Yanyuwa.

Georgina Kenyon’s BBC Travel piece on the Yanyuwa language is (inevitably) larded with nonsense about how “Yanyuwa is a beautiful, poetic language” whose “rhythms sound like the sea it so perfectly describes” and “the Yanyuwa language is intertwined with the animal” (!), but this passage is interesting (and backed up by the Wikipedia article linked above):

What’s especially unusual about Yanyuwa is that it’s one of the few languages in the world where men and women speak different dialects. Only three women speak the women’s dialect fluently now, and Friday is one of few males who still speaks the men’s. Aboriginal people in previous decades were forced to speak English, and now there are only a few elderly people left who remember the language.

Friday told me that the women in his family taught him to speak their tongue as a child. Then in early adolescence, he learned the men’s language from his male relatives. While women have a passive understanding of men’s language, they do not speak it, and vice versa for the men. […]

Women’s words for the shark describe its nurturing side, as a bringer of food and life, while men’s words are more akin to ‘creator’ or ‘ancestor’.

You could be punished if you didn’t speak the right dialect at the right time.

“See, there, to those rocks, if you broke the rules, you could be sent there!” Stephen said, as he gestured towards the barren Vanderlin Rocks. […]

But Yanyuwa does not stop at just dialects for men and women – there are yet more for ceremony and respectful language, too. There was also ‘signing language’, according to Bradley, useful for hunting when people needed to be quiet or sometimes to signal when travellers were entering a sacred place, but few people remember many sign words now. Children also learned ‘string language’ – tying straw or string together in specific patterns to represent sea creatures and food.

Preserving the Yanyuwa language is tied to preserving the culture and creatures of the sea. Linguists like Bradley are working with Friday and other Yanyuwa people to preserve this language in written form. Without their language, it will be hard for the Yanyuwa to preserve their deep understanding of the sea and their home.

Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. A similar gender distinction exists in the Garifuna (Black Carib) language, spoken by African-Native American descendants of the exiled Island Carib of Saint Vincent, now spoken in Belize, Honduras, and the Bronx. Carib men conquered the Arawak speaking island people,and married Arawak wives who raised their children speaking Arawak. As the boys grew older, their fathers taught them Carib, and eventually the two merged into a mainly Arawak mixed language. I learned a little bit from males in the Bronx and Boston decades ago (I had a bunch of Belizean friends in High school.) When I met some members of the Libana Dance ensemble in 2013 they remarked on how my verbs were “strong.” A lot of the American raised Garifuna kids don’t use the language much anymore, and when they do they tend to use their mother’s speech.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Children also learned ‘string language’ – tying straw or string together in specific patterns to represent sea creatures and food.

    !!!

  3. Bathrobe says:

    Now I just have to find Kanymarda Yuwa – Two Laws, Buwarrala Akarriya – Journey East, and Ka-wayawayama – Aeroplane Dance.

  4. SFReader says:

    I just discovered Russian also has a female dialect.

    In the female dialect, the past form of verb referring to actions done by the female speaker has ending *la as opposed to *l in the male dialect.

    Ya lyubila/I loved (female dialect)
    Ya lyubil/I loved (male dialect)

    As the Wikipedia article on Yanyuwa says,

    Yanyuwa is unusual among languages of the world in that it has separate dialects for men and for women at the morphological level. The only time that men use the women’s dialect is if they are quoting someone of the opposite sex and vice versa. An example of this speech is provided below:

    (w) nya-buyi nya-ardu kiwa-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kanyilu-kala nyikunya-baba.

    (m) buyi ardu ka-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kila-kala nyiku-baba.

    See, same as in Russian.

    So now we know how it’s properly called – Russian is unusual among languages of the world in that it has separate dialects for men and for women at the morphological level.

  5. Pirahã also has different male and female dialects: women have a phonological rule changing /s/ to [h] while men don’t. I don’t think there are lexical or morphological differences, though, just phonological ones.

    Lots more interesting examples in this paper by Michael Dunn.

  6. Thanks!

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    ə will, I hope, pile in on this with a definitive statement, but I believe that Emesal is thought to represent a women’s dialect of Sumerian. Probably.

    The Amazonian language Kukama-Kukamiria has a pervasive distinction between male and female speech affecting all pronouns that don’t include the speaker in their reference, all the demonstratives and words like “also” and “but.” There’a a nice grammar of it by Rosa Vallejos.

    [Ah: I see it’s one of the examples in the interesting paper linked by Emily]

    There’s the Sanskrit drama convention where posh men speak Sanskrit and everybody else (including all women) speaks Prakrit, too. Although it’s evidently highly conventionalised, the convention itself presumably arose from some previous real-world circumstance.

  8. Eli Nelson says:

    @SFReader: I thought what’s going on with the Russian past tense is gender agreement, not a dialect difference. Both past-tense endings occur in both men’s and women’s speech, but the ending is based on gender of the subject of the verb, so when the subject is the first person, the ending is based on the gender of the speaker.

  9. Yes, I suspect SFReader was making a joke.

  10. dainichi says:

    I’m wondering how this differs from, say, Japanese, where there are definitely language patters which each gender is expected to avoid, such as /ai/ > /e:/ for women (IIRC Edo dialect which has become sorta standard rough speech) and copula-deletion in e.g. “iindayo” > “iinoyo” for men. More-or-less gender-neutral language does exist, though. And there are definitely people who cross over, but there’s usually social stigma involved.

  11. SFReader says:

    I was illustrating extreme murkiness of that “male and female dialects differ on morphological level” criteria. Because gender agreement in Russian (and in countless languages worldwide) certainly falls under this definition.

    As far as I am concerned, male and female dialects must have different vocabularies, perhaps going as far as to constitute separate languages from different language families as in Carib/Arawak case.

    Everything else, Japanese not excepted, doesn’t count.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    My sister-in-law went to teach in Borroloola (on the Mainland) for a few years, taking her entire family with her. I don’t remember the details, but the impression I got was that the white people sent to teach in isolated places like this aren’t always the best available (drinking problems, etc.) It was vaguely depressing to hear about.

  13. There’s also the issue that sending people to isolated places, or at least places where they have little contact with people from their own culture, can make them lose their cultural competencies and get them into bad habits. In German, that process is called Verbuschung . In my professional life I have met some cases of this, especially among technicians posted to construction projects in third-world countries. These people often become unemployable for work in their home countries.

  14. SFReader says:

    That’s utterly fascinating.

    I am familiar with the process from the other side – I’ve seen countless Germans who went native, but never thought that this would mean they can’t get work back at home anymore.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    These people often become unemployable for work in their home countries.

    Been there, though happily not for too long.

    There are a number of different reasons for this. If you work in a fairly rapidly changing field, it can be very hard to keep abreast. Professional isolation can be a big problem; you may know that you personally are doing the best you can in exceedingly resource-poor circumstances, but if there is absolutely nobody else working in the same specialisation in your area you have no good way of objectively telling how well you’re performing. I used to work in an area with no telephones, let alone internet, and was the only person working in my particular job among three million people. There were no helpful precedents on how to do it best, and I discovered pretty early on that there was nobody to ask who was more informed about relevant local circumstances than me. I was the expert, because there was nobody else.

    Most of all, it’s reverse culture shock. Just as a fish can’t see the water, you don’t really see the peculiarities of your own culture until you’ve really lived outside it. And modern Western culture actually is very far from human-normal. As a very minor example, it took me a long time after returning from years in West Africa to get used (again) to the fact that someone might not return a greeting and not mean anything in particular by it; that would be a non-trivial deliberate insult in West Africa. (Actually, the very first thing that struck me on my first furlough was “Everyone’s so old.”)

    It’s not just a “bush” thing, either. Japanese people who’ve lived abroad in Europe or America for extended periods often have great difficulty picking up the threads when they return; for Japanese children it can be particularly traumatic. I’ve known a particularly sad case.

  16. Tomoda Ginzo says:

    I think Japanese comes close to being a gender-inflected language. I’ve translated Japanese novels, for example, where the dialogue was given entirely without “he said, she said,” apparatus, it being immediately obvious from the language whether a man or woman was talking, even without further contextual clues. As the commentator above notes, a neutral voice does exist, but I’d guess that around 60-70 percent of the sentences my wife speaks in everyday conversation would sound at least slightly odd coming from my (male) mouth, and vice versa. If you watch Ozu films, for example, I think you can pick up on some of this even without knowing Japanese, since the “dialects” sound so different—far beyond simple biological differences of voice pitch. The differences are perhaps not as pronounced now as they were then, but they’re still there.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    someone might not return a greeting and not mean anything in particular by it

    Is that so in the UK? Because if so, I suddenly have a non-trivial incentive to go live there, having never understood what greeting is supposed to be good for in the first place.

    (Well, one possible explanation has dawned on me in recent years, except it’s really too horrible to contemplate.)

    Or are you talking about random strangers not returning greetings? Because, yes, in urban Europe, one does not simply talk to a stranger, one treats a random stranger as a moving obstacle; and that’s not human-normal at all.

  18. “Urban” is the operative word. In NYC, it’s normal to ignore strangers, but not in smaller population concentrations. Consequently, New Yorkers have an (undeserved) reputation for hostility and rudeness.

    See small talk for some of the functions of greetings and other phatic communication.

  19. I mean, I can appreciate the virtues of going through a long ritual of greeting and asking after every conceivable relative in terms of solidifying social ties and what have you, but it’s clearly unworkable in big cities.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    “Urban” is the operative word.

    Absolutely. In the Austrian countryside, you greet absolutely everyone you encounter.

    See small talk for some of the functions of greetings and other phatic communication.

    That doesn’t even come close to an explanation. It only mentions greeting as a conversation opener, which it usually isn’t, and creepily suggests that all social relations are on a slippery slope toward hostility unless constantly pushed back up by smalltalk…

    And then there’s this specifically American gem:

    In some conversations, there is no specific functional or informative element at all. The following example of small talk is between two colleagues who pass each other in a hallway:

    William: Morning, Paul.
    Paul: Oh, morning, William, how are you?
    William: Fine, thanks. Have a good weekend?
    Paul: Yes, thanks. Catch you later.
    William: OK, see you.

    Behold how that “conversation” would be like over here:

    William: Morning.
    Paul: Morning.

    Or they might say nothing and just raise hands or eyebrows. They’re not going to have a whole pretend-conversation. However, they aren’t going to omit all noticeable reactions to each other’s presence either. I can’t find a reason for that other than tradition, and where that tradition ultimately comes from mystifies me.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    One thing I find really overdone is the cashiers at supermarkets greeting each customer not just with “How are you?”, which sounds obnoxious enough as they could not care less, but with “How are you TODAY?” which they are apparently coached to say. I am tempted to answer “Same as YESTERDAY”, but keep it to myself.

  22. Bathrobe says:

    William: Morning, Paul.
    Paul: Oh, morning, William, how are you?
    William: Fine, thanks. Have a good weekend?
    Paul: Yes, thanks. Catch you later.
    William: OK, see you.

    Sounds like something out of an English-language textbook.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    I just discovered Russian also has a female dialect.

    One of the first Hebrew sentences I learned (from my mother, who started learning Hebrew shortly before I did, but didn’t get far) was Ani lo midaberet ivrit “I don’t speak (f.) Hebrew”.

    It took me at least several months (don’t recall exactly) to figure out that I’m supposed to say Ani lo midaber ivrit “I don’t speak (m.) Hebrew”.
    At which point I joked that using the former phrase might actually be more appropriate in the context, because it would show that I actually don’t speak Hebrew properly.

    (Russian, of course, has a similar thing, but only in the past tense, not in the present.)

  24. Lars (the original one) says:

    I sometimes think that it would be nice to see a return of the mores of my grandfathers, where no man could go out without a hat on his head to raise in greeting when an acquaintance passed on the opposite sidewalk. Except it shouldn’t exclude women this time around.

    (Not that women didn’t wear hats, but those weren’t for raising. I think females were culturally assumed to always be in the company of a male who could do the greeting on their behalf).

  25. One of the great moments in Proust is when the proud Baron Charlus, who never forgives or forgets, raises his hat to a woman he’s despised for years, showing how far he’s descended into senility.

  26. Sounds like something out of an English-language textbook.

    It sounds entirely American to me. The United States is perhaps the lowest-context culture that has ever existed, and I conjecture that such complex rituals are needed to overcome the barriers of misunderstanding and, yes, hostility. The people with the most complex rituals are soldiers, who need a process to make sure they shoot only the enemy and not each other. “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” —Harold Macmillan (not Churchill)

    when an acquaintance passed on the opposite sidewalk

    Off my own block and the block I was working on at the time, this has happened to me exactly once in 35 years of residence in New York, and it was not merely an acquaintance, but a kinsman I hadn’t seen in at least 20 years. (Being face-blind, I didn’t recognize him, but he certainly recognized me. By the same token, I don’t recognize celebrities, but my wife has seen at least five and spoken to two of them, George C. Scott and Bruce MacVittie.)

    (ObHat: Token in this phrase means ‘proof’, as in the ‘proof of glory’ that Beowulf speaks of when he has Grendel’s head dragged into Heorot, or the “token / that Doom is near at hand”, meaning the One Ring, though this, typically for Tolkien, also has the meaning of a physical indicator: token also once was an informal word for a plague-spot, a small necrosis on the skin common in bubonic plague.)

    Russian, of course, has a similar thing, but only in the past tense

    That is because the Russian past tense was originally a construction with the present-tense copula and a past participle, the so-called second participle or l-participle. Like other predicate adjectives, this participle agreed with the subject in number and gender, but not in person. When the present-tense copula was lost, the participle was reinterpreted as a past tense. (When I learned Russian, the easy past tense was taught first, only much later followed by the complex present tense with its person inflections and its other difficulties.) I have not been able to trace the l-participle past Old Church Slavonic, however; does anyone know its origin?

  27. The United States is perhaps the lowest-context culture that has ever existed, and I conjecture that such complex rituals are needed to overcome the barriers of misunderstanding and, yes, hostility.

    But 1) such complex rituals are not needed — they’re common enough, but so is a simple “Hi!” or just a nod; and 2) there are far more complex rituals in far higher-context cultures. In (many parts of) West Africa, any time you meet someone you need to go through an entire ritual exchange of “How are you?” “Well, thank you.” “How is your mother?” “Well, thank you.” “How is your father?” “Well, thank you.” Etc. etc. until you’ve worked through the entire family, and then the same in reverse.

  28. SFReader says:

    “Is your hovercraft full of eels?” (alien greeting)

  29. “It is, alas, and yours?”

  30. “Thank Zxz, it is.”

  31. Is that so in the UK? Because if so, I suddenly have a non-trivial incentive to go live there

    If you don’t like greeting casual acquaintances, there is no better city than Vienna. People you know vaguely from school functions or who live in your building will treat you as invisible if you accidentally see them in a different context. American expats tend to find that insulting and are constantly complaining about how mean and unfriendly the locals are.

    On the other hand, Austrians have an odd compulsion to offer a polite „auf Wiedersehen” to perfect strangers when leaving a doctor’s waiting room or stepping out of an elevator.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    People you know vaguely from school functions or who live in your building will treat you as invisible if you accidentally see them in a different context.

    This being Vienna, the only accepted alternative would be to come over and shake your hand, because you’re expected to shake everyone’s hand on every occasion in Vienna. Quite tiresome.

    a doctor’s waiting room

    Apparently that counts as a sufficiently intimate setting where your presence or absence will be noted. Even so, the greeting is addressed to the whole group, not to any individual stranger.

    stepping out of an elevator

    I’ve never seen that.

  33. Even so, the greeting is addressed to the whole group, not to any individual stranger.

    True, which makes it somehow even stranger for an American.

    Maybe you’re so conditioned to the elevator “Auf wiedersehen” you don’t even notice it? It is a local tick that expats comment on all the time.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe you’re so conditioned to the elevator “Auf wiedersehen” you don’t even notice it?

    Trust me, I’m way too autistic to not notice a greeting. However, much more generally, if somehow you do end up having a conversation with a random stranger, you are supposed to bid them farewell even if you never greeted them to begin with. Is that the situation you have in mind?

  35. American expats tend to find that insulting and are constantly complaining about how mean and unfriendly the locals are.

    My brother who used to live in Vienna complained about that; I didn’t believe him (being a New Yorker who was used to hearing similar slander about New York), and when I visited him and we went for a walk in a nearby park I made a point of smiling and saying “grüß Gott” to everyone we passed, and they all smiled and said “grüß Gott” back. Do ut des!

  36. When hiking in Graubünden I have made the same effort and probably got so much into the habit that greeted several cows as well.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    and they all smiled and said “grüß Gott” back.

    …while feeling rather embarrassed and confused about being greeted by a random stranger. “Who is that? Am I supposed to know them?”

    Plenty of people in Vienna are mean and unfriendly. It just doesn’t manifest in such superficial ways.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Sounds like something out of an English-language textbook.

    Yes, except the language isn’t literary enough ([did you] have a good weekend, catch you later).

    Token in this phrase means ‘proof’

    In other words, it retains the meaning still seen in its German cognate Zeichen – “sign”.

    I have not been able to trace the l-participle past Old Church Slavonic, however; does anyone know its origin?

    What is thought to be the same suffix forms diminutives in Germanic and Italic. I forgot the rest, but the function as a participle seems to be Slavic-only.

  39. Plenty of people in Vienna are mean and unfriendly. It just doesn’t manifest in such superficial ways.

    But my brother specifically claimed that nobody would greet him or return his greetings, and I successfully disproved that. And “while feeling rather embarrassed and confused about being greeted by a random stranger” may be true in some cases, I suspect you’re projecting; plenty of them seemed genuinely pleased at the interaction. Of course, this wasn’t downtown Vienna; I wouldn’t have tried it on the Ringstrasse.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Of course, this wasn’t downtown Vienna; I wouldn’t have tried it on the Ringstrasse.

    That shouldn’t make a difference. I lived pretty far out in Vienna myself, 3/4 of an hour by tram + subway or bus + subway to get almost anywhere.

  41. When I grew up in rural Northern Germany, you would greet everybody you met in the street, on the vague suspicion that you ought to know them ( and if you didn’t, chances were that they would know you and your family.) When I moved to bigger places, I quickly learnt that you don’t greet everybody, only people you really know. Nowadays, the urban rules are used even in the rural place where I grew up. What I noticed especially is that young people don’t greet older people on sight any more, which would have been unthinkable in my youth. (I’m not complaining, just sharing an observation. Times and customs change.)
    If you greet strangers in Germany, especially in settings like parks or suburban streets, they’ll often greet you back, because they’ll be confused and think that you’re probably someone they ought to know, like DM said. But greeting people in the street who you don’t know is actually a faux pas, and they may also just look at you, recognise that they don’t know you, and move on.
    Greeting and saying good bye when entering or leaving a doctor’s waiting room or similar setting is also done in Germany. On elevators, it’s usually only done in settings where you have a vague relationship with the people in the building, e.g. at the company you work at, even if you don’t know any specific colleague on the elevator at that moment.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    they may also just look at you, recognise that they don’t know you, and move on.

    I can totally imagine that happening in Berlin. For Vienna, however, that would be too direct; they’d greet you back either to be on the safe side or to humor your harmless delusions.

  43. I remember wandering along the Ringstrasse twenty-five years ago, in a group that could not have been any more obviously American teens, or at least foreigners. (How many Austrian kids wear letter jackets?). Yet a surprising number of people would still greet us.

    Funnily enough, we ran across an American film crew, who were even more excited to see some other Americans to talk to. So we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging around with them. (The highlight of this story used to be meeting a prominent celebrity, but he is now a convicted rapist, which has changed the tenor of the whole event.)

  44. David Marjanović says:

    Yet a surprising number of people would still greet us.

    That is surprising. 1993 is neither right for “greet everyone” nor for “hey, let’s talk to the exotic Americans and try out our English”.

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