Thursday, August 12, 2010

Jumping to conclusions

I recently borrowed a library book on Australian Indigenous languages in which I read about the Ngiyampaa language from central NSW - Ngiya meaning "word, talk or law"; and paa meaning something like "world".  Ngurrampaa means "camp-world or country".

Every language contains single words which embody a concept/idea or which describe a set of circumstances.  They can offer an insight into a culture.

I was amused to find that in Ngiyampaa there is a word to describe an unsuccessful attempt to light a fire - maynkiyamali.  Another word - mayngkali - means "fail to pierce" or, as I would put it, "Shit! My spear missed that kangaroo again."

None of the other languages in this dictionary recorded "failure" words, and I was beginning to get the feeling that this tribe might have had a problem with everyday tasks.  In fact, they were also the only group with a word for incompetent - mayaal.

I wondered if the neighbouring tribe had a special word which means "Damn! Here comes that mob to borrow our firestick again."

This light-hearted look at someone else's language is intended to draw attention to how, looking from the outside, we can often draw wrong conclusions about someone else, using selected "facts" to prove our case.  I fear that a lot of what passes for academic research is guilty of this sin.

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