Singing the Land, Signing the Land


There is a lot of messing about in boats in the Laynhapuy (NE Arnhemland). In that part of Australia, knowing about boats (and crocodiles, as we shall see in the next exhibit) is an important part of living within either of the two cultural traditions which flow together in ganma. Sharing one's knowledge of boats (and crocodiles) involves talking and perhaps writing about them. In this exercise your task is to look at two sentences relating to boats in order to identify some issues that arise in addressing the question of how language relates to reality.

We shall be looking at categories set up in using Yolngu matha (language), spoken by the Yolngu people, and comparing these categories with those set up in using English. Investigating the structures and categories of a language other than your own tells you something about the conceptual world which speakers of that other language inhabit. It can also increase your understanding of the conceptual world in which you yourself live. You will find that you have another place to stand in order to examine the nature of your own world and how it came to be.

Portraits of africa


This African picture has been chosen for our linguistic exercise to eliminate the possible cultural distraction of an Australian example. Photograph: Mohamed Amin.

Now look carefully at ITEM 2.1. The picture is taken from a book called Portraits of Africa (Harvill Press, London, 1983). Imagine two Australian girls studying the picture. One of them, Binmila, is a native speaker of the Yolngu language, but also a competent speaker of English. We have asked her to speak Yolngu malha in replying to the question which follows. The other girl, Ruth, is a native speaker of English. We invite them both to 'describe what you see here'. Ruth replies: 'Canoes are lying on a beach'. Binmila says: 'Rangi-ngura nyeka lipalipa'. A close English translation of her statement would be something like 'Beach-on staying canoe'. Let us look behind these descriptions of the scene we see in that picture.

In the English sentence, 'Canoes' is the subject and 'are lying on the beach' is the predicate. We can say that English speakers talk of objects which are characterised by being separated in space. 'A canoe', 'the canoes' or just 'canoes' might be the subject of a simple sentence about such things as we see pictured here. These words assume, or countenance, separate spatially defined units and note that they occur in collections of one or more.

In the Yolngu malha statement, the type of elements involved are indicated by rangi and lipalipa (beach-type and canoe-type elements respectively). The suffix -ngura is one of many suffixes in Yolngu malha which, when joined to another term, name the relation between elements in a scene. The subject of the sentence is the suffixed term rangingura. What is being talked about here is a spatial relation ('beach-on') between elements of the world. Thus, 'beach-on-ness' or 'beach-at-ness' is the subject of the sentence. The term nyeka implies 'sitting at or staying at a place'. In a sense it tells us something about the nature of the -ngura (the 'on-ness', or 'at-ness').

This analysis would seem to indicate that Yolngu matha speakers and English language speakers refer to the world using different types of categories. At the very least, we can say that what we foreground when we speak the Yolngu language is different from that which we foreground when we speak English. In English, we start with separate things in nature which may often have a separate focus as subjects of sentences. Reference to spatial location and relatedness to the world must be confined to the predicate. In Yolgnu matha the subject of each sentence both names the thing and points to its relatedness. That is to say, the Yolgnu start with the view that the world is a related whole, and when constructing sentences they focus on particular relations.

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