This is another in a series of posts (1, 2) presenting excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker; this one deals with one of Dixon’s major interests, the avoidance forms common among Australian languages (you can see samples of so-called “mother-in-law language” here: scroll down to “2.3 Taboo and avoidance”). He introduces it on pp. 91ff:

Now that the rains had begun, we were keen to get back to Cairns before bad floods came; we had been warned that roads were often out for weeks at the height of the wet season. But Chloe insisted that before we left, we must go through one other type of language: Jalnguy. A special language that a man had to use when talking to—or even when talking in the presence of—his mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law would use it back. Jalnguy was also used between a woman and her father-in-law, and between certain types of cousins. Every member of the Jirrbalngan and Girramaygan tribes would know Jalnguy, and had to use it with relatives from these particular kin categories. They were people who should be kept at arm’s length in social dealings—one would not normally look them in the eye or be left alone with them without a chaperon—and the use of a special language, Jalnguy, was an overt index of this avoidance behavior.

There was never any choice involved, Chloe said. A man would talk with his wife in Guwal, the everyday language style, but if a mother-in-law was within hearing, he had immediately to switch to Jalnguy. All the texts and vocabulary I’d collected so far were Guwal. Some of the old people had warned Chloe that it wasn’t wise to divulge anything about Jalnguy, but she had decided to ignore them…

Everything, it appeared, had a different name in Jalnguy. “Water” was bana in the everyday style, Guwal, but jujama in Jirrbal Jalnguy. “Fire” was buni in straight-out Jirrbal but yibay in Jirrbal Jalnguy. “Man” was yara in Guwal and bayabay in Jalnguy, while “woman” was jugumbil and jayanmi respectively.

It appeared, though, that the grammar was the same—only the nouns, verbs, and adjectives differed…

We went through a few score words, getting Jalnguy equivalents… Then Chloe said that we needed some conversation in Jalnguy. It was always easier if she had a mate to talk to. We should go down to the mission, and once more enlist the aid of old Rosie Runaway.

It appeared that Jalnguy had not been actively used since about 1930. The gradual loosening of tribal bonds and the pressure of learning English as a second language may have been partly responsible. Since then Guwal had been used for everything, even when an avoidance relation was around. The traditional taboo relationships were still respected—a son-in-law would never look his mother-in-law in the eye, and he would talk softly in her presence, avoiding risqué subjects. But Jalnguy was no longer employed as a linguistic marker of these social attitudes.

In fact, only a few of the older people remembered much of the Jalnguy vocabulary. Rosie did, and although she and Chloe were not in a taboo relationship they were soon rattling on in a conversation that reconstructed old times. Walking in the bush, getting hot and sweaty and going for a bathe in the cool water of a nearby creek. Plaiting split lawyer vine into a dilly-bag. Then both ladies bewailed, in Jalnguy, the fact that they were the last ones who could speak it—children nowadays go to school and all they learn is how to speak English.

Every single vocabulary word was from Jalnguy—not once did either Chloe or Jarrmay [Rosie’s real name] lapse into Guwal. Later on we went back to Chloe’s and she translated the text, phrase-by-phrase, into Jirrbal Guwal and also into Girramay Guwal.

Jalnguy was a revelation. I’d never heard of anything like this before, in Australia or anywhere else. Every member of the tribe had to know two distinct languages—or at least, two distinct vocabularies, for the phonetics and grammar were the same. Two names for every animal, two forms for every verb, two varieties of each adjective. But it was also something of an embarrassment. I felt I had quite enough to do, over the coming wet season, trying to work out the structure of Guwal. I decided to concentrate on the everyday style first, try to learn to speak it and fully understand it. Further study of Jalnguy should be postponed until that object had been achieved.


  1. Kinds of reminds me of the different registers of Javanese, only way more restricted in its use (only with in-laws and a few cousins? Wow!).

  2. So how–when it was in regular use–did one learn Jalnguy? Who would teach it to you?

  3. Dixon’s article on Dyirbal ‘mother-in-law’ language was one of the seminal influences in my early linguistic training. The Jalnguy vocabulary was a reduced set, in effect a set of somewhat more abstract semantic primes in a one-to-many relation with normal vocabulary. Sort of like the abstract labels the Coneheads (later) used to denote the strange items they encountered on Earth.
    That introductory class on semantics was followed by another that focused on a Papuan language, Kalam, whose verbs were almost nothing but semantic primes. Even words like ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘smell’, etc. are composite: ‘eye-perceive’, ‘ear-perceive’, ‘nose-perceive’, etc. ‘Perceive’ is replaced by something more agentive to render the equivalent of ‘look’, ‘listen’, ‘sniff’, etc. Australian Jalnguy and Papuan Kalam gave me a wonderful feel for compositional semantics, although I was never that much of a fan of the mechanics of generative semantics, which was in brief flower in those days.

  4. Stuff like this just makes you want to drop everything and go into anthropological linguistics.

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