A follow-up to this post: the exciting conclusion (pp. 190ff.) to Dixon’s discussion of Jalnguy (“mother-in-law language”).

I had intended that my Jalnguy questioning should fall into two parts. The first was now as complete as I could get it that trip—going through everyday language words and asking their Jalnguy equivalents. I took a day off to go down to the motel at Mission Beach to prepare for the second stage.
A six-by-four-inch card was made out for each Jalnguy verb, and on it were listed all the everyday-style verbs for which it had been given as correspondent. Since there was a many-to-one relation between everyday and mother-in-law vocabularies, I expected to finish up with a fair number of Guwal forms on each Jalnguy card. A couple had just one—Jalnguy yirrgunjinyu had only occurred as equivalent of Guwal miyandanyu “laugh”—but most had four, five or six Guwal verbs for the one Jalnguy item.
The jubumban card was fairly typical. This Jalnguy verb had been given by Chloe, and by George and Ginnie, as the equivalent of bijin “hit with a rounded object”, jilwan “kick with the foot or shove with the knee”, dudan “mash food with a stone”, dalinyu “deliver a blow to something on the ground, for example, fall on”. One Jalnguy verb and four Guwal equivalents…

Then into stage two. “Jubumban“, I asked Chloe, Minya guwara? What would that be in Guwal? I had four Guwal words on the card for this Jalnguy item, verbs for which jubumban had been given as equivalent in stage one, the Guwal to Jalnguy elicitation. I wondered if she’d give them all, or just a selection, and which would be named first. The answer was simpler than that. “Bijin,” Chloe said, “that’s what you’d say for jubumban.” That was all. I enquired if there were any more Guwal words that would translate jubumban, but she said “No, just bijin.” After trying everything else, I finally just read out the other words on the card. What of dudan? Oh yes, that was jubumban too. Same for the other two. These were all correct, but bijin was the only Guwal word that had occurred to Chloe when I said jubumban.
The same thing happened with every other card. Chloe gave just one of the list of Guwal words, ignoring all the others that had been given as equivalents of the Jalnguy word, in stage one. And then, when I went up to put the same questions to George, he gave exactly the same responses… For every card, Chloe and George picked out just one verb. And they selected the same one.
The next thing I did was to focus attention on bijin “hit with a rounded object” and jilwan “kick with the foot or shove with the knee”, two words from the jubumban card. How would this distinction… be rendered in mother-in-law, if it were needed? Bijin would be just jubumban, but jilwan would be winarra-gu jubumban or wangabay-ju jubumban—adding winarra “foot” or wangabay “knee” in instrumental inflection to the basic verb jubumban. Bijin is, like jubumban, just “hit with a rounded object” but jilwan is “hit with a specified type of rounded object, namely a foot or a knee”.
The same thing happened when I contrasted other pairs from the cards. Nothing was added to the central correspondent… but for each of the other words something could be added to jubumban as a further specification…
These results in stage two took me totally by surprise. I’d had no idea this was what could happen, no working hypothesis that these facts could confirm. But they did suggest an idea about the semantic structure of a language. Maybe the verbs of any language fall into two types—let’s call them “nuclear” and “non-nuclear”. The nuclear verbs are the most frequently occurring items and have wide, general meaning—like “give” and “tell” and “look”. Nuclear verbs could not generally be defined in terms of other verbs. Non-nuclear verbs, on the other hand, are more specialised and could be defined in terms of a nuclear item. So stare would be non-nuclear in English, and it could be defined as look hard.
Dyirbal Jalnguy has the minimum number of words necessary to say in Jalnguy anything that can be said in the everyday style. Guwal has both nuclear and non-nuclear verbs, as have all other everyday-language styles. But Jalnguy has just nuclear verbs…
This seemed a real breakthrough. The relation between the two speech styles of Dyirbal revealed something about the underlying structure of the language—and perhaps of all languages.

I’m always deeply suspicious of enthusiastic leaps to “all languages,” but this is fascinating stuff, and if they’d teach it to kids instead of those deadly “grammar rules” people might have a better idea of how language works.


  1. You can’t do typology without those enthusiastic leaps.

  2. in no connection to Dixon or Australia or mother-in-law languages; only to the field-researchers of dialects:

  3. Tatyana: The original post looks fairly short; any chance of a translation?

  4. The text IS short and relatively easy if requiring footnotes; the following comments makes it interesting…OK, I’ll try to summarize.
    Belinsky and Gogol, you say*
    I’m writing down after the most folklorish-looking old babushka imaginable, right until in the middle of the local tales of Xmas fortune-telling she says:
    ..Once on cold Baptismal Night
    Girls were reading fortunes…**
    * allusion to the line by mid-19cent Russian poet Nekrasov (Oh when the rural peasant/ will bring from market[fair] books by Belinsky and Gogol!)
    ** This verse is a quotation from ballad , classic of formal Russian poetry. Baptismal Night – eve of the Baptism of the Lord’ day (a week after Epiphany), traditionally a night for fortune-telling rituals.
    And after that various philologists supply tales of similar experiences, historical as well as faculty legends.

  5. Oops, sorry, somehow my link got lost.
    Vasily Zhukovsky wrote his main poem Svetlana in 1808, those were the beginning lines.

  6. So, I’ve been pretty busy so I might have missed the relevant bit, but did anyone ever explain how these languages get learnt? Is it just that in the societies that use them, they get used often enough that children are exposed to them and learn them naturally? Were there people who grew up in mother-in-lawless families and spoke them awkwardly or had to learn them when they got married, like they would a second language?

  7. Presumably they learned them the way they learned the ordinary language, by hearing adults speak it. I assume they would, when very young, mingle words from the two varieties indiscriminately, but would be corrected by their elders (“We don’t use that word when Auntie’s here!”) and quickly learn the difference.

  8. Comment on the nuclear vs. non-nuclear verbs – I remember Brendan O’Hehir saying that one (of the many) odd features of Old Irish was that the whole range of what he called purely verbal notions was derived from like five or six verb roots. Then there was all the rest, denominative vrbs. It sems an odd development, that a language would just let a whole chunk of its lexicon atrophy. Then again, I remember that Yup’ik seems to have the same very minimal range of roots, and a whole lot of derived terms.

  9. I just opened up my Thurneysen to see if I could find anything relevant and my eye lit upon one of my very favorite bits of Old Irish: ceso femmuin m-bolgaig m-bung ‘although I reap blistered seaweed’ (Corm. 1059; p. 327 in Thurneysen). I note for the amusement of the general public that the f in femmuin is silent.

  10. Some of this stuff is learnt during the period of isolation as part of initiation. I don’t know if that’s the case for Jalnguy though.
    Plenty of languages have ‘light verbs’ with elemental semantics – think of the myriad of uses of English ‘take’ or ‘have’, for instance (I can ‘take’ something from one place to another, but I can also ‘take’ notes, ‘take’ a shower, ‘take’ care of something, etc.

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