The Languages of Warruwi Community.

Michael Erard has long been my favorite reporter on linguistic issues (the LSA likes him too), and he’s got a new piece in the Atlantic about a very interesting situation:

On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.

None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.

This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role.

Follow the link for the fascinating details and some striking “language portraits” by locals; I like the conclusion:

And that’s one lesson to be learned from receptive multilingualism at Warruwi Community: Small indigenous groups are surprisingly complex, socially and linguistically, and receptive multilingualism is both engine and consequence of that complexity. It may also be a key to ensuring the future of small languages as the population of speakers dwindles if more was understood about how to turn receptive abilities in a language into being able to speak it. “If we understood receptive abilities better, we could design language teaching for these people,” Singer says, “which would make it easier for people who only understand their heritage language to start to speak it later on in life.”

Thanks, Bonnie!

Comments

  1. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together.

    Which made me start thinking “I wonder how large a number you could get in Europe?” Off the top of my head, I’m sure you could find a cluster of people in Switzerland who speak French, German, Italian and English, and no doubt a few others as well (Spanish, Russian?) Or perhaps you could look to the Low Countries for speakers of French, Dutch, Flemish, German and English? Or the Baltic states: maybe in Estonia we could find speakers of Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Swedish, English and Lithuanian?

    It’s also interesting to read about the reason for so many languages still existing on Goulburn Island: that there are highly coercive social structures in place that dictate that some privileged groups are allowed to speak certain languages, and others aren’t, and your social standing depends on your using the correct language. Even, amazingly, “One can only speak the languages one has a right to speak—and breaking this restriction can be seen as a sign of hostility”.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    I’m sure you could find a cluster of people in Switzerland who speak French, German, Italian and English

    Individuals, yes (I know one who speaks these, plus his native dialect of Italian-in-name-only, plus apparently good passive knowledge of Swiss German). A cluster – not likely. There are generally geographic barriers between the languages in Switzerland. In all of Europe I don’t think there’s a place like Warruwi, where 500 people each understand 5 or 10 languages.

    …unless maybe if you count the Caucasus, where speakers of one-village languages apparently often also speak the language of the next village down the valley and several more for wider communication.

  3. In all of Europe I don’t think there’s a place like Warruwi, where 500 people each understand 5 or 10 languages.

    Hmm, maybe? But the article doesn’t actually say that everyone in Warruwi can understand all nine languages, or even that anyone can. The “language map” that it prints shows that Richard Dhangalangal actually understands only eight; and his wife Nancy Ngalmindjarmag likewise. And “understanding” is going to cover a lot from “fluent” to “schoolroom French” (as is suggested by the size of the coloured areas).

    And we don’t know how typical Nancy and Richard are. Maybe every islander understands eight of the nine languages, or maybe it’s more usual to speak your own language and understand just three others.

  4. unless maybe if you count the Caucasus, where speakers of one-village languages apparently often also speak the language of the next village down the valley and several more for wider communication.

    That was my thought as well.

  5. Even, amazingly, “One can only speak the languages one has a right to speak—and breaking this restriction can be seen as a sign of hostility”.

    That‘s not uncommon in the rest of the world. Minority groups often resent outsiders trying to encroach on „their“ language. I remember in college trying to converse in Spanish to some Puerto Rican students and being shut down immediately. I have also noticed in more parochial regions of Europe that some people experience extreme discomfort when people of color speak local dialects fluently. I have heard very similar jokes about black Africans speaking like locals in Austria, Ukraine and Poland.

  6. I think there’s a huge difference between that sort of inchoate resentment and the formalized situation described for Warruwi Community.

  7. I seem to remember David Eddyshaw saying that he was told that he spoke Hausa too much like a native, and he should quit it and speak it as other L2 speakers do, but Dr. Google is not finding the comment for me.

  8. John, this might be the comment you’re thinking of.

  9. “Small indigenous groups are surprisingly complex.” Yes! This is such a profound corrective to so much truly and insidiously pervasive and intransigent cultural evolutionist thinking.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    he spoke Hausa too much like a native

    Alas, my Hausa has never been at all likely to have been taken for that of a native. But “native” is ambiguous in this context, and my interpreter was making a good point.

    Foreigners like me start out learning Hausa out of books (“Teach Yourself Hausa” is actually pretty good, and it’s by no means the only decent teach-yourself course.) They are aiming to get you to speak like L1 Hausa speakers, not unreasonably. But the millions of Africans who pick up Hausa as a second (or third or fourth) language learn it (generally very much better) by sheer immersion, and are aiming at being skillful speakers of L2 Hausa; which is what actual Hausawa expect them to speak. Nobody needs grammatical gender or glottalised consonants …There would in fact be a lot of sense in teaching Europeans to speak good L2 Hausa, instead of bad L1-oid Hausa.

    My interpreter was (I choose to hope) paying me the compliment of implying that I was motivated enough to end up sounding like a real African (L2 speaker) instead of somebody who’d picked up a bit from a textbook.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Africa is (of course) another place where it is perfectly usual for people to speak four or five languages extremely well.
    I recall an occasion when I was coming back from Togo to Ghana by car. There were five of us in the car, and I realised during the journey that

    (a) there was no language which we could all speak
    (b) each of us could speak to any of the others
    (c) whenever anybody other than me spoke, you could tell exactly which of the other four he was addressing by the language that he chose.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    I have also noticed in more parochial regions of Europe that some people experience extreme discomfort when people of color speak local dialects fluently. I have heard very similar jokes about black Africans speaking like locals in Austria, Ukraine and Poland.

    This isn’t about people of color, or even about xenophobia at all. Nobody above the age of 6 is expected to learn an Austrian dialect for any reason; approximately nobody has ever heard such a dialect spoken with any hint of nonnative accent or grammar*, so hearing such a thing is a huge surprise. Learners of German are expected to learn Standard German, and will be complimented if their competence in it is unexpected. It’s a bit as if L2 Hausa had official status, a large body of literature and a few extra noun & verb forms that L1 Hausa lacked.

    Pretty much the same applies to the famous joke about the black man on the NYC subway reading and speaking Yiddish.

    * One polyglot Swiss colleague recently surprised me with fluent Viennese dialect – segmentally correct, but with Swiss intonation. Sort of the opposite of toneless L2 Hausa.

  13. Golla, California Indian Languages, quotes the 19th century explorer/ethnologist Stephen Powers:

    The Kelta [the South Fork Hupa] are per force polyglots; and I saw a curious specimen of this class of inter-tribal interpreters so peculiar to California. . . . He had one eye and six languages in his head. (1877:89)

    The Wappo display great readiness in learning their neighbors’ tongues. Old Colorado was said by the whites to have spoken in his prime fourteen languages and dialects. (1877:198)

    [The Yurok] have . . . much the same customs as their up-river neighbors [the Karuk], but a totally different language. They usually learn each other’s language, and two of them will sit and patter gossip for hours, each speaking in his own tongue. (1877:44)

  14. Great quote!

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    toneless L2 Hausa

    L2 Hausa (as spoken by Africans) has tones. After all, they’re a natural feature of human language, like ideophones. Not like complicated consonant clusters or cases.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, I misremembered. But I’m not surprised.

  17. “There were five of us in the car, and I realised during the journey that

    (a) there was no language which we could all speak
    (b) each of us could speak to any of the others
    (c) whenever anybody other than me spoke, you could tell exactly which of the other four he was addressing by the language that he chose.”

    Clearly you had inadvertently wandered into a magazine puzzle.

    “Next I learned that everyone always lied in Hausa, spoke the truth in English, and alternately lied and spoke the truth in all other languages. I stopped the car and threw everyone out except the Ivorian, the goat, and the bag of grain.”

  18. Gave me a chuckle!

  19. Speaking of the Caucasus, this has been an area of active research, which culminated (in its present form, at least) with the digital Atlas of Multilingualism in Daghestan. You can find the chart of multilingual relations in the chart at the top of the linked page. Hovering over the language circles will focus on the specific multilingual links between languages.

  20. Holy crap, that’s amazing!

  21. David Marjanović says:

    ^ This.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    I could spend days there. I will spend days there.

    I’ve spent some time finding polyglot clusters of one-village languages. One such is Karata, Bagvalal, Akhvakh and Tokita. Another is Tzez, Bezhda and Hinuq.

Speak Your Mind

*