DIXON: MOTHER-IN-LAW LANGUAGE II.

This is a follow-up to this post, with further excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker:

I’d only begun to work systematically on Jalnguy in the last few weeks in the field, and didn’t realize the full significance of it until I came to mull over the data back in London.
The many-to-one correspondence between Guwal [everyday language] and Jalnguy ["mother-in-law" language] vocabularies was a key to the semantic structure of Dyirbal. If one Jalnguy word was given as the equivalent for a number of distinct Guwal terms, it meant that the Guwal words were seen, by speakers of the language, to be related. For nouns, it revealed the botanical and zoological classifications which the Aborigines perceived. For instance, bayi marbu “louse”, bayi nunggan “larger louse”, bayi daynyjar “tick”, and bayi mindiliny “larger tick” were all grouped together under a single Jalnguy term, bayi dimaniny.
It could be even more revealing with verbs. The everyday style has four different words for kinds of spearing, and also such verbs as nyuban “poke a stick into the ground (testing for the presence of yams or snails, say)”, nyirran “poke something sharp into something (for example, poke a fork into meat to see if it is cooked)”, gidan “poke a stick into a hollow log, to dislodge a bandicoot”. All seven of these Guwal verbs are rendered by just one word in Jalnguy: nyirrindan “pierce”.
Sometimes Jalnguy grouped together verbs in a most surprising fashion. For instance, gundumman was given as Jalnguy equivalent of julman “squeeze, for example, squeeze a boil, knead flour”, and also of bugaman “chase, run down, as in catch a runaway steer”. What did these two verbs have in common? It was only when I had a chance to discuss it with Chloe that she explained gundumman means “bring together”. Hands come together in julman, while bugaman describes a pursuer coming into contact with what he is chasing…

[Dixon returns to North Queensland to do further work with Chloe.] I started going through all the nouns, verbs and adjectives in my accumulated vocabulary lists, asking how to say each one in the mother-in-law style. Bayi midin “ring-tail possum” was bayi jibuny in Jalnguy. Balan mawa “shrimp” came out as balan dunguy. The information given by Chloe, and later George, correlated well with what they had told me three years earlier. Jalnguy had not been actively used since about 1930, but it was clear that it was being remembered quite accurately…
Now it was time to get back to the serious business of gathering the Jalnguy words… Chloe decided she wanted some mates to help her think through some of the hardest words, so one day we went up to Murray Upper and assembled a sort of committee on Jalnguy, outside Jimmy Murray’s hut at Warrami… All sorts of things fell into place that day. For many verbs I’d originally been given a one-word English gloss. Nudin was “cut”, and so was gunban—and so was banyin—I was told. But they didn’t all have the same Jalnguy equivalent. Nudin and gunban were both jalnggan, but banyin was bubaman in Jalnguy; all the committee agreed on that.
Now bubaman I already knew as the correspondent of the everyday style verb baygun “shake or wave something, or bash something on something else, for example, pick up a goanna by its tail and bash its head on a tree to stun it.” The concept seemed to be “put something in motion, holding on to it” (and it might or might not impact on something else).
Further detail was needed. Nudin, I discovered, means “cut deeply, sever”, while gunban is “cut to medium depth, cut a piece out”. Fine, both are further specifications of the general Jalnguy verb jalnggan “cut”. Now for banyin. Every language has a few words like this, which describe an important everyday activity but which seem a bit bizarre to people from a different cultural background. Banyin means “get a stone tomahawk and bring it down on a rotten log so that the blade is embedded in the log, then pick up both tomahawk and log by the handle of the tomahawk and bash the log against a tree so that the log splits open and the ripe grubs inside it can be extracted and eaten”. It involves a tomahawk, which is the major implement for cutting or chopping. But the criterial action is seen to be the bashing of the log against a tree to split it; this can be inferred from the fact that the Jalnguy correspondent is bubaman “shake, wave or bash” rather than jalnggan “cut”.

The definition of banyin is the longest string of words expressing a single meaning I can remember ever seeing.

Comments

  1. Excellent passage. Captures so well the “Eureka!” moments that repay the drudgery, discomfort, diseases, and social frustrations of fieldwork.

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