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Aboriginal English
Linguistic Features

The Story of Australia: John Batman Buys Land from the Aborigines
The Story of Australia:
John Batman Buys Land from the Aborigines

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This article deals with the actual utterances of Aboriginal speakers, and how they differ from those of Standard English.

Though different localities and situations have produced many varieties of Aboriginal English, their linguistic features are sufficiently similar to treat them as one for the purposes of this analysis.

In many cases, the context will clarify a speaker’s meaning, even where linguistic differences are marked. However, ignorance of where differences lie can lead listeners to place too heavy a reliance on context, with the result that they make unwarranted assumptions and misconstrue what is being said.

Pronunciation

Consonants and vowels

Standard English makes use of certain consonant sounds that are not found in Aboriginal English and is unusual in that it distinguishes between f, v and th (and between these sounds and p, b, t and d).

Examples

  • fat/vat/that; pat/bat
  • thin/tin/din

Another feature of Standard English is the prevalence of words that end in more than one consonant sound, especially in creating past tense.

Example

  • They locked him up.

Vowel sounds, too, have a characteristic pronunciation in Standard English.

Why is this a problem?

There is no h sound in traditional Aboriginal languages, and f, v and th sounds are rare. Many speakers of Aboriginal English omit, overcompensate for or give approximations of these sounds. So h sounds can be dropped from, or sometimes added to, the beginning of words, the f and v sounds can be pronounced as p or b, and the th sound can be pronounced as t or d. The resulting words can at times be mistaken for words that sound similar but are quite different in meaning.

Examples

  • I give ‘im hit (intended meaning in Standard English: I gave him it)
  • We ‘ad a bight, heard as We had a bite (intended meaning in Standard English: We had a fight)

Many speakers of Aboriginal English tend to simplify the multiple-consonant endings of words. This can lead to misunderstanding, particularly where questions of tense are concerned, as the past tense can be rendered as present or present-continuous tense.

Example

  • They lock ‘im up (intended meaning in Standard English: They locked him up)

Speakers of Aboriginal English tend to give vowels a particular accent and many do not distinguish between long and short vowels. For instance, were may be pronounced so that it sounds the same as where, and the vowel sound in home may be the same as in on. Also, why and where can sound very similar. When these differences are combined with differences in the pronunciation of consonants, the potential for misunderstanding is multiplied.

Example

  • I went straight ‘ome, heard as I went straight on (intended meaning in Standard English: I went straight home)

Sometimes the misunderstanding is so complete that the court transcript is actually in error.

Examples

  • Transcript: That’s why we leave after that horse fell down there.

Actually said: That’s where we lived after that horse fell down there.

  • Transcript: That’s why we got that place down there.

Actually said: That’s where we got that place down there.

  • Transcript: . . . to open the cuts…

Actually said:. . . to open the guts... (Confusion arises because of the lack of distinction between g and c/k.)

  • Transcript: Probably his father.

Actually said: Properly his father. (i.e. his real father] (Confusion arises because of the lack of distinction between b and p and because of the simplification of the bI cluster to l.) How can the problem be avoided? Reduce the chance of misunderstanding by:

  • being aware of where it is likely to occur
  • where necessary, clarifying by rephrasing the answer:

Example

Witness: They bin put ‘im longa lokap.

Counsel: They put him in the lock-up that night, right?

Grammar

There are various ways in which Aboriginal English can differ from Standard English in its grammar, some of which are significant enough to disrupt communication. Ten are dealt with in this section:

  • The ‘inverted sentence’ form of question Indicating plurals and possession Prepositions Tense Pronouns and demonstratives: words that refer to something already mentioned Gender Superlatives Negatives Either/or questions
  • Word order

The ‘Inverted sentence’ form of question

In Standard English, a statement can be converted to a question by introducing the sentence with an auxiliary verb (do, does, did; is, am, are, was, were; has, have, had) or an interrogative term (where, when, why, how, which, what, who). This ‘inverts’ the standard word order.

Examples

  • Statement: I saw him.
  • Question: Did you see him?
  • Statement: He has been back.
  • Question: Has he been back?
  • Statement: They were sitting here.
  • Question: Where were they sitting?

Why is this a problem?

It can be a problem for speakers of Aboriginal English because:

  • they tend not to use the inverted sentence structure to form a question
  • they do not as a rule use auxiliary verbs.

How can the problem be avoided?

  • Try not to start questions with did, do, does; are, were; has, have, had; where, when, why, how, which, what. Put the question in statement form with rising intonation.
  • Possibly add a question phrase, such as That’s right?*

Examples

  • You were a bit upset about this—right? I’m talking about before you had the fight with
  • Ken—she was swearing at you—right?

He said why he was there?

Speakers of Aboriginal English commonly ask questions by using the standard statement form with rising intonation:

  • You saw/seen him?
  • You saw/seen him where?

They may also add the question marker eh? to questions that seek to verify a statement:

  • They (were) sitting outside the bank, eh?
  • He/he’s been back, eh?

The use of the inverted sentence form and auxiliary verbs can be particularly confusing when the question is complex or when it is one of several rapid-fire questions, such as:

  • When you and the other police officers helped him down, did you ascertain whether you could get a pulse or feel a breath or anything like that? Did you see whether you could see any signs of life, first of all?
  • Be cautious when using ‘right’. Many speakers of Aboriginal English use it in the same manner as Australian Standard English, i.e. to elicit a positive response that the listener is listening and following the story. People with limited exposure to the mainstream community may see it as a question and respond with Gratuitous Concurrence.

Indicating plurals and possession

Plurals

In Standard English, the plural form of a noun is usually indicated by the addition of s or es to the end of a word, and, in agreement with this, the usual s is dropped from the present-tense form of the verb.

Example

  • Singular: My friend comes with me.
  • Plural: My friends come with me.

Of course, many nouns have irregular plural endings, but they are usually in the form of a suffix (for example child/children). (Some words do not change their form at all.) Why is this a problem? In Aboriginal English, the plural is often signaled by context rather than being marked by the noun:

Examples

  • all the brother
  • my three kid

Problems can arise when the context does not provide the necessary information.

Example

  • my kid (which could be singular or plural)

How can the problem be avoided?

Check whether the sense is singular or plural:

Example

Possessives

The usual way of indicating possession in Standard English is by adding an s sound:

Example

  • friends of Sally—Sally’s friends.

Why is this a problem?

In Aboriginal English, possession is often indicated by juxtaposing two nouns or by using the preposition blonga, blong, or bla rather than following the Standard English pattern of adding ‘s.

Examples

  • Jim foot (Jim’s foot or Jim Foote) baby horse (baby’s horse or the horse’s baby)
  • baby blong horse (the horse’s baby)

How can the problem be avoided? Clarify the meaning of the phrase with a question:

Examples

  • This horse belonged to the baby? Who does that horse belong to? This fellow you’re talking about—his name is Jim Foote?
  • You’re talking about all your kids? (Pause. If no response, continue.]

Prepositions

Prepositions (small connecting words like of, from and to) show how various parts of a sentence relate to other parts. There are times when the meaning of the sentence depends crucially on which preposition is used:

Examples

  • I came to the house/I came from the house.
  • He jumped on the horse/He jumped off the horse.

How can the problems be avoided?

Use Standard English to repeat the answer that the witness gives:

Examples

  • They’re frightened of the doctor? You went back to the policeman?
  • You were where? (Pause] At court? (Pause] Somewhere else? Where?

Why is this a problem?

Speakers of Aboriginal English often follow a grammatical pattern of local Aboriginal languages in their use of prepositions, rather than the conventions of Standard English.

Examples

  • They frighten from doctor. (Intended meaning in Standard English : They’re frightened of the doctor.)
  • I go back up the policeman. (Intended meaning in Standard English: I went back to the policeman.)

Some speakers of Aboriginal English use Ia or longa (from Kriol) as a preposition meaning on, in, at or to.

Examples

  • We never bin la court.
  • He wait longa river.

While this might not seem particularly problematic, it has to be seen in the context of many other differences, both ‘pragmatic’ and linguistic, all of which tend to interfere with comprehension. The difficulty lies in the danger not only that legal personnel will misinterpret the answers that witnesses give, but also that juries will find it difficult to follow what is being said. Standard English conveys tense by modifying its verbs. For past tense this can be done by:

  • adding ed to the end of the infinitive form (e.g. convictconvicted) putting the auxiliary verb was/were before the present participle (e.g. was convicting) putting the auxiliary verb has/had before the past participle (e.g. has convicted) putting did before the infinitive form (e.g. did convict)
  • using special past-tense forms of the verb (e.g. was, sank, hung, drove, sat).

Examples

  • The court convicted him. They were carrying the child. He has admitted his guilt. The judge did allow the evidence.
  • He was under the Act.

Future tense is shown by using the auxiliary verb will or shall with the main verb, or occasionally by using is, are, am with the phrase going to plus an infinitive.

Examples

  • He will be under the Act; I shall be under the Act. He is going to be/I am going to be/They are going to be under the Act. He will go back home.
  • He is going to go back home.

Why is this a problem?

For many speakers of Aboriginal English, these devices do not come easily. As discussed earlier, many Aborigines have problems with multiple-consonant endings of words, so the ed commonly used to indicate past tense is inherently difficult (e.g. locked). Instead of using ed endings, Aborigines may signal the past tense with particular expressions, such as before, that time or, among speakers of heavier varieties of Aboriginal English, bin, followed by the verb.

Examples

  • I lock the door that time. He live here before.
  • He bin wait all day.

The difficulties are compounded by the fact that speakers of Aboriginal English tend to omit auxiliary verbs. However, they may also use never as a negative auxiliary verb (i.e. as the equivalent of did not), rather than as an adverb. Unless the context makes it clear which tense is intended, confusion can result.

Examples

  • He still under the Act. (Unless a special tense signifier is added, this could mean: He is still under the Act; He was still under the Act; or He will still be under the Act.)
  • I never put them on. (This could mean: I did not put them on; I don’t ever put them on or I haven’t ever put them on.)

How can the problem be avoided? Use special tense signifiers when putting a question to the witness:

Examples

  • He was still under the Act at that time? He lived there before?
  • He is living there right now?

Check which tense the witness means by referring to a particular event in the past, present or future:

Examples

  • He will still be living there when all this trouble is finished? He is living there right now, while we’re here in this court?
  • He lived there when the big flood came?

Pronouns and demonstratives: Words that refer to something already mentioned

In Standard English, continuity of focus is maintained by using words that refer to something already mentioned (anaphorism). Certain pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, it/its, this, that) are typically anaphoric, but the article the can also function in the same way.

Examples

  • Mike went home when he felt hungry. No-one saw him go, and his absence was never noticed.
  • Sean and Kim found a wallet on the footpath. They picked it up and split the money between them, without realising that this could get them into trouble. When they found the wallet, they should have taken it to the police station. That is what they should have done.

Why is this a problem?

Aboriginal English uses fewer distinct anaphoric expressions. Pronouns and demonstratives, such as he, him and this, may be used in Aboriginal English in ways that seem ambiguous to speakers of Standard English, so shifts in focus are not always apparent.

Example

  • Um one bloke. . . he jus’ jokin’ or something and um, he threw some water at him, had a bit of tea leaf in it, hit him on the face. That other fella he jumped up and come over to him...

This example is typical in that the speaker, a North Queensland man, does not ‘introduce’ the characters in his account of a fight, but refers to two (or more) people as he/him. It is not clear from the passage whether ‘that other fella’ was the victim of the thrown water or a third person.

How can the problem be avoided?

Check frequently that you know exactly whom the witness is referring to:

Examples

  • That’s Billy now?

Gender

Unlike many other languages, Standard English is not characterised by a pervasive use of gender. However, gender does remain in certain sex-related nouns (such as woman/man, girl/boy, mother/father, sister/brother, daughter/son, and their variants and animal equivalents), and in the pronouns that accompany them (he/him/his, she/ her/hers).

Examples

  • The cow called her calf.
  • My grandfather lived here all his life.
  • This bloke knows what he’s doing.

Why is this a problem?

In the heavy varieties of Aboriginal English, he (or ‘e) is used to mean either he or she. This difference on its own does not cause problems when the context is clear.

Example

Assuming that the speaker is using a heavy variety of Aboriginal English, there is nothing in the language to indicate whether the person at whom the water was thrown is male or female.

  • That fella in the post office. (The post office in question was run by a woman.)

And in fact, fella doesn’t even have to refer to humans:

  • We decide to cook some of this fella goanna.

How can the problem be avoided?

Ask clarifying questions: Examples

  • This person who threw the water, this was Tony? You’re talking about Alice now?
  • Question: Your mother lives where?
  • Answer: Before up in Cairns, now he down Brisbane.

However, in cases where a speaker uses pronouns without a particular noun as a referent, people who are unfamiliar with Aboriginal English can become confused about the meaning. For example, fella can refer to females as well as males.

Example

  • Um one bloke. . . he jus’ jokin’ or something and um, he threw some water at him...

Superlatives

Standard English distinguishes three degrees of adjectives and adverbs—positive, comparative and superlative. These are usually indicated by the base form of the word for positive, and the addition of suffixes for comparative and superlative (er for comparative, and est for superlative), or the addition of more (comparative) or most (superlative). Some words change their form entirely.

Examples

  • Positive: tall. Comparative: taller. Superlative: tallest
  • Positive: beautiful. Comparative: more beautiful. Superlative: most beautiful
  • Positive: good. Comparative: better. Superlative: best

Why is this a problem?

Speakers of Aboriginal English frequently use the superlative form of an adjective in an exclamatory way—that is, simply for emphasis—not strictly with its Standard English superlative meaning.

Example

  • That was the biggest fight. Intended meaning in Standard English: That was a very big fight.

In the courtroom situation, where it is often necessary to remove any ambiguity by distinguishing one situation from another, Aboriginal witnesses may seem to be giving conflicting information when in fact they are simply observing a different language convention.

How can the problem be avoided?

When trying to compare two or more events, make the comparison explicit:

Example

  • You’ve seen many big fights—now thinking about these two fights here (i.e. that you’re telling me about], I’m wondering which was the biggest?

Either/or questions

When presenting alternatives, speakers of Standard English commonly use the word or, sometimes in combination with either.

Examples

  • Did you go there, either alone or with someone else? Did they leave then or wait until it got dark?
  • Were you at the camp then, or were you already at the pub?

The negative form is neither/nor.

Example

  • You were neither at the camp nor at the pub?

Why is this a problem?

Speakers of Aboriginal English are likely to be confused by this type of sentence construction and in their answers will often, but not always, refer to the last alternative mentioned.

Example

  • Question: Were you either at the camp or already at the pub?
  • Answer: Yes.

How can the problem be avoided?

Do not use either/or questions—i.e. questions that ask the respondent to choose one of two alternatives. Instead:

  • present the two alternatives in separate sentences, and then ask an open question:

Example

  • Maybe you were at the camp. Maybe you were already at the pub. Tell me where you were then.
  • simply ask an open question:

Example

  • Where were you then?

Word order

In Standard English, the order of the major elements of a regular declarative sentence is fairly fixed: the subject precedes the verb and the object follows.

Example

  • The drovers moved the cattle.
  • The cattle moved. (Not: Moved the cattle.)

Why is this a problem?

Heavy varieties of Aboriginal English, like the majority of Aboriginal languages, do not restrict the order of these constituents as much as English does. For instance, a noun or noun phrase that belongs with the subject often follows the verb:

Examples

  • That’s why they bin moving old people.

Meaning: That’s why the old people moved. Misunderstood as: That’s why they moved the old people.

  • We paint up all the Jakarnarra and Jupurrula.

Meaning: All of us Jakamarras and Jupurrulas get painted up. Misunderstood as: We paint up all the Jakamarras and Jupurrulas. This can result in legal personnel and juries so badly misinterpreting an Aboriginal witness that they confuse the agent (usually the subject) with the person acted upon (usually the object).

How can the problem be avoided?

When an Aboriginal witness uses a pronoun (such as they) before the verb—i.e. as the subject—and a noun (such as people) after the verb, clarify the meaning by rephrasing the sentence:

Example

  • That’s why they bin moving old people.
  • Clarify as: That’s why the old people moved?

Vocabulary

Though most of the actual words used by speakers of Aboriginal English are part of the lexicon of Standard English, the heaviest varieties of Aboriginal English include some words from traditional Aboriginal languages, some expressions borrowed from Kriol, and some Standard English words that have a special meaning in Aboriginal English. Particularly important is the special use of kin terms. Aboriginal English in Queensland is enriched by words and phrases from traditional Aboriginal languages, both local and from other parts of Australia. These traditional languages are referred to in Aboriginal English as ‘Lingo’.

Examples

  • murri Aboriginal person
  • bunji mate
  • migloo, koliman non-Aboriginal person
  • withoo (NW Queensland) non-Aboriginal person
  • goongadji policeman
  • garnoo grog
  • goom methylated spirits
  • goomi alcoholic
  • yaandi, nyaandi, ngaandi drugs
  • goona faeces
  • boon, durri cigarette, match

These are examples only and do not have universal use or uniform meaning across the State. Like English before the introduction of mechanisms such as the Oxford English Dictionary that tended to fix the meanings of words, Aboriginal English is subject to enormous variation in use throughout Queensland. Consequently, the usage of words and the meanings given to them are different in each community.

Most speakers of Aboriginal English are reluctant to use English terms for genitals, and there is considerable variation throughout Queensland in the terms that are considered acceptable. Why is this a problem? Lingo is not going to be understood by the court.

Example

  • Numu Warimpana live here this time.

Numu, which is a general marker of negation, sounds like no more. So this statement could be understood as:

  • Warimpana no longer live here.

In fact it means simply that the Warimpana were not living in the area at the particular time.

How can the problem be avoided?

Check to make sure you’ve understood the answer. Example

  • You gave him a durri—that’s a cigarette, right?

Also ensure that you have a communication facilitator from the same community as the witness.

Words with special meanings in Aboriginal English

Many Standard English words have slightly different meanings in Aboriginal English.

  • country land/friend
  • learn teach
  • sing out call out
  • mob group
  • shame (no exact equivalent) a complex mixture of embarrassment and shyness that can result from various situations, particularly when a person is being singled out for rebe or for praise
  • Lingo Aboriginal language
  • debil debil evil spirit
  • grow (a child) up raise (a child/bring a child) up
  • by’n’by soon
  • growl scold
  • choke down pass out/go to sleep
  • charging on drinking
  • drone park people

Once again, these are only examples and it should not be assumed that every speaker of Aboriginal English will use these words or attach the same meanings to them. Aboriginal society pays close attention to the fine-tuning of relationships between individuals, an attention that traditional Aboriginal languages reflect in their rich set of first- and second-person pronouns.

Examples

  • I I
  • we/me’n’him/me’n’her/me’n’you we (two people)
  • we/usmob/me’n’them/me’n’youse/me’n’yousemob we (more than two)
  • you you (one person)
  • youtwo/youtwofella/ youse you (two people)
  • yountwo/yousemob/ youse you (more than two)

Standard English vocabulary is also inadequate when it comes to expressing kinship, so some English words have acquired different shades of meaning in Aboriginal English. Usually the meaning is extended to reflect the broader kinship network.

Examples (traditionally oriented communities)

  • mother biological mother and her sisters
  • father biological father and his brothers
  • cousin-brother father’s brother’s son
  • cousin-sister mother’s sister’s daughter

Examples (less traditionally oriented communities)

  • auntie female relative of an older generation
  • uncle male relative of an older generation
  • cuz (cousin) any relative of the same generation
  • sister any female Aborigine (often used by urban Aborigines to express solidarity)
  • brother any male Aborigine (often used by urban Aborigines to express solidarity)

Why is this a problem?

While many of these differences in usage are unlikely to cause difficulties in the courtroom, the danger is that in some cases questioners and witnesses will be at cross purposes, and that juries will be seriously misled. This danger is most real with kinship terms because a witness could seem to be giving contradictory evidence about one person while in fact referring at different times to two (or more) people.

How can the problem be avoided?

  • Try to use a communication facilitator from the same community as the witness or someone with significant experience dealing with that community, e.g. someone with relatives from there.
  • Check that you’ve understood the answer:

Example

  • He came home by ‘n’ by—that’s soon, right?
  • Whenever there is reference to a kinship term, check who is being referred to, if possible by using names:

Examples

  • You went to stay with your mother—that’s Margaret, right? Your cousin-sister—what’s her name, then?
  • If necessary, clarify the biological relationships between people:

Example

  • Your auntie—that’s your mother’s sister?

Non-verbal Features

Aboriginal English makes considerable use of non­verbal signs, especially when discussing direction. These are an integral part of the communication process and should not be ignored. Differences between indigenous non-verbal features and those of other cultures provide additional scope for misinterpretations. This is especially so for people of Anglo-Irish decent who usually downplay non-verbal features.

Gestures Hand gestures and movements of the eyes or head are features of any language, but in Aboriginal English they are systematised and integrated in a way that makes them an essential part of the vocabulary of the language. They have their roots in the rich sign languages that are used in traditional languages, particularly when hunting or during mourning. Many of these signs are common to Aboriginal people throughout Australia, particularly hand movements indicating relatives or other people. Examples

  • touching the nipple mother
  • two arms held out with wrists crossed (as if in handcuffs) policeman
  • Other movements of the eye(s), head or lips, such as those that indicate direction or location, are more subtle.

Why is this a problem?

Aboriginal people normally use the relevant word (with or without the sign) when talking with non-Aboriginal people. However, the more subtle movements, which are often very slight and quick, could well pass unnoticed in the courtroom situation, with the result that the full meaning of a witness’s response is not conveyed.

How can the problem be avoided?

Be alert to any movements of hands, eyes, head or lips and, if necessary, clarify the answer with further questions: Examples

  • When Jim arrived he came from town?
  • They were a long way off when they started singing out?

Eye Contact

In mainstream Australian culture, making direct eye contact with a conversation partner and speaking clearly and loudly are interpreted as signs of confidence, moral uprightness and politeness. Avoiding eye contact, particularly with someone who is asking questions, and mumbling or speaking in a low, soft voice can be seen as signs of dishonesty and insecurity, or at the least lack of interest or respect.

In Aboriginal societies, on the other hand, the converse is true. Direct eye contact with anyone other than one ’s most intimate peers or relations is seen as a sign of rudeness, disrespect or even aggression, and the appropriate strategy to convey polite respect is to avert or lower one’s eyes in conversation. Similarly, a loud, clear tone of voice can be associated with aggressive, rude and disrespectful behaviour, and the appropriate demeanour in some contexts is to speak in a low voice and to slur one’s consonants (resulting in somewhat muffled or mumbled diction).

Why is this a problem?

Even if lawyers, judges and magistrates are aware of these differences, there is a danger that this behaviour will be misinterpreted by (non-Aboriginal) jurors in criminal proceedings.

How can the problem be avoided?

The only way to address this problem is to draw the jury’s attention to these cultural differences, and to direct them not to interpret the behaviour as a sign of dishonesty or disrespect, as they might naturally tend to do.

Silence

Another major difference is in the use and interpretation of silence. Long periods of silence are generally avoided in mainstream Australian discourse except among intimate friends or relatives. Particularly in formal proceedings, there is a felt need to ‘fill in’ silent periods. In Aboriginal societies, on the other hand, lengthy periods of silence are the norm, and are expected during conversation, particularly during information-sharing or information-seeking.

Why is this a problem? A person’s silence or lack of overt acknowledgment during questioning will often be interpreted as unwillingness to participate or answer.

How can this problem be avoided?

People seeking information of Aboriginal witnesses would do well to allow longer periods for them to answer questions, and not rush to fill in the silence. The court should be made explicitly aware that such periods of silence are normal and do not indicate that the witness is unwilling to respond or that the witness is ‘concocting’ an answer to the question.

  

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