Trobrianders are the inhabitants of the Trobriand or Kiriwina Islands, an archipelago belonging to Papua New Guinea. Trobrianders speak the Kilivila language, which belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian family of Austronesian languages. In the context of Loglan, discussion of Trobrianders usually references aspects of a worldview said to be implicit in the language of the islanders, as understood by James Cooke Brown based on his reading of the works of anthropologists Bronisław Malinowski and Dorothy D. Lee and his understanding of the use of those works by Willard van Orman Quine in Word and Object (1960). Malinowski's Coral Gardens And Their Magic (1935) and Lee's Conceptual Implications of an Indian Language (1938) are cited in Word and Object, but it's not clear if Malinowski, Lee, or Quine attributed the same features to the Trobrianders and their language as is suggested by Brown.
Mass descriptionIn Loglan 1, in the section entitled Mass Description with lo, JCB wrote:
the languages of some preliterate peoples apparently employ the idea of mass description as the elementary meaning of their basic predicate words. Thus the Trobriand Islanders are reported to place this interpretation on all their nouns; whence the curious world-view arises that what we Indo-Europeans would call a single instance of a thing is, to them, nothing but a part, or reappearance, or manifestation of the same, massive individual thing. Thus every rabbit is just another appearance of Mr. Rabbit; every yam just another manifestation of Mr. Yam; every baby just a part of Mr. Baby all over again
Brown proposes that Loglan's "mass designator" operator, lo (analogous to Lojban's mass descriptor, loi) provides a facility to describe the world in a similar fashion, and that a Trobriander who learned Loglan might prefer to use mass descriptions and lo where a native English speaker would employ "particular descriptions" via le.
Brown traces the origin of mass description in Loglan to his reading of Word and Object and particularly to the "radical translation" thought experiment which establishes the "inscrutability of reference". Brown is interested in the argument that it is impossible to distinguish by means of a stimulus-response experiment, between "general terms" and "singular terms", or between general terms that designate, say, "whole enduring rabbits", and those which name "mere stage, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits", or even "the fusion, in Goodman's sense, of all rabbits: that single though discontinuous portion of the spatiotemporal world that consists of rabbits".
In Sets and Masses (Lognet 96/1) Brown suggests that "Quine probably had in mind the Trobriand Islanders" when discussing predicates that assert "the presence of some (specified) mass individual, and so enables claims that are said to be true when and only when some manifestation of that mass individual is present, e.g., when some manifestation of Mr. Rabbit, say a vanishing hindfoot of a particular rabbit, is present." The identification of the relevant passages in Word and Object with the language of the Trobrianders does not seem to be justified by Quine's footnotes to Malinowski, or indeed to Lee, whose cited work, Conceptual Implications of an Indian Language (1938), discusses not Trobrianders but the Wintu people of California.
Kilivila is a "classifier language", which per Gunter Senft (What Do We Really Know About Nominal Classification Systems, 2000), means that its nouns can be characterized as making generic reference. Classificatory particles "individualize nominal concepts" represented by the nouns in such language: "They mark that a noun they refer to must be understood as having non-generic reference." John Cowan has noted that Kilivila's use of classifiers is not distinctive in its treatment of mass nouns from relatively less exotic languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Burmese.
Trobrianders or Wintu?
Brown's statement (in Sets and Masses) that Dorothy Lee was "struck by the remarkable metaphysics" of the Trobrianders and that her related conjectures amounted to "something very like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" does bear out, e.g. in Lineal and Nonlineal Codifications of Reality (Psychosomatic Medicine , 1950). However, while Lee explicitly makes a case for "an absence of axiomatic lineal connection between events or objects in the Trobriand apprehension of reality," it's not clear if the habits of mass description which Brown attributes to the Trobrianders has basis in her work on Malinowski and the people of the Trobriand Islands.
On the other hand, Lee did write extensively on the role of the "generic" in Wintu language and culture, and in terms that suggest that Brown may have had Lee's Wintu people in mind when he described "Trobrianders" and "Mr. Rabbit". "To the Wintu," Lee wrote in Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought (1944), "the given is not a series of particulars, to be classed into universals. The given is unpartitioned mass; a part of this the Wintu delimits into a particular individual." In Categories of the Generic and the Particular in Wintu (1944), Lee writes that the primary, generic form of a Wintu noun "refers to a genus, to a kind of being; not, like the universal, to a class. … It is evident in their myths where Coyote, Bear, Dentalium come first and timelessly, whereas a coyote, the many different specific coyotes, come afterward, delimited as to time and circumstance."