Language differences


The other day I was at the Newcastle/Hunter Studies Symposium at the Newcastle Art Gallery. One of the many excellent presentations was by Keri Glastonbury on the Newcastle blogging and Tumblr scene, and look who should pop up!


Yes, of course, he’s a star. I’m just the human on the other end of the lead.

It was a great day, the presentations supported by the absolutely amazing exhibition focused around the Macquarie Chest.


You MUST get to see this exhibition while it’s still up; it’ll never be together in one place again.

But that’s not what made me think of this post, it was Helen England’s presentation on brass bands in Newcastle. Helen described one of the many demonstration marches that Newcastle’s pit bands made, back in the late-nineteenth century. On this day about a dozen bands marched to the (ahem) Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles on Watt Street. Yo, Victorians: tell it how it is!

This blunter, old-school use of language was at the forefront of my mind as I’ve recently been proofreading a dictionary of Gurindji, a language from the Northern Territory. (The Gurindji are famous for the Walk-Off.) Modern Gurindji has lots of Kriol words in use, words that have an English origin but have gained a different meaning. And often these are words that have been gently massaged out of modern English usage as they’re considered too abrupt, offensive or (ugh) inappropriate.

I do love the Gurindji words themselves though. Consider this:

nguntiyip, verb, to yelp, like a dog, also used for the sound made by the engine of a bogged car.

I can see that! Or:

murr, verb, to settle down such as after a fight, pain going away as a sore heals, or an engine after it has been turned off.

Priceless. I was thinking of all this in the gasworks the other day when I saw the pair of black-shouldered kites soaring and hovering. They’ve won their territorial battle with the brown goshawk. In Kriol the brown goshawk is known as “chickenhawk”, and here’s the entry from the Gurindji dictionary:

karrkany n. chickenhawk. Milvus migrans. ◆ Manku nyangunyangu-pijik karrkany-ju. “Chickenhawk will make him a witchdoctor.”  This bird can make you into a traditional healer or witchdoctor in a process called tirriny. It does this by calling out karrk . . . karrk and throws a small stick at you. This stick can then be used to heal a person by placing it on the part of the body causing problems. Both men and women can be traditional healers.

Blimey! I’m glad the kites won!

What would this kookaburra think about it all?


Was it Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language? Well, perhaps Australia is a nation divided by a multiplicity of languages.