The Sociolinguistics of Status in Pohnpei

Elizabeth Keating 1.
  • 1. University of Texas at Austin.


Pohnpeian is one of several Pacific languages with a complex honorific speech register. Studying everyday interactions in which honorific speech occurs reveals that the use of these status-marking forms is not as regularized as native speakers imply or as theories would predict. This suggests that asymmetries of status may be context-specific in ways that are not revealed by generalized descriptions of a society's social organization. Looking at particular interactions contributes to our understanding of the situated, collaborative process of creating and sustaining social difference. Pohnpeians use honorifics to create status relationships between individuals when referring to a person's activities, such as giving and taking or coming and going, as well as when referring to possessions, knowledge states, food and eating. In Pohnpei, as in some other Pacific societies, high and low status are linked to vertical as well as horizontal spatial orientations, so that space can be reinterpreted in a way that is analogous to status markings in language. This paper discusses some of the ways speakers use language to build notions of “high status” and “low status” not just as different levels, but as saliently different spheres of influence and efficacy.

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IJSL is dedicated to the development of the sociology of language as a truly international and interdisciplinary field in which various approaches - theoretical and empirical - supplement and complement each other, contributing thereby to the growth of language-related knowledge, applications, values and sensitivities. The journal features topically-focused issues with individual contributions on small languages and small language communities.