscape Categories in Yindjibarndi: Ontology, Environment, and Language

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This paper describes categories for landscape elements in the language of the Yindjibarndi people, a community of Indigenous Australians. Yindjibarndi terms for topographic features were obtained from dictionaries, and augmented and refined through discussions with local language experts in the Yindjibarndi community. In this paper, the Yindjibarndi terms for convex landforms and for water bodies are compared to English-language terms used to describe the Australian landscape, both in general terms and in the AUSLIG Gazetteer. The investigation found fundamental differences between the two conceptual systems at the basic level, supporting the notion that people from different places and cultures may use different categories for geographic features. Keywords. Geographic categories, geographic ontology, landscape terms, natural language, cultural differences, Yindjibarndi, Indigenous Australians, spatial cognition, geographic information systems, GIS.
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Landscape Categories in Yindjibarndi:
Ontology, Environment, and Language
David M. Mark1 and Andrew G. Turk2
1 Department of Geography,
National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, and
Center for Cognitive Science
University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14261, USA
Email: dmark@geog.buffalo.edu
2 School of Information Technology, Murdoch University,
Perth, Western Australia 6150, Australia
Email: a.turk@murdoch.edu.au
Abstract.
This paper describes categories for landscape elements in the language of
the Yindjibarndi people, a community of Indigenous Australians.
Yindjibarndi terms for topographic features were obtained from
dictionaries, and augmented and refined through discussions with local
language experts in the Yindjibarndi community. In this paper, the
Yindjibarndi terms for convex landforms and for water bodies are compared
to English-language terms used to describe the Australian landscape, both
in general terms and in the AUSLIG Gazetteer. The investigation found
fundamental differences between the two conceptual systems at the basic
level, supporting the notion that people from different places and cultures
may use different categories for geographic features.
Keywords. Geographic categories, geographic ontology, landscape
terms, natural language, cultural differences, Yindjibarndi, Indigenous
Australians, spatial cognition, geographic information systems, GIS.
Introduction
Do all people, and all peoples, think about the landscapes and its elements in more or
less the same way? Or are there significant cross-cultural and cross-linguistic
differences in the ways human beings perceive and cognize their environments at
geographic or landscape scales? These are important scientific questions, and also
important challenges to designers of geographic information systems (GIS) and
compilers of geographic databases and spatial data infrastructures. For the past several
years, we and our colleagues have been approaching these questions from a variety of
research perspectives, most recently the perspective of ontology.
In this paper, we attempt to gain perspective on such questions by examining
landscape categories in Yindjibarndi1, an Australian language spoken in the Pilbara
1 The name of this language and group has been spelled in various ways. Recently,
local groups in the community have preferred "Indjibarndi". Von Brandenstein
(1970) spelled the name as "Jindjiparndi", and Tindale (1974) used "Indjibandi".
For conformance with current scholarly work on Aboriginal languages, In this
paper we have spelled the language name as "Yindjibarndi", following the current
spelling standard from AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS, 1994).
region of northwestern Australia, approximately 1,600 km north of Perth.
Yindjibarndi is a language that is very distant linguistically from English and other
Indo-European languages, and is that spoken by people from an environment that is
very different from northwestern Europe. Thus, if the comparison does not reveal
significant differences, such a result would support the proposition that there are
universal landscape concepts for the domains examined. Such universality can be
regarded as the null hypothesis for the study.
Theoretical Background
Ontology
Ontology, in its long-established philosophical sense, seeks to identify the
constituents of reality. In its more recent information systems sense, an ontology is
"a logical theory which gives an explicit, partial account of a conceptualization"
(Guarino and Giaretta, 1995, p. 32). The ontology stipulates the taxonomy that forms
the basis of a data dictionary used in building an information system. At a relatively
abstract level, ontology determines the kinds of entities that can exist—objects, fields,
parts, solids, fluids, etc. Ontology also identifies observable properties or attributes,
such as size, shape, or curvature. Another important aspect of the ontology of a
domain is the categories to which entities can belong, and the relations among those
categories. Recently, the geographic information science research community has
devoted considerable attention to the ontology of the geospatial domain (Winter, 2001;
Smith and Mark, 2001).
Categories
Categories are central to cognition (Rosch, 1973a, 1973b, 1978; Smith and Medin,
1981; Lakoff, 1987; Mark, 1993b). Some categories reflect groups of similar entities
in the real world—natural kinds, if they exist, would be an example of this. Other
categories exist by design—most artifacts belong to the categories that their
manufacturers intended them to belong to. In contrast, there is more room for different
people or groups to come up with different categorization schemes for natural
inorganic domains—and geographic entities fall into this subdomain. For geographic
entities, categories may in part reflect similarities and discontinuities in the landscape,
but to some extent are projected onto the landscape by human cognition and language.
This study explores the relative balance of such factors in the case of landforms and
waterbodies.
Standards
Theoretical aspects of cognitive categories meet practical issues of geographic
information systems and spatial databases in the area of standards (Mark, 1993a).
Geospatial data exchange and data infrastructures depend on the use of standards for data
formats. Semantics of spatial information often are expressed through some system of
feature codes or entity types that indicate a real-world geographic category to which a
feature on a map or in a database belongs. Feature codes also play a key role in
gazetteers, which are important in digital map and image libraries. Government-
endorsed feature categories also provide a baseline description of landscape categories
according to the dominant culture in a society, against which category systems by
other groups such as indigenous peoples may be compared.
Ontology of the Geographic Domain
As Smith and Mark (1998) noted, both geographic entities and their categories may
differ in kind from entities and categories in other domains. Geographic entities are not
simply large versions of their counterparts at smaller scales: "geographic objects are
not merely located in space, but are tied intrinsically to space in a manner that implies
that they inherit from space many of its structural (mereological, topological,
geometrical) properties" (Smith and Mark, 1998, p. 592).
Smith and Mark (1998) speculated that categories of geographic entities might be
organized differently than other categories studied by psychologists and cognitive
scientists. However, subsequent empirical evidence appears to show that geographic
categories have the same sorts of structures and internal organizations as do categories
in other domains (Mark et al., 1999; Smith and Mark, 2001; Mark et al., 2001). In
contrast, the distinctive nature of individual geographic entities, compared to entities
in most other domains, remains apparent, especially in terms of their boundaries. For
example, graded or transitional boundaries are common for geographic entities (Turk,
2000) but extremely rare in other domains. The existence of individual objects is a
brute fact in the cases of organisms, fruits, or tools, but geographic entities such as
mountains do not quite exist as objects to the same degree (Smith and Mark, 2003).
Rather, most geographic entities are parts of the Earth's surface that are delimited from
neighboring parts in a variety of ways, some of which may be contingent on the
conceptual system of the delimiters. For example, believing that some region is a
marsh may give it a different boundary than it would have if it were thought to be a
lake. Such contingency provides more opportunity for cultural, linguistic, or
individual differences in the delimitation of individual geographic entities. Even in the
propensity to transform a continuous landscape into objects at all may vary across
cultures.
A key issue then, is how do individual people, or the people in a speech
community, divide the landscape into entities such as mountains or valleys? In
addition, how are those entities categorized, and is there an interaction between the
classification and delimitation processes? How important is the nature of the particular
landscape that provides the environment for a speech community, and especially the
range of forms in that landscape? How influential is the culture and lifestyle of the
people, that is, the nature of human interaction with the landscape? How influential is
the nature of the language itself, its grammar and lexicon?
Cross-linguistic comparisons might help tease apart these and other effects. In
order to attempt this, we examined the terms for landscape entities in the Yindjibarndi
language of northwestern Australia. We decided to study an Aboriginal Australian
language because the Australian languages are only very distantly related to the Indo-
European languages. We chose Yindjibarndi because one of us (AT) has worked with
the Yindjibarndi-speaking community in Roebourne for several years, together with
his collaborator, Dr. Kathryn Trees (Australian Indigenous Studies, Murdoch
University) (Turk, 2000, 2002; Turk and Trees, 1998, 1999, 2000).
The Yindjibarndi People, Country, and Language
Before European colonization of Australia, the Yindjibarndi people lived mostly along
the middle part of the valley of the Yarnda-Nyirra-na (Fortescue River) in northwestern
Australia, and on adjacent uplands. To the south, their traditional country is bounded
by the higher mountains of the Hammersley Range, occupied by the Banjima and
Gurrama peoples, and to the north, their country ends approximately at the escarpment
leading down to the coastal plain occupied by Ngarluma speakers (Tindale, 1974).
Yindjibarndi, Ngarluma and Gurrama belong to the Coastal Ngayarda language group,
and Banjima isclassified among Inland Ngayarda languages; all of these languages are
in the South-West group of Pama-Nyungan languages (SIL, 2001).
Figure 1: The yinda called "Jindawarrina", located at the place of the
same name (Jindawarrina) also known as "Millstream".
There are no permanent or even seasonal rivers or creeks in Yindjibarndi country.
Larger watercourses have running water in them only after major precipitation events,
usually associated with cyclones (hurricanes). Between such major rain events, rivers
continue to 'run', however, the water is underground, beneath the (usually sandy)
surface. Permanent pools occur where the lie of the land and the geology cause the
water table to break the surface of the ground. Permanent sources of water include
permanent pools along the channels of the Yarnda-Nyirra-na (Fortescue) and other
larger rivers, as well as some permanent small springs, and soaks where water can be
obtained by digging. Unlike many areas of inland Australia, there are no significant
intermittent or seasonal lakes in Yindjibarndi country. Local relief (elevation
differences) within most of the traditional country of the Yindjibarndi is relatively
low, with rolling hills and extensive flats.
As part of the European colonialization process, Yindjibarndi country was taken
over by sheep and cattle stations (ranches) from the 1860s. The Yindjibarndi people
were moved off their traditional territory into camps and settlements (Ieramugadu
Group, 1995; Rijavec et al., 1995). Today, most of the Yindjibarndi speakers live in
and around Roebourne, in what traditionally was Ngarluma country. Most of the
surviving Ngarluma people now speak Yindjibarndi and English in addition to their
own language. The Roebourne community is mostly Indigenous and people use their
own languages and English to differing degrees, depending on the context, sometimes
with terms from both languages occurring in the same sentence.
Several linguists have studied the Yindjibarndi language. Von Brandenstein (1970,
1992) studied Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma and collected stories. Wordick (1982) also
collected stories and produced both a grammar and a Yindjibarndi-English dictionary.
Anderson revised Wordick's system of phonetic spelling for Yindjibarndi, and produced
both Yindjibarndi-English and English-Yindjibarndi versions (Anderson, 1986).
Anderson also coded the words according to topic. A digital version of Anderson's
compilation is available from the Aboriginal Studies Electronic Data Archive
(ASEDA) of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
(Anderson and Thieberger, no date); this electronic source with thematic coding was
extremely useful in this study. In this paper, we will sometimes refer to Anderson and
Thieberger's reworking of the Wordick (1982) and Anderson (1986) dictionaries, and
the 1992 word lists from von Brandenstein (1970) collectively as "the dictionaries".
Landscape Categories in Yindjibarndi
Research Methods
Before our November 2002 visit to Yindjibarndi country, we compiled lists of all
geographic terms that we could find in the dictionaries. Anderson (1986) coded 55
terms as "geographical features". These included all but one or two of the Yindjibarndi
landscape terms that we could find in the dictionary, plus several terms for geologic
and earth materials. We then classified the geographic terms into semantic groups
according to the usual meanings of their English equivalents, using groups such as
water features, land forms, land cover types, etc., to assist in organizing fieldwork.
In November 2002, the authors visited the Roebourne area for a week. We met
with local language experts Allery Sandy, Trevor Soloman, and Nita Fishhook, and
also toured the area to take photographs of landform examples. During these meetings,
we asked our Yindjibarndi collaborators whether they agreed with the meanings of
Yindjibarndi words given in the dictionaries that appeared to refer to kinds of
geographical features. We also asked them to suggest additional words for kinds of
features in the landscape. The elicitation aspects of these meetings were assisted by the
use of color prints of photographs of parts of Yindjibarndi country and neighboring
areas taken (by AT) on previous fieldtrips. At least initially, the discussion was
structured in terms of particular superordinate classes of feature (e.g. water features;
hills), and we asked questions seeking to clarify issues identified from analysis of the
dictionaries. We also asked about entity types in English for which the dictionaries did
not include Yindjibarndi equivalents, such as "island" or "waterfall". Terms were both
written on a whiteboard and discussed verbally, and most of the sessions were recorded
on digital audio tape. One of us (AT) returned to Roebourne for a week in late January
2003 and had further consultations with Trevor Soloman and with Marion Cheedy,
using word lists and color photographic images from the November 2002 fieldtrip.
This assisted in clarifying the meanings of some of the terms and established
arrangements for more detailed and extensive assistance from Yindjibarndi elders, to be
conducted during the first half of 2003. Both authors spent another week in Roebourne
in May 2003, taking more photographs and measurements and discussing terms with
Marion Cheedy, Jane Cheedy, and Trevor Soloman.
Spelling is somewhat of an issue in this research, since the Yindjibarndi had no
written language before European contact, and since some of the phonemes used in
Yindjibarndi are not used in English. In this paper, we have used Anderson's spelling
for any word that he included in his dictionary, although these sometimes disagreed
with the preferred spelling according to our Yindjibarndi colleagues. Inadequacies of
the process of compilation of the dictionaries, differing linguistic approaches used,
variation in usage of terms over space and time, and the influence of English, all make
it impossible to be completely definitive regarding either the exact meaning or the
most appropriate spelling for Yindjibarndi words. Our intention is not to make
judgments regarding proper spelling, but merely to try to obtain an understanding of
the Yindjibarndi landscape terms sufficient for the research project. Compilations of
terms and photographs resulting from the research project will be provided to the
community to assist our collaborators with teaching of Yindjibarndi language in
schools, and at that time the standards for phonetic spelling must be re-visited.
Yindjibarndi Categories for Water in the Landscape
The Yindjibarndi language has several terms that refer to water bodies or watercourses.
In Table 1, we compare these terms to the relevant set of water terms and categories
from the Australian Gazetteer standard (AUSLIG, 2002).
Figure 2: Part of the yinda called "Nangarnyungu" by the
Yindjibarndi people, which is referred to in English as
"Deepreach Pool". The pool is located at Jindawarrina .
One of the most important Yindjibarndi landscape concepts is yinda, a permanent
pool. A yinda may be either large or small, but a body of water must be permanent
to be a yinda. As noted above, in Yindjibarndi country, all rivers are dry at the
surface almost all the time—thus the small number of yinda along the river beds take
on great ecological and cultural significance. Every yinda has its own proper name.
Most yinda are in the beds of the major rivers in Yindjibarndi country. Yindjibarndi
believe that the river channels were formed "when the world was soft" by the river
spirit (warlu) and that the warlu currently occupies and protects the yinda
(Ieramugadu Group Inc., 1995; Rijavec et al., 1995). Hence, proper behavior at a
yinda incorporates respect for the warlu. Our collaborators said that during extended
dry periods, a yinda may be reduced to a small pool, termed a thula. Anderson
spells it thurla and says it means, among other things, "eye". Hence, a thula may be
thought of as the eye of the warlu. Intermittent or temporary pools are not given a
water body term at all, but are simply referred to by the general term for water as a
substance, bawa.
Figure 3: A wundu, referred to in English as "Dawson Creek", in
Yindjibarndi country north of Jindawarrina.
Yindjibarndi has two terms that appear to refer to fluvial channels. Wundu is
usually translated as "river", and refers to riverbed and channels. All the examples of
wundu that we confirmed through photographs were broad, low-gradient channels at
least several meters wide. Anderson (1986) states that wundu can also mean "gorge".
The other term for channels was garga, which seems roughly equivalent to "gully" in
English; it appears to refer both to the concave topographic feature and to the channel
in it.
Yindjibarndi also has two words for water flow in nature. Manggurdu is the
term for flood, or for other strong, deep water flow. Yijirdi is the Yindjibarndi word
for a shallow, narrow flow or trickle of water. It appears that, unlike in English, the
Yindjibandi treat the water flow and the channel as different things. If this is confirmed
by further research, it would be a sharp difference from the conceptualization of
watercourses in English.
In English and most other European languages water features are first divided into
standing or flowing ones, and then the standing water bodies are divided into larger
ones (such as lakes) and smaller ones (such as ponds and pools). Additional terms in
English refer to water bodies with distinct origins, such as lagoons. Mark (1993b)
discussed minor differences in water body categorization between French and English,
as an example of the linguistic phenomenon that is the focus of this paper—French
appears to distinguish étangs from lacs based on water quality and a lack of a surface
outlet, rather than giving priority to the size difference that usually separates ponds
from lakes in English. In contrast, the Yindjibarndi appear to give primary empasis to
permanence, a factor which is not encoded in the basic level water categories of
English. Clearly, the conceptual organization of water body terms in Yindjibarndi
contrasts sharply with the organization of terms and concepts in English.
Figure 4: This flowing water near Jindawarrina would probably be
referred to in Yindjibarndi by the term yijirdi.
Figure 5: Another yijirdi (small stream) flowing into a yinda
(permanent pool) at the place known in English as
"Fortescue Falls" in Karijini National Park, which is in
Banjima country.
Table 1: Comparison of Water Terms and Categories
AUSLIG
category Language Terms
LAKE English: lake, tarn, loch, lough
Yindjibarndi: (some yinda are large enough to be considered to be
lakes in English)
SOAK English: native well, soak, soakage
Yindjibarndi: yurrama
SPRG English: spring, pool spring, hotsprings, mineral spring
Yindjibarndi: jinbi (permanent spring)
STRM English: stream, brook, watercourse, anabranch, backwash,
backwater, run, creek, river, gully, rivulet, beck,
backwater, burn
Yindjibarndi: Wundu (riverbed), yijirdi (small stream of water),
garga (gully)
WRFL English: waterfall, cascade, cataract, falls, rapids
Yindjibarndi: (no Yindjibarndi term for waterfall, however yijirdi is
used for a small running stream of water over rocks)
WTRH English: waterhole, lagoon, hole, pool, washpool, billabong,
oxbow
Yindjibarndi: yinda
Yindjibarndi Categories for Hills
Marnda is the common Yindjibarndi term for most hills and mountains. Even
though most marnda would be called hills in English, Wordick and Anderson do not
list "hill" as a possible translation of marnda, which according to those authors
translates to "rock, mountain, metal, hard material, money" (Anderson, 1986). The
word marnda was very familiar to our collaborators. There are several other
Yindjibarndi terms for small hills or mounds, but marnda appears to include most
things that would be called hills in English, as well as mountains or mountain ranges
such as the Hammersley Range (at the Southern end of Yindjibarndi country).
Marnda is also used for ridges. Marnda has other meanings—rock, metal, any hard
material, and money (coins). Marnda is almost certainly a basic level term, and is
one of the most common geographic terms in Yindjibarndi.
Figure 6: The tablelands between the northern edge of Yindjibarndi
country and the Yarnda-Nyirra-na (Fortescue River) have
scattered marnda, of which this is one of the larger ones near
the road to Jindawarrina.
Figure 7: This small feature in the Jindawarrina area, with a top about 2
meters above its base, would almost certainly be a bargu in
Yindjibarndi.
Although many features that would be hills to an English speaker would be
marnda in Yindjibarndi, there are at least three other terms in Yindjibarndi that refer
to smaller hills or mounds. A bargu is a small hill or a sand hill—the key
distinction between a bargu and a marnda appears to be size, rather than shape,
steepness of slope, or material. A burbaa is a steep slope along a road, the sort of
thing that is referred to as a "hill" in English. But burbaa also can refer to a mound,
a small sandy hill, an incline, a slope on the side of any hill, or a vegetated sand ridge.
Yet another term for a convex topographic feature is bantha, a mound or pile, banks,
or a hump. At one point our collaborators suggested that a typical bantha is very
small (e.g., a mound of earth covering a grave), but later it seemed that the main thing
that distinguishes a bantha from a bargu or marnda is artificiality.
Again, we compared these terms to the convex topographic terms and categories
from the Australian Gazetteer standard (Table 2).
Table 2: Comparison of Terms for Convex Topographic Features
AUSLIG
category Language Terms
HILL English: Hill, Knoll, Knob, Mesa, Sugarloaf, Lookout, Butte,
Hillock, Kopje
Yindjibarndi: marnda, bargu, burbaa
MT English: Mountain, Peak
Yindjibarndi: marnda
PEAK English: Mountain Peak, Summit, Point (inland), Rock
Column, Butte
Yindjibarndi: marnda, gankala (*)
RDGE English: Ridge, Saddle, Spur
Yindjibarndi: marnda
RNGE English: Range, Mountain Range, Hills, Mountains, Rock,
Boulder, Pinnacle, Crag,
Needle, Pillar,
Yindjibarndi: marnda
ROCK English: Rock Formation, Tor, Rocks (on land), Rocks
(offshore)
Yindjibarndi: marnda, jurrun (D*), thalungarn (F*)
(Other) Yindjibarndi: bantha
English: pile, mound
(* = term not discussed in this paper; D = term only from
dictionary, not recognized by our Yindjibarndi colleagues; F = term
only from our fieldwork, not in the dictionaries)
Note that marnda appears under six of the seven English terms. A single basic-level
term in Yindjibarndi appears to cover a range of topographic convexities described by
several terms in English: mountain, hill, ridge, range, and others, while the meaning
of the basic-level term "hill" in English is expressed by several terms in Yindjibarndi.
For convex topographic features, it appears that the relation between Yindjibarndi
terms and English terms is many-to-many. Thus, one would need reference to the
exact form of the real-world referent in order to translate these terms correctly. This
closely parallels the situation for the water body terms pond in English and étang in
French (Mark, 1993b).
Discussion
In one sense, the conceptual systems for water features and for convex topographic
features in English and in Yindjibarndi are very similar. The meanings of the
Yindjibarndi terms for such features can easily be expressed in English, and we had no
problem communicating in English with our bilingual Yindjibarndi colleagues
regarding the meanings of Yindjibarndi landscape terms. Of course, it is possible that
there are subtleties of Yindjibarndi landscape concepts that cannot be expressed in
English. On the other hand, at the basic level of category terms, the Yindjibarndi
landscape vocabulary is completely different from the terms covering the equivalent
domain in English. None of the Yindjibarndi terms discussed in this paper is exactly
equivalent to one single term in English. Yindjibarndi terms divide up subdomains of
geographic reality quite differently than do English terms. For example, permanent and
temporary water features that otherwise are similar are considered to be different kinds
of features in Yindjibarndi; English, in contrast, treats permanence of water bodies and
water courses as only an attribute or property, and expresses it through adjectives such
as "temporary", "seasonal", "intermittent", or "ephemeral". In addition, there are
several kinds of small hills in Yindjibarndi, but this is not simply a refinement of
terminology for convex terrain features, since, from the Yindjibarndi perspective, there
are several kinds of marnda in English--the basic level terms simply do not match.
Indeed, this is exactly what we should have expected. The basic level categories in
a language must be tuned to the variations in the particular environment in which a
speech community lives, and to the ways in which that environment affords various
activities essential to life, if it is to provide the common terms needed in every-day
speech. The popular myth of the large number of Eskimo words for snow (Pullum,
1991) appears to be an exaggeration of a real tendency of environmental variation to
influence vocabulary. The basic-level category system for environmental features
should vary across environments. Of course, such a relation between categories and
environment would not be deterministic, but would be probabilistic. Also, different
cultures occupying the same landscape could have developed different concepts because
of differences in lifestyle. For example, Indigenous Australians in their traditional
lifestyle did not have the technology to store large quantities of water, and thus it is
not surprising that permanent sources of water take on a vital significance.
Some Significant Issues for Further Research
There are many unresolved matters regarding the true nature of the Yindjibarndi
landscape ontology (as revealed through their language), which require further research.
Some of the more significant are as follows:
1. The Role of Compound Words and Phrases
A language might have a large number of words to refer to different kinds of
geographic entities. Alternatively, speakers of a language might use a small number
of general terms, and combine them with adjectives describing attributes, forming
either phrases or compound words. However, in a language without a written tradition,
the difference between a compound noun and a noun phrase is not always obvious. For
hills of different size, it appears that in Yindjibarndi different terms are often used
(marnda; bargu), however, at times our collaborators used the expression "gubija
marnda" to mean a small hill. There does not seem to be a simple term for a flat-
topped hill (mesa, butte) with the compound word marndamarlirri (literally: hill +
flattened) used. Similarly, a type of hill in Yindjibarndi country and adjacent areas has
a surface composed of slabs of loose iron-rich rock, which weathers to a very dark
brown color. These are called marndawarrura (literally: hill + black, brown, dark).
A similar, though somewhat different, etymology applies to the term for "mountain
country" - marndamirdayi (mountain + place of, place where the … is). Cognitive
linguists often assume that the encoding of some concepts in monolexemic words,
rather than as noun phrases, indicates that those concepts have in some sense a deeper
importance to the speakers of the language in question. According to Berlin and Kay's
classic work on color terms (Berlin and Kay, 1969), one characteristic of terms for
basic level concepts is that they are monolexemic, and Wierzbicka (1996) also
promotes this criterion, calling it "Morphological Structure" (Wierzbicka, 1996, p.
356). It would be very interesting to understand more clearly why some kinds of
geographic features are denoted by monolexemic terms and why others are dealt with
by compound words and phrases, and to try to establish whether this reflects some
underlying cognitive salience or environmental importance, whether it is largely
linguistic or historical effect, or whether it is due to chance.
2. The Role of Proper Names
During discussions with our Yindjibarndi collaborators, they frequently mentioned that
significant geographic features are usually referred to by their individual (proper)
names, rather than by generic terms. For instance, one of the authors (AT) was present
(during an earlier fieldtrip) when a Ngarluma elder listed in order the first twenty
yinda (permanent pools) that one would encounter when traveling inland from
Roebourne along the Ngurin (Harding River). Knowing the names for pools,
mountains, etc is an important part of Indigenous Australian culture, often passed on
by 'singing' lists of names. In these cultures, one is expected to know the limits of
one's own country and the cultural significance of places, and be able to demonstrate
this by knowing the proper names of its features (Ieramugadu Group Inc., 1995).
Malpass (1999, p. 3) notes that this is a key component of relationship to the land for
Indigenous Australians: "So important is this tie of person to place that for
Aboriginal peoples the land around them everywhere is filled with marks of individual
and ancestral origins and is dense with story and myth".
The authors have not yet been able to establish the full extent of use of proper
names for geographic features for Yindjibarndi, although it is clearly extensive. One of
our collaborators said that all permanent features (of significant size) in the landscape
had names - rivers and creeks, pools, hills, rocky outcrops, flat areas, etc - but that
many of the names were not recorded and may now be lost. More fieldwork is needed
before the way that this influences the form of geographic terms could be reasonably
inferred.
3. Object vs. Field Conceptualizations of Landscape
Western conceptualizations of space, and the categories and data structures of GIS
which arise from them, tend to treat geographic features in the landscape as objects.
However, there is at least anecdotal evidence that Indigenous Australians (including the
Yindjibarndi) tend to view landscape more as a continuous field. Parallel ideas have
been suggested by Atran and Medin (1997), who claimed that "Westerners make much
more use of categories for purposes of inductive inference than do members of other
societies," and that members of other cultures are "more likely to organize on the
basis of relationships and similarities". We have not yet been able to design and
implement an experimental method to adequately explore this issue with respect to
Yindjibarndi landscape categories. However, if the anecdotal evidence noted above is
well founded, it would be of considerable significance to the design and usability of
GIS.
4. The Role of Spirituality
For Indigenous Australians, including the Yindjibarndi people, spirituality and
topography are inseparable (e.g. all yinda have warlu) (Ieramugadu Group Inc.,
1995; Rijavec and Harrison, 1992; Turnbull, 1989). The significance of this issue for
agency is highlighted by Malpass (1999, p. 95): "Understanding an agent,
understanding oneself, as engaged in some activity is a matter both of understanding
the agent as standing in certain causal and spatial relations to objects and of grasping
the agent as having certain attributes - notably certain relevant beliefs and desires -
about the objects concerned". Hence, in order to fully comprehend Yindjibarndi
geographic concepts, it is necessary to adopt a method of inquiry that allows this
possibility. Treating the spiritual as real is in conflict with prevailing Western
philosophical assumptions underlying ontological investigation. Hence, a way of
resolving this conflict needs to be found, especially, if the objective is to provide
information systems suited to specific users (Remenyi et al, 1997; Wilson, 1998). A
pluralist approach to knowledge systems would seem necessary (Watson-Verran and
Turnbull, 1995). Robin Horton's efforts to reconcile African traditional thought with
Western science may provide a viable approach for integrating spirituality into a
comprehensive ontology of landscapes for information system design, as may Searle's
(1995) ideas for characterizing the nature of social reality within a realist ontological
framework. We plan to conduct further research that could lead to an integration of
cross-cultural belief systems into geographic ontology and geographic information
systems.
5. Ethnophysiography?
The research reported here appears to open a new research topic, which might best be
called ethnophysiography. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one meaning of
physiography as "physical geography", which captures the domain we are studying
very well. We also came to realize during the research that the methods employed in
this study parallel the methods used in ethnosciences such as ethnobiology (Berlin,
1992; Medin and Atran, 1999). Considering the importance of landscape to culture, it
would be surprising if ethnographic methods have not been used to study common-
sense categories for landscape elements, yet we have been unable to find examples of
such work.
Conclusions
The results of this study support the hypothesis that people from different places and
cultures use different conceptual categories for geographic features. Hence, if GIS are
to be most effective, their design needs to take account of such matters. These research
findings have practical implications. For instance, if the current Ngarluma-
Yindjibarndi native title land claim is at least partially successful, it may well lead to
joint management arrangements between the Yindjibarndi people and the State
Government for large national parks in their country (Turk, 1996; Walsh and
Mitchell, 2002). If a GIS were to be used to support this management, it would
probably be based on the digital version of the relevant 1:100,000 maps, which
incorporate the sorts of ontological assumptions and feature codes (AUSLIG, 2002)
discussed above. The results of this study indicate that such an approach might not
reflect Yindjibarndi landscape concepts, and hence a more complex inter-cultural
approach would need to be adopted. To do otherwise would amount to ontological
imperialism, and perhaps ontological assimilation.
This paper reports only some of the initial findings of an ongoing research
project. As indicated above, much more research is needed before it is possible to
arrive at a reasonably comprehensive understanding of the way geographic categories
are expressed in the Yindjibarndi language.
Acknowledgments
Members of the Roebourne community, especially Allery Sandy, Trevor Soloman,
Marion Cheedy, Nita Fishook, and Jane Cheedy provided invaluable assistance
regarding the Yindjibarndi language. We also wish to thank the Australian Institute of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, especially David Nash, for providing
material from the Aboriginal Studies Electronic Data Archive (ASEDA). Nicholas
Thieberger, Barry Smith, and Werner Kuhn also contributed to the research process.
This material is part of a project “Geographic Categories: An Ontological
Investigation” supported by the U. S. National Science Foundation under Grant No.
BCS-9975557. Support of the National Science Foundation is gratefully
acknowledged.
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