December 01, 2005

an annoying question

Now that I've been working with Aboriginal languages for quite a while now, there's one question that I've lost patience for. It usually goes along the lines of:

"So are they really different languages or just dialects of the same language?"

At least that's a more intelligent version of:

"Is there, like, more than one language?" (Try about 300 throughout Australia!)

Then there's the downright shudder-worthy:

"So do you speak Aboriginal?"

I don't want to start getting snobby about this because it's not like any whitefolk in Australia were ever taught anything about Aboriginal languages in school or anything, so it's not their fault they are uninformed. But unfortunately, my patience for such questions has worn thin.

Moving on from there, I'm continually amazed at actually how diverse the languages I work with are. In a way, it's quite absurd. At Language Centre the other week, we made a chart that goes in the kitchen area. It has the words for tea, sugar, milk, water and biscuit (lit: non-meat food) in five languages - Marra, Ritharrngu/Waagilak, Rembarrnga, Ngandi and Alawa. The words (in that order of languages) are as follows:

Tea: Rimbirr, Marra, Worrh, Gu-manjarrh, Lerrin
Sugar: Nalwurr, Djulka, Jolkko, Gu-jolko, Balga
Milk: Gunyan, Ngamini, Bippi, Gu-ngam, Ngabulu
Water: Ngugu, Gapu, Jurla, Gu-jark, Ngugu
Biscuit: Mama, Ngatha, Me, Ma-ngitj, Mama

You can see that there are a couple of shared words and a few closely related words, but a lot of them just simply aren't related at all. At least with English and German and French you can usually see how words are related.

If you wanted to relate the diversity of those five languages here at Ngukurr, to European languages, you'd probably want to say they're as different as English, German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian.

No wonder Kriol has flourished here.


Catalin said...

I know what you mean about getting fed up with people's ignorance.

I think your example is interesting because except for water, the other items are all items introduced by Europeans, so it's really a matter of how each language handled the newly introduced items. I imagine some of them might have extended the word for human milk or maybe wallaby milk to also represent cow milk, but of course that wouldn't be the only way to handle it.

Have you made a comparison chart of those words that are generally considered not to get borrowed? (I forget what they all are, but I think they're mostly things like body parts, kin terms, and pronouns.)

That might help make your point about the languages' dissimilarities.

Wamut said...

hey catalin,

even though they're mostly words for introduced things, they're words that were already in all the languages but they had their meanings extended to cover new meanings. the comparision still holds because every language extended the same words in the same way (with only one exception).

the original meaning of the words for sugar is dirt/soil/sand (in kriol - graun). for biscuit, it's the word that means any kind of food except for meat. for milk, yes, it's an extension of the word for breast milk (which is also usually the same word for breast). and for tea, most languages use the word for leaf, but in one of them it's the word for hair.

neat, huh?