Language & Culture Projects

    Our goal is to support cultural expression, creativity, identity and the preservation and documentation of tropical cultural and linguistic heritage.

    Language projects

    ARC Laureate Fellowship

    How gender shapes the world: A linguistic perspective

    Indicative funding: $2,416,141

    Gender pervades every aspect of life and of living. An understanding of its nature is central to many disciplines. The way gender is articulated shapes the world of individuals, and of the societies they live in. Study of Social Gender and Linguistic Gender offers a unique window into how humans construct representations of the world and encode them in their languages This project puts forward an innovative research program, systematically investigating gender expression and related socialization across languages and cultures, focusing on key Australian immigrant communities and our strategic neighbour New Guinea. The cutting-edge program will advance cross-cultural understanding and enhance capacity building within Australia and beyond.

    Chief Investigator: Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating School/Institution: The Cairns Institute; School of Arts & Social Sciences

    ARC Discovery Project (DP170100918)

    The integration of language and society

    Indicative funding: $411,000

    This project aims to seek associations between social and life-style differences and language structure. All human societies show pervasive similarities and all languages share recurrent features. Viewing society and language as an integrated whole, the project will study related groups in contrasting physical and social environments in PNG, Africa, East Asia, Amazonia and Australia. Inductive generalisations about associations between societal and language parameters (e.g. varying techniques of address relating to articulated kin systems and social hierarchy) aim to provide insight into the human dynamic. Findings should benefit programmes for cultural awareness, language teaching and revitalisation and understanding of multicultural situations.

    Chief Investigators: Alexandra Aikhenvald, RMW Dixon, Professor Maarten Mous (Leiden University); Professor Dr Anne Storch (University of Cologne); Dr Nerida Jarkey (University of Sydney)

    ARC Discovery Project (DP130101361)

    How languages differ and why

    Indicative funding: $355,002

    When languages interact, they become similar in certain ways. This project will explore the reasons for this, by examining why there are many languages of diverse structures in certain regions, focussing on New Guinea, Amazonia and north-east Queensland. The project will assist with understanding how language helps and hinders inter-ethnic communication.

    Chief Investigators: Alexandra Aikhenvald, RMW Dixon, Lourens de Vries, Willem F Adelaar

    Collaborating Schools/Institutions: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute; Free University of Amsterdam; University of Leiden

    ARC Discovery Project (DP110102291)

    Objects of possession: Artefact transactions in the Wet Tropics of North Queensland, 1870-2013

    Indicative funding: $350,000

    The project’s research into artifact collecting will provide Indigenous peoples, museum curators and other community members with important insights into the history of Indigenous cultures in the Wet Tropics region. Our project will contribute to the development of innovative ways of presenting Indigenous peoples’ connections with their cultural heritage.

    Chief Investigators: Rosita Henry, Russell E McGregor, Michael A Wood, Shelley M Greer, Ton Otto

    Collaborating School: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute

    ARC Discovery Project (DP110103207)

    The grammar of knowledge: A cross-linguistic view of evidential and epistemological expressions

    Indicative funding: $345,514

    How does a speaker know that what they say is correct? Some languages have obligatory marking for stating ‘information source’ (‘seen’, ‘inferred’, or ‘reported’). In others a source is optional – ‘the (reported) theft’. This cross-linguistic investigation will advance our understanding of human interaction and the expression of knowledge.

    Chief Investigators: Alexandra Aikhenvald, RMW Dixon, Anne Storch, Gerrit J Dimmendaal

    Collaborating Schools/Organisations: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute; Universität zu Köln

    ARC Linkage Project (LP110100658)

    Land, language and heritage

    Indicative funding: $304,724

    Building on academic work by RMW Dixon and educational initiatives by Ernie Grant, this large- scale cooperative initiative will produce comprehensive documentation of the Jirrbal Aboriginal tribe from North Queensland, in written, audiovisual and web-based form. It embraces traditional culture, recent history and language adaptation, enhancing the work of Partner Organisation, Echo Creek Cultural Centre, in the cross-cultural training it provides. The project is cast within the framework of the Holistic Approach (linking land, language and heritage), integrating and promoting indigenous knowledge. We work towards the empowerment of Indigenous Australians, reaffirmation of their identity and sustainable use of traditional environment.

    Chief Investigators: RMW Dixon, Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating School/Organisation: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute; Echo Adventure and Cultural Camp


    The Ndu languages of New Guinea 

    The project investigates the structure and the spread of the Ndu languages of the East Sepik, PNG, the biggest language family in the Sepik area.

    The project will result in a number of grammars of Ndu languages, and an account of their migrations and history.

    Chief Investigator: Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating School: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute

    The Tariana language revival (Amazonas, Brazil) 

    This is an on-going project focussing on description and maintenance of the Tariana language, the major Arawak language in the multilingual Vaupés area of Amazonia.
    The project provides continuous benefit to the community by producing grammatical studies, pedagogical materials, dictionaries and support for language maintenance and revival.

    Chief Investigator: Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating School/Institution: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute; The Association of the Tariana of the Upper Rio Negro

    Australian Research Council - Discovery - Future Fellowships (FT110100587)

    Digital relations: New media in Arnhem Land

    Indicative funding: $267,451 over 2 years

    This project develops scholarship of contemporary indigenous culture with a complex, interdisciplinary investigation of the ways in which new media are employed in remote indigenous communities. The sophistication with which Yolngu use technology to creatively participate in new global circuits of identity and meaning will be explored in this multi-sited, participatory study. Using digital technologies to collaboratively forge new forms of scholarship and critical reflection, this research will generate international research partnerships and community-based collaborations, leading to high profile scholarly outputs that reveal how these emergent forms and practices refigure the ambitions of a contemporary indigenous society.

    Investigator: Jennifer Deger (The Cairns Institute)

    Alexander von Humboldt Forschungspreis, Germany

    The habitats of language

    Indicative funding: 60,000 Euro

    The project investigates the way in which social and cultural environment is reflected in the languages of the world, and which features are likely to be motivated by the environment. It will contribute to the issue of linguistic sustainability, and explanations for the reasons of linguistic diversity and language development.

    Chief Investigator: Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating School: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute

    Host Institution: University of Cologne

    Bikuben Fund (Denmark), University of Aarhus, and the Cairns Institute

    Making history for Baluan culture

    Indicative funding: $70,000

    Film project about cultural, social and economic change in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea. A large cultural festival intended to attract international tourists becomes the showcase for tensions within Baluan society, an island community in Manus, Papua New Guinea. Different ideas about what tradition is, whether and how it can be changed, and what constitutes a desirable future are played out in the performances and conflicts that develop during the festival.

    Chief Investigator: Ton Otto

    Collaborators: Christian Suhr, film maker and PhD student in Anthropology at Aarhus University and Moesgaard Museum, Denmark and Steffen Dalsgaard (additional camera and assistance with translation)

    Australian Research Council

    The Deep History of Sea Country: climate, sea level and culture

    Indicative funding: $60,000 over 3 years administered by Flinders University

    This is a pioneering, multi-disciplinary study of submerged landscape archaeology in Australia designed to investigate the records of the now-submerged Pilbara coast (spanning 50,000 to 7000 years ago). Information from drowned contexts will help address critical debates in Australian prehistory relating to past sea-level rise, population resilience, mobility, and diet. The project integrates cultural and environmental studies and contributes a unique southern hemisphere insight into world prehistory through material analysis and an adaptation of method from the world's only confirmed submarine middens. A suite of cutting edge marine and aerial survey techniques will be developed to investigate physical and cultural submerged landscapes.

    Chief Investigators: Jonathan Benjamin, Sean Ulm [Cairns Institute Research Fellow], Peter Veth, Jorg Hacker and Michael O'Leary with the help of Geoffrey Bailey and Mads Holst (Flinders University, College of Arts, Society & Education, The University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, University of York and Aarhus Universitet)

    Universities Australia and German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) - Australia-Germany Joint Research Cooperation Scheme

    Creativity in language: Secret codes, special styles and linguistic taboos

    Indicative funding: $25,000 over 2 years

    Each language has a rich aesthetic texture. Alongside the everyday language style, there can be: (a) special speech styles employed in the poetry of songs; (b) special modes of speech used for ritual communication, in male and female initiation, mourning, and within important activities such as hunting or fishing; (c) respectful registers used in the presence of those relatives with whom one is not allowed to communicate directly; and (d) in-group modes of speech for particular age groups (youth languages), and play languages. The formal and the semantic aspects of special linguistic styles and secret languages reveal the mechanisms—and the limits—of linguistic creativity of speakers. The kinds of special codes reflect the speakers' social and cultural environment, including relationships between kin groups, the roles of men and women within a society, and societal practices. The project aims at providing a systematic examination of special codes, based on their functions and context of use, and how they relate to the everyday language styles. The project focuses on little-known languages from areas of substantial linguistic diversity in New Guinea, Amazonia, Aboriginal Australia, and Africa. The results will advance our understanding of the nature of language creativity and human cognition.

    Investigators: Alexandra Aikhenvald in collaboration with Anne Storch, Katarzyna Wojtylak, Nicola Piper, Ryan Pennington, Nico Nassenstein, Andrea Wolvers and Angelika Mietzner (College of Arts, Society & Education and Universität zu Köln)


    Internet interfaces

    Indicative funding: $24,500

    Chief Investigator: Ton Otto

    Collaborating School: School of Arts & Social Sciences; The Cairns Institute

    Endangered Languages Documentation Programme - Small Grant Scheme 

    Documentation of Kandozi and Chapra (Candoshi-Shapra) in Loreto, Peru

    Indicative funding: $9,888 over 2 years

    The Kandozi and Chapra communities number about 3,255 people, living in the Western Amazon Basin in Loreto, Peru. The communities are under threat from epidemic diseases and pollution from oil extraction activities. The two groups speak mutually intelligible varieties of a single language, which is not known to be related to any other linguistic group. This project aims to complement ongoing work on the description of the Kandozi variety, by visiting Chapra communities and collecting linguistic data. In addition to the academic benefits, we hope to help the community to document traditional knowledge that is under threat from a changing lifestyle.

    Chief Investigator: Simon Overall (College of Arts and Society & Education; Language and Culture Research Centre)

    Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (SOAS) - Small Grant Scheme

    Documentation of Eibela, a language of Western Province, Papua New Guinea

    Indicative funding: $9,516

    This proposal is for the documentation of Eibela, also called Aimele, as part of a PhD project at James Cook University which will ultimately produce a grammar of the language along with a dictionary and a corpus of texts. Eibela is a severely endangered language with 300 speakers in Lake Campbell, Western Province in Papua New Guinea. This funding will be used to conduct a three month field trip to Lake Campbell in order to record and analyse the language, and support the production and archival of an annotated corpus of audio and video recordings.

    Chief Investigators: Grant Aiton and Alexandra Aikhenvald

    Collaborating Institution/College: College of Arts, Society & Education; The Cairns Institute; Language & Culture Research Centre

    JCU Collaboration Across Boundaries Grants

    Pacific Imaginings 1920s-1930s: The golden age of the passenger liner

    Indicative funding: $9,400

    Chief Investigators: Victoria Kuttainen, Anita Lundberg, Lisa Law, Michael Ackland, Margaret Jolly, Ton Otto

    Collaborating Schools/Institutions: School of Arts & Social Sciences; School of Earth and Environmental Sciences; The Cairns Institute

    JCU Collaboration Across Boundaries Grants

    Tacit knowledge and cosmopolitanism in international partnerships

    Indicative funding: $8,800

    Chief Investigators: Neil Anderson, Zhangyue Zhou, Chris Cunneen, Michael Singh

    Collaborating Schools/Institutions: School of Education; School of Business; The Cairns Institute


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