Dr Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist affiliated with the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Cologne, and the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena.
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Communication is a foundational process underpinning all human activity. I am interested in one fascinating aspect of this bigger story: how the scope ordinary communication can be creatively extended through strategic interventions. This is why my research is concerned with topics such as language engineering, crosscultural literacy and graphic codes, and why I find the holism of linguistic anthropology to be an especially useful tool of enquiry.
Language engineering and linguistic utopianism
Since 2006 my research has engaged with speakers of the Eskayan language in the Philippines. Members of this community maintain that their language was the creation of the ancestor Pinay, who fashioned it from parts of a human body. Pinay is also credited with the creation of a unique and highly complex script for representing his language in written form. The origins, evolution and present-day usage of Eskayan and its script is the subject of my forthcoming book scheduled to be published within series Oxford Studies in the Anthropology of Language.
Reinventions of writing
At the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History I have turned to more comparative and theoretical questions that explore the diversity of graphic systems in use throughout the world. In particular I have been interested in those rare yet informative cases when writing was independently invented by non-literates, especially in West Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. I maintain that these historical interventions reveal important insights about the nature of our relationship with the written word, and have the potential to shed light on the origin and development of writing, arguably the world’s most transformative technology.
Non-linguistic graphic codes
Writing is a very specific variety of semiotic communication employing visual marks to model linguistic units, but it is both quite rare and surprisingly recent in human history. Many other kinds of conventional sign systems that do not purport to represent language have pre-dated writing and continue to coexist with it. These non-linguistic codes are are tuned to the needs and interests of their users and are employed to resolve complex coordination problems over time and distance, reinforce verbal interactions, circumscribe identities and notate or organise cultural categories. The visual systems at play are similarly diverse, ranging from compact linear forms to diagrammatic, multi-textual or three-dimensional techniques. Over the next three years my research will focus on Australian message sticks. This Indigenous system involves the use of marked wooden objects as aids to long-distance communication. My study will be based on fieldwork with senior messengers in Arnhem Land, archival records and over 1000 message sticks conserved in museums worldwide.
View my current projects here.
Some of the texts that have informed my research direction and general intellectual outlook are here.
All my publications can be viewed and downloaded here. I love any kind of feedback and I’m always happy to read papers in my field. I have a statement outlining my personal policies on where I publish and what I am prepared to review here.