Aborigines Speak a Primitive Language? by Nicolas Evans
Evans’ job as a linguist means he spends much of his time researching Australian Aboriginal languages, and he is often faced with people declaring, “That must be an easy job- it’s such a primitive language!” which he believes is the main myth. Stemming from this are various other sub-myths:
i) There is just one Aboriginal (A.) language
ii) A. languages have no grammar
iii) Vocab of A. languages are simple & lack detail / cluttered with details and unable to deal with abstractions
iv) A. languages are not fit to deal with the 21st century.
Unfolding myth i):
“Aboriginal Australia displays striking linguistic diversities and, traditionally, around 250 languages, further subdivisable into many dialects, spoken over the continent. Many Aboriginal communities would prefer to count these dialects as distinct languages”
If these dialects were counted as languages, this elevates the figure up to about 600!
With so many languages for the whole Aboriginal population, one can uncover that each language would have only a few thousand speakers.
However, by adulthood, it is normal to be multilingual. Many Aboriginal people marry spouses with a different language to their own meaning their children will grow up speaking both the mother’s and the father’s language, as well as other languages from their grandparents.
It is quite interesting to compare this to the majority of English speakers who have only their own nature tongue.
Therefore, is it fair to say these Aboriginal people are more primitive?
Unfolding myth ii): They have no grammar.
When studying the Kayardild language, Evans had some trouble in mastering its format. His teacher would repeat each sentence, going through all the possible orderings of its words.
In this example, the case was “the man sees a turtle”. However, Evans couldn’t get his head around the concept that, if you were rearranging the sentence, why didn’t it turn into “the turtle sees the man”?
Speakers of this language have this freedom of rearranging the sentence but retaining the original meaning by using “case markers” on the end of words, specifying which are subjects (ie. The thing seen = turtle) and which are objects (ie. The seer = man).
So, whilst these words can be put in any words, it doesn’t indicate a lack of grammar. In fact, this system of case endings is so specific that it allows parts of sentences to be specific in ways that aren’t always clear in English.
Eg. The man saw the turtle on the beach.
Was the man on the beach? Was the turtle? Were they both?
However, this detail would have been made specific in the Aboriginal language.
Also, Australian Aboriginal pronoun systems are in some ways more explicit than English, as well.
Unfolding myth iii): their vocab consists of just a few hundred words
Some people could assume such a thing because they obviously don’t have words for such things as :
- Terra nullius
And there’s many more where they came from.
However, this myth is wildly wrong. In fact, along with many words regarding the natural world, there are many more for emotions, smells, fragrances and ways of moving.
Also, many plant and animal species had distinct names in the Aboriginal language long before they had been recognised as species by Western taxonomic biology.
Does this reflect the idea of a primitive society???
There is an obvious degree of consciousness and detail in the biological vocabulary in the typical Aboriginal language.
Eg/ One particular language holds different verbs to describe the different manners of hopping of various macropads (kangaroos and wallabies). This is extremely interesting in light of recent work on computer vision programs designed to identify wallaby species, which had far more success doing this on the basis of their movement than their static appearance.
Unfolding myth iv): Aboriginal languages aren’t able to deal with the modern world
It has long been believed that “LANGUAGES TEND TO HAVE THE RICHEST VOCABULARY IN THOSE AREAS IN WHICH THEIR SPEAKERS HAVE BEEN INTERESTED LONG ENOUGH TO DEVELOP SPECIALISED TERMS”
This was why in the Middles Ages it was believed only Latin had a sufficiently sophisticated vocab to discuss law, theology, medicine and science. However, when speakers began to use their mother tongues more widely, each modern European language soon developed their own terms. This is the same point that Aboriginal languages are finding themselves at.
It is usual to find terms covering areas such as geography, kinship etc, although not covering financial transactions, nautical terminology or nuclear psychics.
However, by coming into more and more contact with Europeans, new terms have been developed to cover novel concepts.
Usually, three methods are used when coining these terms:
- BORROWING WORDS FROM OTHER LANGUAGES
- EXTENDING MEANING OF EXISITNG WORDS
An example of compounding is…
Kayardild created the word for tobacco as “wadubayiinda” by compounding their existing words for “smoke” and “be bitten”. Literally- “that by means of which the smoke is bitten”
In fact, new words in the Warlpiri have been made to cover issues regarding nuclear physics.
This is a clear testimony to the adaptability of Aboriginal languages.