Languages and ‘new words’

One of the recurring supposed arguments against the widespread use of Aboriginal languages in the curriculum is that “they don’t have a word for X” (an ironic twist on the exoticism argument that such languages also have Ywords for snow/trees/animals/etc).

There are three or four ways that languages get new words. One is by borrowing from neighbouring languages. English didn’t have any words for koala, wombat, pindan, kangaroo, etc, and so the early settlers to Australia borrowed these words from Dharuk, Bardi, Guugu Yimidhirr, and other Aboriginal languages. (More than 50% of current English vocabulary comes from other languages originally.) Sometimes the word itself isn’t borrowed, but the meaning of a word is translated (this is called a calque). The Icelandic word for computer is tölva, which means basically ‘counter, reckoner, computer’.

A second means for expressing new meaning is by extending the meaning of an existing word. So in English when we burn a CD we aren’t putting it on a fire (the earlier meaning of ‘burn’ – speakers have extended the meaning of the verb to cover new actions). Highways and freeways and commons all originally meant something different from what they mean now.

A third way is to coin a new word out of existing resources in the language, such as by making a compound (e.g. baby-sit) or a blend, or an acronym. A fourth is to make up a word from scratch (although these seem to be pretty rare in my experience).

What do speakers of Aboriginal languages do when they want to make up new words? All of the above, just like speakers of other languages! Here are some examples from Yolŋu Matha.

Borrowings: daybul ‘table’, banikin ‘cup, pannikin’, djorra’ ‘paper’ (from Arabic via Makassar)

Extension of meaning:mukthun ‘be quiet’ (also used for when the power goes off; e.g. giṉiŋgarr mana mukthun ‘the power’s off’ giṉiŋgarr is another example of this). Bulunydjuma ‘rub out’ (e.g. erase something from a blackboard) is another example of this.

Coining new words: e.g. maŋutjibu ‘glasses’ (lit ‘something for the eyes’); waḏapthanaraway ‘soap’ (lit stuff used for washing’)

[link via Hoyden about town]

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2 responses to “Languages and ‘new words’

  1. I wish I could access that Crikey article.

    It has such a ridiculous title. Haven’t most European languages just borrowed ‘computer’ directly ? And would anyone question the usefulness of all the European languages that say ‘computer’ for ‘computer’.

    Goodness me there are some dimwits around.

  2. David Marjanović

    Haven’t most European languages just borrowed ‘computer’ directly ?

    Yes. German and Russian for instance.

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