Spatializing kinship: The grammar of belonging in Amdo, Tibet

Shannon M. Ward


This paper explores children’s language socialization into kin-based peer relationships in Amdo, Tibet. I examine spontaneous interactions in one extended family to show how children link place and kinship using spatial deixis, the grammatical system that encodes context-dependent reference to location, in Amdo Tibetan. I analyze uses of spatial deixis in two interactive routines: (1) peer-group play, and (2) children’s scaffolding of infants’ roles in multiparty participation frameworks. I argue that children use their emerging deictic repertoires to ‘spatialize kinship,’ mapping kinship relations onto the immediate spaces of co-present interactions as well as the enduring places of the village’s geography. Previous studies have noted that culturally specific forms of relationality influence adults’ uses of deixis by shaping the pragmatics of interactive settings. Building on these insights, the data from Amdo demonstrate the need to consider cultural associations between place and kinship when examining the acquisition of deixis in early childhood.

Publication history
Table of contents

This study advances our understanding of how children’s language practices contribute to the ongoing (re)formulation of culturally significant relationships to persons and places. The assertion that social relationships, built through routinized cultural practices, influence children’s acquisition of grammar has been well established in the anthropological paradigm of language socialization (Schieffelin and Ochs 1986, 2). By analyzing spontaneous interactions, language socialization has demonstrated that practices tied to language use endure or shift across generations along with the dynamic target of a community’s mother tongue(s) and the social relationships built through everyday talk (Garrett and Baquedano-López 2002). Children’s own understandings of the links between specific language forms and social relationships play a key role in this reformulation, and can be examined through situated uses of linguistic features in activity contexts.

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