Talking about strings: The language of string figure-making in a Sepik society in Papua New Guinea

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    The practice of making string figures, often called cat's cradle, can be found all over the world and is particularly widespread in Melanesia. It has been studied by anthropologists, linguists and mathematicians. For the latter, the ordered series of moves and the resultant string figures represent cognitive processes that form part of a practice of recreational mathematics. Modern anthropology is interested in the social and cultural aspects of string figures, including their associations with other cultural practices, with the local mythology and songs. Despite this clear link to language, few linguists have studied string figures, and those who have, have mainly focused on the songs and formulaic texts that accompany them. Based on a systematic study of string figures among the Awiakay, the inhabitants of Kanjimei village in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, with six hours of transcribed video recordings of the practice, this paper argues that studying string figure-making can be an important aspect of language documentation - not just through the recording and analysis of the accompanying oral literature, but also as a tool for documenting other speech genres through recordings of the naturalistic speech that surrounds string figure-making performances. In turn, analysing the language associated with string figure-making offers valuable insights into the meaning of string figures as understood by their makers.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)598-641
    JournalLanguage Documentation and Conservation
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


    Dive into the research topics of 'Talking about strings: The language of string figure-making in a Sepik society in Papua New Guinea'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this