The iltyem-iltyem team are currently grappling with some interesting issues related to the meaning of signs and the ways that sign and speech interact within a ‘sign utterance’ to express a composite meaning. One big question is about how to represent sign polysemy – the multiple meanings that can be expressed by an individual sign. Here we are trying to capture the elegant way that sign classifies and categorises concepts – and for the website we want to also present this in a way that is useful and accessible to a range of users.


Kinterms provide a good example of polysemy. While there are many kin terms used in speech, there are also categories of kin that follow the classification principles of patrilineal, matrilineal and generational moieties. In sign, certain classes of kin are collapsed into one sign. So we see the same sign used for mwek ‘mother’ and kamern ‘mother’s brother’ and another sign used for angey ‘father’ and awenh-awenh ‘father’s sister’. When recording for the website, the signers have often disambiguated the sign by saying which kinterm they are specifically referring to, as Clarrie Kemarr Long has done in the little video shown with this post.


Clarrie shows the sign that is used for both anew ‘husband or wife’ and aperley ‘father’s mother’. She says:


Anewek alakenh-antey, aperley alakenh, anewek alakenh.

The sign for spouse is like this, and so is the sign for father’s mother.


The question of course arises, are these examples of the same sign, or two signs that have the same hand movements but different meanings? How do we represent these in a way that is useful for the website audience? We have decided for now to include examples of kinship signs for each kin term that is recorded as if they are different signs.