October 24, 2019

What's in a word: wangulu

My recollection of being first taught the Kriol word wangulu was that it means 'orphan'. It's an interesting word in that it is a very common word (in Ngukurr at least) but part of the relatively smaller set of Kriol words that come from Indigenous languages rather than English. But it's the semantics of it that I find more interesting, particularly when faced with trying to translate it into English.

The basic definition I learned - orphan - is a quick, shorthand definition. What linguists call a gloss. But, like all words, there's a fuller and more subtle range of English translations if you delve deeper...

I started thinking about the word wangulu again recently because of fortnightly 'advanced beginner' Kriol lessons I've started running for munanga in Ngukurr. At each session, I ask students for a 'word of the week' - a Kriol word they like or want to know more about. One of the words was wangulu but the person who 'brought' it had a different semantic frame to what I was first told: he had been taught the word wangulu after telling Kriol speaking co-workers that he is an only child.

So there's a second meaning in English:
  1. Orphan (no parents)
  2. No siblings 
So perhaps wangulu is a more generic adjective translating as something like 'without family'?

Then in our Kriol sessions, we were going over a text, to build students Kriol comprehension, Kriol-English translation skills and more. It's a really neat text written by a former local teacher and principal, Holly Daniels (nee Joshua) who passed away too young and so I only ever heard about her (and how smart and good of an educator she was). Holly wrote about her upbringing in a story written with Ngukurr schoolchildren in mind and uses the word wangulu again:
Wen melabat bin lilwan, melabat nomo bin abum ebrijing laik yumob, melabat bin brabli wanguluwan blanga abum detmatj ebrijing laik yumob sabi laik, reidiyo, telabishin, teiprikoda, toyota, enimo yu gin jinggabat.  
[Translation: when we were small, we didn't have all the things like you have, we were really wangulu about having heaps of things that you know of such as radios, television, stereos, 4WDs, and other things you can think of.]
In this passage, wangulu is used in reference to not having things, rather than being without parents or family. We struggled to translate wangulu in class. My offering was that it just means 'to be lacking' or 'to be without something that everyone else has'. But perhaps the core meaning is family-related and Holly's usage in relation to 'stuff' is a nice poetic extension of that meaning.

We can look for other clues, such as the useful-but-imperfect Kriol Dictionary. There, the definition offered for wangulu is 'widow, orphan, poor person'. I did a quick look of my own Kriol corpus and there was one example sentence:
bala imin loktap en im jidanabat wangulu na kraikraibat jinggibat wani ba du [poor thing he was locked up en he's sitting around alone/without anyone now, crying (and) thinking what to do]
(The context of the sentence was describing an illustration of a man alone in a jail cell).

Bringing together all these examples, we can build a picture of what a word like wangulu means. We can see there is no perfect direct translation, although one (such as 'orphan') may be given in early stages of learning Kriol. Rather, it takes more examples, experience and thinking to get a better understanding of the word's semantics. And even then it's still a work-in-progress.

For now, if I tried to be a lexicographer, I would say wangulu means:
(adjective) to be lacking in something most people have (typically family, parents); orphan.
And yeah, if you still had misgivings about Kriol being a straightforward language, it's not.