Whodunnit to whom? A case for language preservation

Languages are fascinating. In your native language, contextual usage can surprise you. My day job requires booking appointments. A Canadian colleague talks about ‘bringing the appointment back’ when she means shifting it closer to today. For me, pushing it back means making the date further into the future, and ‘bringing it forward’ means sooner. A colleague from the US uses ‘pushing it forward’, meaning making it sooner, a collocation I find strange. The linguist in me takes a quick survey. Among eight colleagues, there is little agreement. Even among native speakers there is disaccord, especially when it comes to time and space.

Linguists have found speakers are often incognisant of the forms they use. An example is gender specification in certain Eastern Tuscaroran languages, originating in North Carolina, and now the sixth nation in the League of the Iroquois. In Onondaga and Mohawk there are three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter-zoic (for animals and sometimes women). A pattern emerged in which small, delicate woman are referred to using the feminine and large, louder women take the neuter-zoic. Age is also a consideration. The feminine is seen as respectful, so is reserved for older women and older female relatives. A Mohawk mother was surprised to find that she used the feminine to refer to her eldest daughter and the neuter-zoic to refer to all her younger daughters. She claimed to love all her daughters equally and could find no reason for this usage.

Languages hold the key to how we view and organise the world. An Amazonian language, spoken in the Amazon basin, talks of the past as being in front of you and the future behind. You know what happened in the past but cannot know what the future holds. It makes practical sense. Another Amazonian language, Amondawa, first contacted by the outside world in 1986, lacks an external way of measuring time. It contains no words for minutes, months, years. For them there is nothing linear or sequential about existence. Since contact with the outside world, Amondawa is rapidly being lost. Linguists are gathering data for a comprehensive grammar in efforts to at least record it and add it to our linguistic diversity.

Linguistic typology is the study of what is possible in language. It classifies languages according to types, with structural and functional commonalities, and makes use of language universals – phenomena that are common across every language. Every language in the world has at least two terms for colour: black and white, or light and dark. If a language contains three colour terms they will always be black, white and red. If it contains four terms they will be black, white, red and either yellow or green, and next is blue. We might draw conclusions about the human relationship with the natural world. Terms for light and dark are intrinsic, fundamental, whereas other colour terms merely add shades of meaning. Linguists posit that red is next because often it signals danger, and therefore is more necessary. Language universals provide insights into truths about what it means to be human.

I’ve always been interested in how we communicate; the divide between what we say and how we are understood. Considering complexities like those above I wonder: how can we ever hope to truly understand one another? Studying linguistics, I became interested in ways of saying who did what to whom in the languages of the world. It appeared measurable, with a clear set of regulations that came close to suggesting a known communication.

The obvious way of expressing who does what to whom is word order; the order that the subject (the person or thing doing the action), the verb (the action) and the object (the person or thing having the action done to them) appear in the sentence.

Subject, Object, Verb (SOV) is the most common word order in the languages of the world, at around forty-seven per cent. It is attested to in languages like Turkish, Japanese, Korean, the Dravidian languages and Quechua, among others. The English gloss for this word order would be: She bread ate.

The next most common at forty-one per cent is SVO. This group includes English, Finnish (Finno-Ugric), Indonesian and Zulu (Bantu). Example: She ate bread.

The other way of describing who does what to whom is through case marking. It’s possible to add a prefix or a suffix or even change a vowel or consonant in the middle of the noun to indicate whether it’s being acted upon or is in fact the actor, or ‘the agent’ as linguists say. For example in Latin:

         servus puellam salūtat (the slave greets the girl)
         puella servum salūtat (the girl greets the slave)

In the first sentence the girl puella takes the ending –m, marking it as the direct object, or as linguists say, marking it for accusative case.

Latin is a Nominative-Accusative language, which means that it is only the direct object that is marked for case, and the subject, whether it’s the subject of an intransitive or transitive verb, is not marked.

An intransitive verb has no direct object, for example:

         puella graditur (the girl walks)

A transitive verb can be said to carry over the action from the subject to the direct object.

         puella servum salūtat (the girl greets the slave)

Here, both transitive and intransitive subjects are the same. A noun, in this case, the girl, will only be marked when it’s the direct object.

The other most common form of case marking is termed the Ergative/Absolutive. It’s the opposite of above with only the transitive subject marked for case. The subject and direct object are unmarked and take the same form.

Example (from Dyirbal, Cairns rainforest):
         mother as either the subject or object of a sentence is yabu, BUT, when it’s the transitive subject, the agent, it must be marked, and appears as:

Thanks to the work of Robert M W Dixon, professor of Linguistics at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University, a comprehensive grammar of Dyirbal exists. Dyirbal is now spoken by just twenty-nine speakers. Languages in decline have their own complexities. In their book Vanishing Voices: The extinction of the world’s languages, Daniel Nettle and Susan Domain explain how Dyirbal previously contained very specific terms which are now lost. Many terms for ‘big’ existed, depending on what was being described. A big eel required a different term to a big turkey, different again was a big tree.

Dyirbal also had complex kin categories. Dixon recorded twenty categories.

They included specific terms like ‘mother’s elder brother,’ ‘mother’s younger brother.’ Now, speakers use simplified terms like ‘uncle.’ Subtleties of respect and kinship relationships are being lost.

Dyirbal fascinates linguists on many levels. Its case marking system disproves a theory positing that marking for case depends on factors such as how affected by the verb an object is, and how much volition an agent has. For instance, a cake that is eaten is wholly affected. It’s gone.

Instead, in Dyirbal we find split-ergative case marking that depends on ‘natural’ occurrences rather than affectedness of nouns. In Dyirbal, first and second person pronouns use the nominative-accusative system (where the object is marked). All other nouns (including third person) take the ergative-absolutive system (where only the transitive subject, the agent, is marked). Therefore, when we’re dealing with what is seen as a ‘natural’ situation no marking appears.

To illustrate this we use the Nominal Hierarchy, which is a ranking of noun phrases. Those at the top are more likely to be agents, to perform the action of the verb. It’s natural for them to act on the other noun phrases.

The nominal hierarchy

– first person, second person
– third person
– personal name/kin term
– human
– animate
– inanimate

Languages contain variations on this but always with first and second person at the top, since they are more likely the speech act participants. It would not be strange for an animate object to act upon an inanimate one, so in the usual order of things this would not require any marking. But if a rock hit a person, then the rock, as the agent, would require marking, highlighting an unnatural situation. Known persons are higher on the hierarchy signalling that being known they are somehow closer to the speech act participants. There are languages in which horses rank higher than women, since traditionally, they were seen to have more value.

Another reason Dyirbal intrigues linguists is Dyirbal culture had a complex taboo system. Speaking with kin who were considered in-law was forbidden. Speakers were not permitted to approach or speak to taboo relatives. The way of getting around this was to use an entirely different language when in the presence of these relatives. The taboo language had the same phonemes and grammar but an entirely different lexicon. The language was only learned as an adult, and linguists have cited it’s learning as evidence that we can acquire a language to native speaker level as adults.

The wealth of information the Dyirbal language evinces regarding a complex culture, speakers’ interactions with one another and with the natural world, not to mention what’s possible in a language, all add to the important case for its preservation.

But how do we preserve a language? An obvious answer starts with funding. If the federal government invested even half of what it gives to one sports organisation, the Australian Sports Commission, funding would be increased tenfold. I’ve heard people ask why they should give their taxes to preserve Indigenous languages. Because these languages are guides to understanding the land upon which we live, to Indigenous identity and to Australian identity.

Preserving languages takes innovation. It requires training highly qualified teachers and developing excellent resources. The Irish language has enjoyed a revival since the 1970s, when it was reintroduced to preschool and primary education. Innovative programs have added to its popularity. Dublin City University’s Fiontar school links the Irish language with contemporary subjects like finance and computing, all taught in Irish. The Fulbright Commission sponsors student/teacher exchange programs between the United States and Ireland. There is now an Irish duolingo app and in the first six months after launching it had half a million learners.

Educational programs within Australian schools are working to revive Indigenous languages. At Ceduna Area School, on the West Coast of South Australia, Pitjantjatjara (not the local Indigenous language) was taught from 1997 until recently. It was introduced as a means to engage students exhibiting behavioural issues. Realising the benefits of teaching an Indigenous language, such as engagement for Indigenous students and cultural awareness for non-Indigenous, the school then trained a further five Pitjantjatjara teachers.

The school’s language program included involvement with the local Indigenous community. Locals came in as paid instructors to help teach certain topics or events. With the assistance of a Technology Schools of the Future Grant, secondary students developed a series of online games using Pitjantjatjara vocabulary. The school ran three one-day cultural camps per year, focussing on bush food, medicine and Indigenous culture. A Dreaming Trail through the school grounds featured plants and stories labelled in Pitjantjatjara and local languages.

Programs like these make Indigenous language accessible and interesting to students. They help make Indigenous languages part of the wider culture. It’s embarrassing to not know the meaning of the name of the town you live in, or not to know a greeting in the language of the traditional custodians of the land where we live. Australian languages are dying; since European settlement over half have been lost. Language defines people, celebrates them, gives them a voice. Nothing is possible without language. It’s time to prioritise it.

         Palya – thank you, goodbye (Pitjantjatjara).


Image: AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia

Tina Cartwright

Tina Cartwright is a Melbourne writer. She studied Linguistics and Literature in New Zealand and Mexico. Her writing has appeared in Overland, Broadsheet and Takahē, among others. Her monologue ‘Masha’s Fire’ will be performed by Hysterica Theatre Company in 2021.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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