Episode 5 transcript

Charlotte Mackay:

This is the secret life of language, a podcast from the university of Melbourne's school of languages and linguistics. I'm Charlotte Mackay.

Peter Hurst:

And I'm Peter Hurst.

Charlotte Mackay:

At the time of European settlement in 1788 more than 250 Australian indigenous languages were spoken. Fast forward to 2019 and only 13 indigenous languages continue to be acquired by children. Another hundred or so languages are still spoken to varying degrees by older people, but are at risk as elders pass away. Murrinhpatha is one of those 13 languages and it is not just being actually passed on to subsequent generations, but it's also gaining new speakers. In this episode of the Secret Life of Language, we introduce you to the life and language of the Murrinhpatha people.

Dr Barbara Kelly:

I'm Dr Barbara Kelly. I'm a developmental linguist who works in the school of languages and linguistics and the research unit for indigenous languages.

John Mansfield:

My name's John Mansfield. I'm a professional linguist. I am a lecturer in linguistics at university of Melbourne and the language I researched by far the most has been the Murrinhpatha language of Northern Australia.

Charlotte Mackay:

Now Barb, why are we researching this language?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

This language is an interesting language. It's one of the few traditional Australian languages that's still being learned by children as a first language. So it's still being transmitted across generations as it has been over centuries.

John Mansfield:

We have these then secondary benefits we can get from it where we hope to be able to understand better about how the human brain processes language on how our processing of language may interact with the world around us and even cultural specificities of our world.

Charlotte Mackay:

So Barb, let's get a sense of the physical and social environment in which this language is spoken. How many speakers of Murrinhpatha would there be?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

Around two and a half thousand to 3000. It has quite a large speaker population, and the speaker population is interesting because it ranges from newborns to much older speakers.

Peter Hurst:

John, you were doing field work up North in Australia, so where was that and how did you become involved?

John Mansfield:

My main field research I've done is in a town called Wadeye, which is probably the largest remote Aboriginal community in Australia. It's got about two and a half thousand people, which is very large for a remote community. It's about five or six hours by road Southwest from Darwin, and that road is fairly often cutoff by wet seasons. Quite often you can only access Wadeye by small plane, so it quite well lives up to this concept of a remote community. It's quite out there and far from the big city. I've been going to Wadeye for just about 10 years now.

Peter Hurst:

So what languages do they speak there or are you the only English speaker?

John Mansfield:

I'm not the only English speaker, so I said about two and a half thousand people. It's not like I was the only white fellow who'd ever wandered into town. There's maybe 200 or 300 non Aboriginal people who work there. Murrinhpatha's the main language of the town. But actually there are about five or six other Aboriginal languages from the immediate area. The speakers of whom all kind of came in and settled the same town. These are languages like Marri Ngarr, Marri Tjevin, some Jaminjung speakers, Marri Amu, Magati Ke. Now I feel like I should name them all, not to leave anyone out, but that's, that's got most of the main ones.

Peter Hurst:

Because Murrinhpatha is the dominant language in the Wadeye region, the Northern territory government puts out public service messages in Murrinhpatha like the one you're about to hear, advising people to be crocwise in and around waterways.

Excerpt from Crocwise ad:

Ku kanarnturturt pana-ka da ngamere deyida-ka ngarra kura ngipilinh parnam... [Crocodiles are sometimes found in rivers...]

Peter Hurst:

Australian indigenous cultures are well known in academic circles at least as having very complex and nuanced sort of familial structures. Now this is part of the way they interact with each other, but it's also encoded in language. So I asked John to tell us more about that.

John Mansfield:

So people's understanding of the world and their place in the world and their approach to interacting with each other is very much shaped by the kinship relations they have. And these kinship relations are not of the same pattern as we might be familiar with. You know, your father, your mother, your uncle, your aunt, your brother, your cousin. There's sort of a different set of kinship categories. There's, I would say rather more different categories. You need to differentiate from Murrinhpatha person and it's a kind of different system. Some notable differences are the fact that you have a lot more people who you would call brother or sister. So anyone who is my fathers, brothers, sons, I will call brother, anyone who's my father's brothers, daughters, I will call sister and then on my mother's side you kind of get the same kind of pattern flipped around and then this runs through multiple generations through like my father's father's brother's son, sons, et cetera, et cetera. It's like this kind of iterative pattern running out through your kin connections, which defines how you should call that person cause you very often not call the person by their name but instead call them brother, cousin, whatever kind of the Murrinhpatha terms are for that. And it can also influence how you interact with them, like degree of eye contact, whether you can give or receive things from them, whether you can drink from the same cup.

Charlotte Mackay:

Peter spoke to John about key features of the Murrinhpatha language and compared these with English. John also touched on aspects of the English language that native speakers take for granted, but that are difficult for learners coming from other languages.

Peter Hurst:

Let's get a few examples of how Murrinhpatha differs from English. So let's just start off with the basics. It's been claimed that it's a free word order language. First of all, what does that mean and is that claim true?

John Mansfield:

What does it mean, Pete? That's a good question. So the idea is that some languages have a fairly fixed order of words and it's fixed in the sense that you need to get the right word order to get the meaning, right. So we can see an example of this in English with the difference between the cat chased the dog or the dog, chase the cat, whereby these have different meanings, right? That's obvious to us all. But the only thing showing that difference of meaning is the different order of the words. Now, as an English speaker, this may seem completely natural to you, but there are lots of other languages out there where there's no system like that. The words may be quite flexible in how you order them and also that reordering of words may not be used to indicate the difference in meaning. So you could have another language where you say the dog, the cat chased in whatever order and you use say different inflections on the words that tell you which one was doing the chasing and which one was being chased. Murrinhpatha is somewhat more like this latter type. People seem to show actually quite a lot of flexibility in how they order the words. So yeah, it's fairly different from English in that respect.

Peter Hurst (07:22):

Okay. So the nouns get little endings or something on them do they?

John Mansfield (07:25):

Well in Murrinhpatha they do sometimes use these, what we call case suffixes or case inflection in linguistics and Murrinhpatha does use a bit of this to sometimes indicate which person or thing is doing the chasing in which has been chased. But actually in Murrinhpatha they don't use the case inflections much either. It's often actually just left unspecified in the sentence, which one is doing the chasing and which one is being chased. So you just need to infer it from the context.

Peter Hurst:

Now you were talking earlier about all the complex stuff that you add to the verb. Can you ever use that to work out who's doing what to whom?

John Mansfield:

Uh, to some extent. So the verb has many different kind of inflectional markers on it in Murrinhpatha, and some of these indicate the number and gender of the actors who are involved in the activity. So there can be one marker that will tell you the person who's kind of doing it and it will indicate whether they're first, second, or third person, whether they're singular or plural, whether they're male or female. In some cases.

Charlotte Mackay:

One of the most distinctive features of Murrinhpatha is its use of very long sentence like verbs. Peter, explored this further with John.

Peter Hurst:

All right. So we've looked at a word order and how Murrinhpatha uses a sort of special markings on the nouns and special markings on the verb to sort of show who's doing what to whom. But otherwise it's quite flexible. What are some of the other really big differences between say Murrinhpatha and English?

John Mansfield:

So Murrinhpatha verb can end up being this very long word that puts together multiple parts into this kind of long string. So you can have a single verb like menaninthanumararttha-tharra. That means they were going along taking turns. That's an example from my friend Raphael and uh, maybe you can have example like pumampunkuthangintha-wurran means back on this, uh, chasing verb again. That would be if two of them are chasing a few of them. So these verbs I've just pronounced, they have kind of five, six, seven different parts all strung together. They might have one part telling you that there was two of them being chased and one part telling you that there was a few of them doing the chasing. And then there's one part telling you that they were moving along as it happened. And another part telling you that it's present tense. So you get these five, six, maybe seven or more bits all stuck together. And this is one of the reasons why I speculate that Murrinhpatha may be more difficult to learn than other languages. And there's this concept or a term polysynthesis or polysynthetic that people use for languages like this, which basically just means languages where you can have one word, usually a verb with all these different bits stuck together. But in some ways when we research and dig more into this concept, it just ends up begging the question, what is a word anyway? Because these, these enormous verbs in Murrinhpatha in some ways aren't much like the standard concept of a word that we have in English because they are like these almost whole sentences, but they're just kind of squashed together in some way. You kind of have to say it all together as a unit. You can't really break it up in the same way as an English sentence.

Peter Hurst:

And do other languages do this or is it just Murrinhpatha?

John Mansfield:

It turns out actually large numbers of languages around the world have these kinds of systems. Across Northern Australia there are probably at least a dozen or so languages like this. It's just right through much of North America. Caucasus comes to mind as another area. There's really particular areas of the world where it's really just often the kind of common way that languages work. There's a little bit of research by our colleague Rebecca Defina on that in languages that stick verbs together, and I think she has shown that there is some science that this sticking of verbs together may involve people thinking of those two things as being a single event. But these are still just little bits of research and there's still a lot that's unknown about this kind of question.

Peter Hurst:

So when we look at the way that children learn languages like English or Japanese, these well studied languages, we see that kids start with simple sentences, maybe with only a single word. So for example, a kid might say something like push and just gesture to the people that are involved in that interaction. The situation is really different for these polysynthetic languages. So these languages have single words just like in say English or Japanese, but very often you can't actually pronounce them. It would be like a kid trying to say push in one of these languages. Be like a kid trying, just saying ing, in English. We know it means something but you're just not allowed to say it by itself. So it's a real mystery at the moment as to how children acquire these kind of languages because it's very hard to break them down into just simple parts. So now that we've got a taste of the complexity of the Murrinhpatha language, we're going to find out more about how children actually learn it.

Charlotte Mackay:

Now Barb, your research interest lies predominantly in the manner in which children acquire Murrinhpatha as a first language. Contrasting this, for example, against children who learn English as a first language in Australia, what are some of the differences that we see between these two groups of children?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

So one of the primary differences that we see is that in Murrinhpatha the verbs are very long and they're very complex. And so children learning Murrinhpatha can't rely on the same sorts of rules that children learning English might rely on. So in English for example, children can generally rely on a rule that if it's past tense, I can put ed on the end of a verb. In Murrinhpatha that's not the case. So children need to learn really high numbers of different verb forms and then they have to sort of rely on analogies and patterns for acquiring the forms that they need in their everyday talk.

Charlotte Mackay:

Does this have impacts further along down the educational line? Is this seen in a different way of thinking, critical thinking when compared to non indigenous Australian students and specifically non Murrinhpatha speaking Australian students?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

That's a really interesting question. It's not something that we've looked at and it's not something that I know of as being different. But what I can say is that for children who are learning Murrinhpatha, although the verbs are very, very different and the way that the language works is very, very different. There are similarities that we see between children learning Murrinhpatha and the way that they construct their language and children who are learning languages like English. And so one example would be that children learning Murrinhpatha seem to learn sort of general all purpose verbs first before moving on to specific verbs. And so all purpose verbs might be things that have a general meaning like put or make or do. And these are similar to the types of verbs that we see young English learners learning first. Whether that has some sort of outcome in terms of later language development or educative development is yet to be seen.

Charlotte Mackay:

What do the differences in terms of how children acquire a first language in the Australian Aboriginal and more precisely Murrinhpatha context and the broader community. What do these differences tell us about first language acquisition in general?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

So tell us a few things, but I think the primary thing is that when children are learning a first language, it's not something that's built into the child. They don't come with an a priori language system. It's something that emerges over time. And so we see children learning Murrinhpatha in the same way that children learning English or Sherpa or any other language build with a basis of building blocks that over time become more and more complex. And so it develops over time with more and more input. We also have shown and have seen that Murrinhpatha caregivers who are speaking to young children, modify their speech to children so that it becomes more and more complex over time as well. And so we see sort of this concomitant development over time with children as well.

Peter Hurst:

Some psycholinguists have theorized that the human brain possesses a special language acquisition faculty. We investigate if the research into Murrinhpatha language can shed light on these theories.

Charlotte Mackay:

Barb, Noam Chomsky, a rather famous linguist, early on in his career postulated that humans have this specific language acquisition device. What does studying children who are acquiring Murrinhpatha as a first language? Tell us about this kind of hypothesis.

Dr Barbara Kelly:

Yeah. This is one of the sort of primary debates in the area of first language acquisition about whether or not children are born with this language acquisition device and studying a language like Murrinhpatha tells us that children who are learning very, very different languages learn them in similar ways. But, it's not because there's a language acquisition device that they're learning them in similar ways. We see that children learning Murrinhpatha as with children learning English begin learning language in similar sorts of ways in terms of less complexity in their early language, both in their comprehension and particularly in their production and the emergence of more complex language over time. And that relates to the type of input that they get and what sort of things emerge over time as they mature.

Charlotte Mackay:

So Barb, does this actually discount the idea of a language acquisition device? What sort of process would be functioning in its place?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

On the basis of what children are hearing in their, um, everyday interactions with adults and older speakers of the language, they're getting models of how to use the language and they begin to use the language on the basis of what they're hearing and what they're able to produce in terms of their processing at different ages. When we think about a language acquisition device, one of the things that is important and very sort of timely really is the fact that a lot of our theory in first language acquisition, particularly theory that has been built around this idea of a language acquisition device is based on major world languages in particular based on English. And so if we look at the field of first language acquisition, we see that our building blocks for the field, our theoretical models for the field, are based on one to 2% of the world's languages. So 70 to 80 of the world's languages, which means that we're not taking into account lots and lots of very different kinds of languages potentially such as Murrinhpatha.

Charlotte Mackay:

Barb, we mentioned in the introduction that Australia has lost hundreds of its indigenous languages since white settlement. Is Murrinhpatha a threatened language?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

It's an endangered language, but within an Australian context, it's a strong language because there are young learners, children learning it as their first language, but certainly at the moment it's a really strong thriving language. Children are learning it, they can do everything in Murrinhpatha that any other child can do in any other language.

Peter Hurst:

We've heard a lot about how indigenous languages are under threat, how few are still spoken today. And yet it's really heartening to hear that so many children are learning Murrinhpatha as their first language. Why do you think it's different? Why is this language so strong in this community, and in other one's less so?

John Mansfield:

I think it comes down to the convergence of multiple peoples. Each of those languages probably had a relatively small speaker population, but in this case you've kind of got this conglomeration of six or seven language groups who have all ended up converging on one language. And so unfortunately that's been to the loss of these other languages. Then the good side of it is you end up with one strong language, Murrinhpatha, which now even extends beyond Wadeye. So then the kind of ironic later flip side to this is you now get Murrinhpatha spoken in other areas that are not Murrinhpatha country and that's because Murrinhpatha built up so much kind of gravity via this unusually large remote community of Wadeye that it's now even spoken in other towns in the area that aren't on Murinhpatha country.

Charlotte Mackay:

The influx of other language speakers into the Wadeye area has implications for speakers of minority languages and for Murrinhpatha speakers. Do Murinhpatha speakers Also speak other indigenous Australian languages?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

So many speakers of Murrinhpatha also speak other languages from the surrounding area in general, both in the town, in Wadeye, um, but also in surrounding places as well.

Charlotte Mackay:

So it's quite a multilingual area?

Dr Barbara Kelly:

Absolutely. All of indigenous Australia is multi-lingual.

Peter Hurst:

I asked John how easy or difficult it is for speakers of minority languages to learn Murrinhpatha in particular people who were coming into the community. John, you said earlier that Murrinhpatha is being spoken more and more widely.

John Mansfield:

I think it's fair to say that it is easier to learn a different language the more it's closely related to yours. I spent a little bit of time in Germany lately and the speed at which I can learn German is just incomparable to the slowness with which my Murrinhpatha learning has gone. And that's, you know, undoubtedly because German is pretty similar to English in a lot of ways.

Peter Hurst:

So very often when languages come into contact that promotes change in language. Has Murrinhpatha changed?

John Mansfield:

Oh yeah. It's absolutely undergoing changes as every language does. So there can be kind of conceptual confusion where language change can be seen as unusual and some kind of force of corruption and something going wrong, and you know often too with the youth ruining things. The true perspective is that all languages are changing all the time. So Murrinhpatha is having contact with this Creole. It's a kind of English based Aboriginal language that's right across Northern Australia, but quite different from English. It's got so much influences from Aboriginal pronunciation and grammar. And as an English speaker you generally wouldn't be able to understand Creole. But it gets around a lot and a lot of Murrinhpatha speakers have contact with Creole. They also have contact with the English language through the uh, non-indigenous people working in their community or through trips they take elsewhere or maybe through media that they're consuming. So there's all these contacts going on with English and Creole. And this is reflected in the younger generations use of Murrinhpatha. They borrow lots of English and Creole words. So they're still speaking Murrinhpatha grammar, the sentences are still very much Murrinhpatha and the pronunciation is still very much Murrinhpatha but there's lots of borrowing of words from English and Creole, and often in the way these are borrowed, they change their meanings. So an example from a little story I recorded was they used the word sniper, but the word sniper didn't mean a person shooting from a roof or something. They used the word sniper to mean sneaking up on someone. And I think this changing of meanings is in some way facilitated because as I mentioned, English isn't very strong among Aboriginal people in Wadeye. So a lot of these guys, they don't actually speak English fluently or speak it on a day to day basis. So that means these words can kind of filter into their own local language but then change their meanings very easily.

Peter Hurst:

How do Murrinhpatha speakers feel about changes to their language and what are the attitudes towards that kind of language change in the community?

John Mansfield:

I've talked to some young people who are actually rather proud of it and say, you know, we've got our own, we've got our own way of speaking Murrinhpatha isn't it great. Mixing is very often seen as some kind of form of corruption. So older people sometimes grumble about it a bit, but I think perhaps not too seriously. I think even the older people, maybe they're happy that young people are still speaking Murrinhpatha in general, even though they may grumble a bit about the mixing in these English words. And interestingly alongside this, the vocabulary, the traditional Murrinhpatha vocabulary, it's so rich and elaborate and I think it actually requires possibly some educational effort and planning for this to be passed on to the younger generations because the other grumble we get from older people is that the young people don't know all the old words still, but I know they're aware of this at the school and try and look at ways they can try and keep, keep the old words alive.

Peter Hurst:

John caught up with Nguvudirr Tunmuck Jeremiah, a native Murrinhpatha speaker for a short interview. He asked Jeremiah whether the children were still learning Murrinhpatha and if he thought the kids would still continue speaking it in the future.

John Mansfield:

Do children in Wadeye speak Murinhpatha too?

Nguvudirr Tunmuck Jeremiah:

Always they talk Murrinhpatha in Wadeye.

John Mansfield:

And how about at school? Do they teach in Murrinhpatha or English?

Nguvudirr Tunmuck Jeremiah:

They're learning about Murrinhpatha too.

John Mansfield:

Do you think people will keep speaking Murrinhpatha in the future?

Nguvudirr Tunmuck Jeremiah:

Always. They're going to talk Murrinhpatha in the future.

Peter Hurst:

The secret life of language is a podcast from the University of Melbourne's School of Languages and Linguistics.

Charlotte Mackay:

Producers for this episode are Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel from Profactual, Gavin Nebauer, Peter Hirst and me, Charlotte Mackay.

Peter Hurst:

Recorded and mixed at the Horwood studio by Gavin Nebauer, licensed under creative commons, copyright 2020 the University of Melbourne. I'm Peter Hurst.

Charlotte Mackay:

And I'm Charlotte Mackay. To take us out is a song in Murrinhpatha by Mark and Kevin. The link for the song will be provided in the show notes. Thanks for listening!

Song by Mark and Kevin from Wadeye NT:

Song title: Ngepan. Written by: Mark Kurungaiyi and Kevin Mollingin. Recorded and mixed by: Realtone