Eskimo snowclones with pronouns

The Sydney Morning Herald has a review of the film about the making of Ten Canoes. Here’s what the director de Heer said about Yolŋu Matha/Ganalbiŋu (which, by the way, he doesn’t name):

“To try to translate something that’s been said into English is extraordinarily difficult because we see things differently. There are effectively no pronouns [in their language]. There is no ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘she’, ‘he’ – they don’t exist. But there are 16 different words for ‘we’.”

The quinella – Sapir-Whorf and 16 words for something that Engish has only a few words for, in the same paragraph!

For the record (and yes, I’ll be emailing de Heer and the SMH about this): there is a first person singular pronoun in Yolŋu Matha. It’s ŋarra in Dhuwal and ŋarri in Ganalbiŋu. “You” is nyuni if you are talking to one person, nyuni if you are talking to two people, and ŋildji if you are talking to more than two (like French tu versus vous, but with an extra one*). He, she and it are one word, nyani (lots of languages don’t make a distinction between “he” and “she” – Turkish, for example).

There are four words for “we” – ŋili if it’s the speaker and the hearer (e.g. “let’s us two go to the movies and see Ten Canoes tonight”), ŋilinyi if it’s two people, but the speaker isn’t included (e.g. I’m talking to a student about my  husband and I say “we’re going to the movies tonight” -I’m talking about me and my husband, not me and the student). Ŋilimi is used if you’re talking to more than one person, and including all of them (e.g. ‘come on guys, we’re all going home now’) and ŋinibi is used if the hearers aren’t included in the people being talked about (e.g. “we’re all going to the moviews, but you all aren’t invited”).

There are different inflections on these pronouns, but if you included all the cases they can take you’d have way more than 16 words for “we”. Such a shame that the facts get in the way of a good stereotype.

*English also had this type of pronoun 1200 years ago, but we lost it. People used to say “thou” when talking to one person, “yit” or ʒit when talking to two people, and “you” for more than two.


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