In a previous entry I promised a series of posts with excerpts from Dixon’s Memoirs of a Field Worker, and since three commenters in that thread mentioned the story of the Mbabaram word for ‘dog,’ I think I’ll start with that. Here’s the setup:
When Ken Hale had sent the Jabugay tape, he’d urged me to find a speaker of Barbaram, the apparently aberrant language that Lizzie Simmons ["eighty years old, toothless, and cranky"–p. 54] had declined to speak to us. Certainly Dyirbal and Jabugay had very normal Australian grammar and vocabulary, not radically different from the Western Desert language, almost two thousand miles away. But from the few words that Norman Tindale had published of Barbaram, that language looked really different.
People at Mareeba had mentioned Albert Bennett, at Petford, and early one Sunday morning I set out to try to locate him… Albert was an oldish, square-framed man with curly grey hair. He was sitting stolidly on a bench just outside his open front door. I introduced myself, but he really wasn’t very interested. He didn’t remember any Barbaram language, but who’d want it anyway? What good was it?… Finally he volunteered a word.
“You know what we call ‘dog’?” he asked. I waited anxiously. “We call it dog.” My heart sank… [pp. 105-107]
And here’s the payoff, from his visit the following year:
Barbaram was still a major priority… I met the third and last living member of the Barbaram tribe, Jimmy Taylor, who had walked down from his barracks near the store… We had a good session, getting another seventy-five words and—even more important—bits of grammar… Most exciting of all, I could see a relationship between Barbaram and the other languages I’d studied. “Stomach” is bamba in Dyirbal but mba in Barbaram; “we two” is ngali in Dyirbal and Wagaman but li in Barbaram… Barbaram had simply dropped off the initial vowel and consonant… So Barbaram did seem to be a language of the Australian family, only it had undergone a quite regular change that had produced odd-looking words. Stress probably shifted from first syllable (as in Dyirbal) to second syllable—bámba to bambá. Then the first syllable was gradually dropped off in pronunciation, yielding modern mbá… [Dixon discovers at this point that the name of the language is actually Mbabaram and not Tindale's "Barbaram."]
Four years later, when I was spending a year at Harvard and first met Ken Hale, he pointed out that the e and o had developed in Mbabaram in the same sort of way as in some languages he had worked on from further up the Cape York Peninsula. An a in the second syllable of a word had become o if the word had originally begun with g. So from guwa “west”, Mbabaram had derived wo. We were sitting on a bench near Gloucester, Massachusetts one Sunday in September when Ken suddenly saw the etymology for dog “dog”. It came from an original gudaga, which is still the word for dog in Yidin (Dyirbal has shortened it to guda). The initial g would have raised the a in the second syllable to o, the initial gu dropped and so did the final a (another common change in the development of Mbabaram). Ergo, gudaga became dog—a one in a million accidental similarity of form and meaning in two unrelated languages. It was because this was such an interesting coincidence, that Albert Bennett had thought of it as the first word to give me. [pp. 125-129]
For a linguist, that kind of insight is as thrilling and beautiful as a really nice proof for a mathematician (which is what I once intended to be, and I still remember my excitement on understanding Gödel’s proof when I read this excellent book). And now I have another instance to set beside my standard Persian bad ‘bad’ when explaining to people that similar words are not necessarily related.