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Acquiring Kilivila pragmatics - the role of the children's group in the first seven years of the children on the Trobriand Islands


Senft,  Gunter
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Senft, G. (2017). Acquiring Kilivila pragmatics - the role of the children's group in the first seven years of the children on the Trobriand Islands. Talk presented at the 15th International Pragmatics Conference. Belfast, Ireland. 2017-07-16 - 2017-07-21.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002D-A521-C
Children on the Trobriand Islands are breastfed until they can walk - usually at about the age of 2 years. When they have reached this stage of their development, they are abruptly weaned and the parents – especially the mothers – dramatically reduce the amount of pervasive loving care and attention that their children experienced before this traumatic moment in their lives. To compensate for this deficit in their experience of intimate social bonding, the children have to find a place and position within the children’s groups in their village. In these groups the children gradually take over specific roles which they internalize and thus secure the continuance of norms that are accessible by appearance alone. In the various playgroups and in their children’s group the children also learn that they have to obey and follow certain norms which as implicit social rules govern social life and interaction within their community. Norms which affect the understanding of gender roles and sex differences are directly experienced by children when they are playing together. Between the age of two and 7 years the children also learn to control their emotions in order to behave according to the norms, rules and values that are valid for the Trobrianders’ community. During this time of their life they acquire a relatively strict form of self-discipline, which is necessary to keep the balance between the individuals within their open and very public society. This implies that they also have to learn to laugh about themselves, even in situations when they feel deeply insulted. During this acquisition process the pragmatic concept of the "biga sopa" - the joking language, the language which is not vouched for (see Senft 2010: 149ff) - plays the most important role for the overall socialization process on the Trobriands. By gradually acquiring the basic concepts and the rules and norms of language use that is manifest in the biga sopa concept, children realize more and more that they can behave properly and adequately with respect to all situations they experience not only in their everyday life, but also in the ritualized forms of life within their community. This provides them with an important emotional security and with a general aplomb. The practicing of the forms of verbal and non-verbal behavior that conform to the Trobrianders’ social norms takes place while playing with other children in the playgroups; it is controlled by older members of the children’s groups. Thus, it is the children's "small republic" ” (Malinowski 1929: 44f.) which provides the most important framework for their socialization into their culture. The attempts of parental education are confined to a minimum.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Senft, Gunter. 2010. The Trobriand Islanders' Ways of Speaking. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.