Dr. Lise Dobrin, Linguist

Lise Dobrin

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Associate Professor, Anthropology
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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I started out my research career interested in the unusual way speech sounds are used as a basis for categorizing nouns in the Arapesh languages of Papua New Guinea. In addition to noun classes (like genders in European languages) based on meaning (such a feminine and masculine), Arapesh has classes based on sound. So there is a t-class for nouns like nɨmbat ‘dog’ that end in t, a p-class for nouns like marɨp ‘saucepan’ that end in p, an m-class for nouns like urukum ‘heart’ that end in m, etc. The sounds that define these categories then propagate across phrases and clauses through grammatical agreement, iconically threading separate elements together as in the following Arapesh example, where the final p of the word for ‘saucepan’ is repeated as an affix on the preceding article and adjective:

əno-p   dəbei-p-i    marɨp
a          large          saucepan

There is no other language I know of that elaborates a sound-based categorization and agreement principle to such an extent. Just how thoroughgoing is this system? How might it have developed?

In asking these kinds of questions during fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, I learned about much more than grammar. One of the most important things I learned was that the language was only spoken by people advanced in age, whereas younger people were now speaking Tok Pisin, Papua New Guinea’s English-based creole lingua franca. I also learned that Arapesh people thought about the relationship between language and culture in a very different way from what I was used to, and that the language shift they were experiencing in their community did not seem as troubling to them as it did to me.

Since then I have been focused on documenting and describing the Arapesh language, while also studying the cultural perspectives that different actors (like the Arapesh community and I) bring to this kind of work. I have built a major digital archive of Arapesh language recordings, and developed a lexicon that is linked to the recordings.

One of the most exciting things I have worked on this year is documenting and disseminating a digital tool I developed in collaboration with programmers at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities that allows users to hear or view recordings on a web browser while scrolling through a transcript. The system works whether on- or off-line, and this matters because many Arapesh people do not have internet access. By making a simple, elegant display system freely available, by describing it in a way that will facilitate its adoption by those without programming knowledge, and by providing detailed documentation for those do have such knowledge and wish to develop the tool further, I hope that the tool will be a helpful addition to documentary linguists’ repertoire, making it easier for them to share the materials they collect with all those who have a stake in their research. Hear the Arapesh language at the Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive


Hear the Arapesh language at the Arapesh Grammar and Digital Language Archive.


Visit Dr. Dobrin’s website and learn more about her research, http://anthropology.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/ld4n

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