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  • Social structure, space and possession in Tongan culture and language: An ethnolinguistic study by Svenja Völkel
  • Alexander Mawyer
Svenja Völkel. 2010. Social structure, space and possession in Tongan culture and language: An ethnolinguistic study. Culture and Language Use: Studies in Anthropological Linguistics 2. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. xv + 272 pp., maps, figures, tables, appendices, references, glossary, index. ISBN: cloth 978-902-72-0283-3; e-Book 978-902-72-8772-4. €95.00, $143.00.

Despite common genealogy and contemporary kinship, cultural anthropologists of Oceania and Oceanic linguists do not always find opportunities for practical engagement or scholarly cross-pollination. Strikingly, this is true for empirical as well as theoretical works. Völkel’s Social structure, space and possession in Tongan culture and language: An ethnolinguistic study is a memorable recent example of a volume that establishes a shared frame of reference in its scrutiny of kinship, social order and status, spatial analysis, and possession. Moreover, the author largely succeeds in her synthetic ambition. Only the most fastidious maintainer of disciplinary boundaries could fail to be stimulated by this inquiry into the connections between culture, language, cognition, social structure, space, and possession in Tonga.

Hearkening to Alessandro Duranti’s (1997) leading voice for the value and necessity of examining “language through the lenses of anthropological concern” (3), Völkel’s volume is the result of extensive work with both everyday and unusually expert Tongan speakers. It is also informed by an ethnographic sensibility to the ebb and flow of talk in the crispness of the here-and-now in a Tongan village. Moreover, the methodological stance benefits from a close and robust conversation with the long-running work at the intersection of linguistics, culture, and spatial cognition.

Nine chapters explore cross-cutting dimensions of culture and language in Völkel’s attempt to “reveal and analyse a connection between Tongan language and culture for the aspects of social structure, space, and possession” (2). Nonlinguistic manifestations of cultural practice and social structure are proposed to be encoded in, expressed by, and made salient-to-context through linguistic means. Her interpretive analysis of the elaborate hierarchical character of Tongan society, for instance in kinship as cultural system and practice, exemplifies the general approach. As patterns in the lexical categorization of kin relations are brought into nuanced visibility when used to express qualities of social relationships by kin in everyday talk, Völkel is positioned to offer strong evidence for the interdependent quality of language and culture and of otherwise seemingly discrete domains therein. Moreover, Tongan language of respect—an honorific system deeply anchored in social hierarchy that encodes the system of status inequalities among relatives—beautifully supports Völkel’s sense of possibility in the scrutiny of language in use through the lens of broader anthropological concern.

The volume is divided into two parts, each of three substantial chapters. Each part is bracketed by a short concluding chapter. The first chapter covers four domains of anthropological concern particularly suited to structural analysis and, as such, perhaps well selected foci for inquiry at the language-culture nexus. Ch. 2 examines Tongan social structure [End Page 614] in both micro and macro social contexts. Ch. 3 opens up a wonderful and sometimes unexpectedly intimate and occasionally visceral sense of the historical and contemporary dynamics of Tongan land tenure. Ch. 4 takes the reader into a familiar discussion of nonlinguistic possession and gift exchange in a Polynesian context in which the rights and obligations of kith and kin, of individuals and families within the cusp of society, are entangled, or to hazard a more culturally appropriate set of metaphors, into which they are woven and bound. The title of ch. 5, “Connecting remarks on social structure,” appears as something of a double entendre in as much as Völkel’s foundational observation here is of the number and variety of “linkages” or, though it is a term she does not use, the palimpsest-like quality of cultural domains of social structure, spatial organization and practice, and material possession and gift exchange.

Across all of these chapters, Völkel’s suggestion of a co-determination of language in use and cultural...


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