September 09, 2012

What's in a word: barra

My PhD research concentrates on Marra and Kriol - Marra an endangered traditional language and Kriol, a creole language that has usurped it along with many other languages in this part of the world.

Personally, I find both languages fascinating. The idea that Kriol is somehow inferior or should be viewed upon negatively doesn't wash with me. Although I do recognise that Marra has more prestige for many. Kriol is amazingly interesting, dynamic and complex and I've learned that it has a richer vocabulary than any other linguist has previously described. At the same time, I love learning Marra and working with the last few old ladies who speak it. We've spent hours and hours making and listening to recordings and transcribing and translating them and I've loved pretty much every minute of it.

When translating recordings with the old ladies, I'm often amazed at how neatly Marra translates into Kriol most of time. Some of the Kriol translations are so compatible with Marra that it looks like Marra falling out of use is no great loss in terms of how you can describe the world around you. But then along comes a Marra word, saying or sentence that makes me go, "Damn, okay. You got me there. Kriol speakers would no way be able to talk about that in the same way, or maybe even know what you're talking about."

A recent example of that is when we came across the word barra in an old recording (a wonderful 52 year old recording for that matter!). Initially, I thought the word was barda - a common word meaning 'after' or 'later'. But old BR and FR said it meant 'wind'. But I know the Marra word for 'wind': walulu. Someone's confused - the smarty-britches PhD student or the elderly ladies?

BR and FR explained further: barra is a specific wind - a westerly wind. I had no idea this word existed in Marra. There's certainly no equivalent of it in Kriol. What a neat word! I was impressed.

See, in English we can describe different kinds of wind, and some are very specific: sea breeze, northerlies, westerlies, headwind, trade wind, gale, etc. But there's a key difference. English words for specific winds are more often than not compound words. They have a root - breeze, wind, north - which is modified or added to to create the word:

sea + breeze --> sea breeze
north + erly + ies --> northerlies
head + wind --> headwind

(Note: words like gale and breeze are exceptions but they describe the strength of the wind, not the direction like the Marra word barra does.)

The word barra is special because it is monomorphemic - a unique, stand alone word. It doesn't have a root part and a modifying part like the English words do. The word barra has nothing to do with the generic Marra word for 'wind' (walulu) or a Marra direction term (warrgarliyana means 'from the west' and nguwirri means 'to the east'). To put it simply, the Marra language places enough importance on this type of wind that it gets its own word, unrelated to any other Marra words. Kriol and English don't do this.

Is there a reason why this would be so? Perhaps. Heath's Marra grammar has barra in the dictionary and includes some encyclopedic information in the defintion:
barra: northwest wind. This is the dominant wind during the wet season. Mack Riley says that the arrival of this as the dominant wind is a sign that dugong are heading for deep water to breed. (Heath 1981: 439)
So it can be argued that there's a sound cultural reason that this westerly or north-westerly wind has its own unique name in Marra. It's associated with dugong hunting traditions. But these traditions have changed or diminished. There's no dugong hunting in Ngukurr because it's too far inland/upriver so maybe Kriol speakers at Ngukurr don't have a reason to pay attention to this wind in the same way that Marra dugong hunters would have done. And as a result Kriol doesn't have a special word and has lost some eloquence because of it.

Then again, it's not as though you can't describe this wind just because your language doesn't have a special word for it. Kriol speakers and English speakers can describe this sort of wind if they want - sangudanwei win? westerly? When the word barra finally fades from living memory, what's been lost? A unique meaning? A cultural reference? Or just a rather eloquent word that other languages describe in a more clumsy way? I don't know the answer. If you have any thoughts, please share.

This is the big question of my thesis - what's lost when a language disappears. I'm finding it a hard question to answer.
Heath, J. 1981. Basic materials in Mara: grammar, texts and dictionary. Pacific Linguistics: Canberra.


anggarrgoon said...

fwiw, barra' is a widespread (pan?-) Yolŋu word for 'west'. I think it's the only compass direction that isn't borrowed from Makassar.

Murray Garde said...

It's a Makassarese loan word [baraʔ] meaning west or north-west wind. It's been borrowed into many Top End languages from Yolngu languages across to the languages of Maningrida, Kunwinjku and west to Iwaidja. So Marra didn't have it once either (unless barra replaced something else). It may have been culturally salient also because it was the wind that brought the Macassan sailors to Marege ʼNorth Australiaʼ each wet season.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg. Does Marra have any cardinal direction words that aren't winds?

In Djambarrpuyngu, west, or west-wind is [ba:raʔ]. Once I asked some Yolngu friends what they thought of a recent arrival of boat people, and they said that people always came that time of year, in [ba:raʔmir], (the season when the north-west wind blows).


John Bradley said...

Hey Greg, Yanyuwa has barra to for west wind and old people knew it was a Makassan word. Perhaps one of the keys things that is hard to replace when an original language dies is kinship terminology which also carries with it a whole commentary on the obligations that are inherent in the specific term, this is especially so of the more complex types of kinship.

Joelle said...

It seems when a language disappears, in particular an aboriginal one perhaps, valuable knowledge about the area where it was spoken is lost. Symbolism, meaning, direction...

Very interesting subject. Thanks for your well written blog and sharing your passion (I had a cuppa with you at Ngukurr Language Centre one late afternoon a while ago...)