Referential complementarity in traditional Negev Arabic

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Spatial Frames of Reference (FoRs) are mental coordinate systems applied to locate a Figure (F) with respect to a Ground (G). In Levinson's theory (2003), every language selects a dominant FoR among Intrinsic, Relative and Absolute, leaving non-dominant FoRs for restricted sets of cases. Bohnemeyer (2011) enlarged this typology, describing 'referentially promiscuous systems', as characterized by free switch among FoRs and absence of a default strategy used by the whole community. We show here that Traditional Negev Arabic (TNA) represents a new, hitherto unknown type, which we label 'referential complementarity': All its speakers use all three FoRs in everyday discourse, yet not freely switching among them. Different Gs of traditional life, when observed in their traditional locations, prime specific referential strategies: inherently partitioned Gs (horse/coffee-pot) prime the binary Intrinsic FoR; those with no inherent partition (stone/tree) prime ternary Relative or Absolute FoRs, depending on their alignment vis-À-vis the Observer (O). Interestingly, culturally salient objects considered integral to the tent, such as a hosting cushion or a tent pole, absorb the tent's Intrinsic orientation; but outside the tent these behave just like their non-Tent-integral counterparts (stone/tree). In particular, the Absolute FoR is used for (i) culturally unfamiliar Gs (chair/shoe/dinosaur) and (ii) certain Gs in non-salient O-F-G alignments. We conclude that FoR selection in TNA follows culture-specific rules, paying more attention to cultural familiarity or salience than to supposedly universal metrical and formal features.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)83-114
Number of pages32
JournalBrill's Journal of Afroasiatic Languages and Linguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • cultural ontologies
  • linguistic relativism
  • Negev Bedouin dialects (traditional Negev Arabic)
  • referential complementarity
  • referential promiscuity
  • Spatial Frames of Reference

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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