This thesis is an ethnography of speaking approach to the situated use of person reference in Bininj Kun-wok, a language of some 2000 speakers in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. The focus is on social deixis, that is, contextual use of expressions which refer to the social identities of oneself and other people and social relationships amongst people, rather than on purely grammatical notions of person reference. Such a study is necessarily cross-disciplinary in nature, drawing on both linguistic and anthropological analyses from the theoretical and methodological perspectives of pragmatics and conversation analysis.
Like all Australian languages, Bininj Kun-wok has intricate and varied systems which achieve reference to other people in a variety of contexts. Situated reference to other people indexes a variety of factors including kinship and other kinds of social relationships amongst speech participants,
as well as aspects of the context in which such reference takes place. Some reference to others is however, based on social identities of individuals which transcend context. In describing how such social deixis occurs (context-dependent or otherwise), I also describe a characteristic way of speaking and referring to others in Bininj Kun-wok which is often highly indirect or oblique. This way of speaking often appears to be a case of speakers maximising processing costs for hearers along a paradoxical principle of 'be brief, be oblique', but with the speaker intention that hearers should maximize their inferences from minimalist utterances.
The problems this may or may not create for addressees are discussed in terms of how speech participants pragmatically unravel intended meaning through the inferential process in a particular situation in the domain of discourse. Such unravelling reveals the interaction of linguistic knowledge with that of shared background
cultural and/or local knowledge. Shared knowledge may be drawn on from one or more of three sources; cultural shared knowledge, immediate physical contextual knowledge and knowledge established in the present discourse. By examining a variety of naturally occurring conversations and oral literature (fables and traditional narratives), I demonstrate how conversation participants draw on these sources of shared knowledge in order to succeed in establishing reference to an individual and if necessary, their position within the vast network of classificatory kinship. Referential problems, such as when addressees are unable to recognise a referent, are analysed so as to establish what are the factors involved in unsuccessful reference.
The first half of the thesis (part of chapter 2 and chapters 3-4) examine the complete repertoire of referring expressions at the disposal of Bininj Kun-wok speakers. Here I also describe the ideals or stated norms of use for such
expressions. In the second half of the thesis I analyse a variety of conversations and narratives and examine the situated use of referring expressions and discuss how speakers also use and manipulate their systems of reference in order to interactively achieve particular goals within a conversation. Cultural factors which motivate the indirect and circumspect way of referring to others are proposed.