Part of the work I have been doing at the language centre has involved investigating the strategies employed in Miriwoong to ask a question. Nitty-gritty linguistic work like this is carried out with the aim of fully understanding and documenting the structure of the language and also patterns of use of the language. Documenting language in this way is an important part of the process of language maintenance and revitalisation in that it feeds into the development of resources for language learning. I emphasise that language documentation is only part of the process as in language maintenance and revitalisation there is no substitute for families actually speaking the language amongst themselves, and passing the language on to their children.
What about questions?
When you are looking at questions in a given language it is helpful to consider the ways in which a language asks a question that seeks information – this is called a content question, and the ways in which a language asks a question that seeks confirmation – this is called a polar question. In English, to seek out information you are most likely to use a ‘wh-word’ such as who, what, where, why or when at the beginning of a sentence. If you are seeking confirmation, you might use the sound of your voice to communicate your intention. That is, you would use rising intonation on the part of the sentence for which you are seeking confirmation.
“You’re going to the beACH tomorrow?”
Or else you would use an auxiliary verb like do, will or are to ask this same question.
“Are you going to the beach tomorrow?”
Beyond the formal features of language, you can also look at the pragmatics of questioning and the conversational routines which characterise asking and answering questions. Diana Eades has made some invaluable observations about the pragmatics of seeking information in Aboriginal modes of communication. Typically, information seeking is done in an indirect way, with the person being questioned having no obligation to answer a question in full detail. Eades (2013) suggests that this characteristic of discourse stems from a tension between public and private domains in social life. Within Aboriginal communities there is little privacy in the physical sense. Big families live together and in small communities you can’t do anything without someone noticing. Privacy is maintained through patterns of seeking and sharing information. Direct questions such as “Why did you do that?” are absent from discourse and questions seeking out background information such as “Where did you go?” and “Who were you with?” are not expected to be answered in full detail. In other words individuals maintain privacy by with-holding information about the motivations for their actions, and the nature of these actions. The person asking the questions is responsible for patching together the who, where and why, making conjectures about motivations and perhaps even setting chins wagging!
Eades has written about Aboriginal use of English specifically. However there are traces of a preference for indirectness in Aboriginal languages such as Miriwoong, that has surely carried over into ways of using English or Kriol. For example, it is not uncommon for a Miriwoong speaker to say something like “Gamawanygoo goorririj”, which literally means ‘I don’t know where the car is’, instead of asking ‘Where is my car?’ The question is dressed up as a statement, which others in the conversation may choose to respond to as either a statement or a question. Of course, this indirect manner of asking questions is not unique to Aboriginal languages. “I could have sworn I left a block of chocolate in the fridge”, is not a simple and innocent wondering out loud in genuine confusion. However, in many Aboriginal languages, and in Aboriginal English it is a prevalent feature of communication.
Pragmatics is an adventure into the labyrinth of culture. I am the first one to jump at the chance for adventure, but I am also learning that you have to do the ground work to be able to have the adventure. So I have spent most of my time digging through Miriwoong language samples to pin down the formal aspects of asking questions. If you don’t understand the form of a language, then there is no chance of understanding the meanings encoded above and beyond the literal meanings of language. That is to say the pragmatics of language.
When you are doing linguistic analysis it is inevitable that you will compare the language that you are looking at to your native language. The novelty in discovering how languages do things, like asking questions differently, or even how they do things the same way never wears off! In my case, my native language being English, I get a double dose of English influence because the literature on language typology that I have been working with is couched in English terms of reference. For example, there are eight canonical forms for interrogative words who, what, where, why, when, how, which, how many/much (Dixon, 2012). Some languages, like English, have individual terms for these interrogative words. Other languages have a single word referring to who, what, where. Some languages have no individual word for which….and so on and so forth. In a way, English terms provide an outline for concepts that all languages seek to express and with this point of comparison it is possible to see how some languages stay within the lines or go beyond them.
How does Miriwoong do it?
Miriwoong is quirky in many ways. I won’t give you all the gory details about how you ask a question in Miriwoong, just a little sampler. One quirk is that there are three different terms to ask the question ‘Where?’. First you have the term gama, which you would use to ask the general question ‘where?’ Then you have the term gabiyi, which you would use to ask ‘where to?’. Finally you have the term gala, which can be used to ask about an unknown woman ‘who?’ or else about the location of an unknown woman ‘where?’. Three terms in Miriwoong, which distinguish between location, movement to a location or location of a person, that equate to a single term in English. (Technically there are actually 5, because there are also individual terms to refer to an unknown man, or to a person whose gender is unknown). Why? Well, why not?
You may well be asking yourself how a Miriwoong speaker can tell when their interlocutor is using the term gala to mean ‘who?’ and when they are using it to mean ‘where?’ The answer is CONTEXT. Miriwoong is a language that relies heavily on the context in which it is used for interpretation. Imagine that you are standing with your brother and you see someone off in the distance. It appears to be a woman but you can’t tell exactly who. You ask your brother “Gala ngelany?” as you want to know who that is off in the distance. Now imagine that you are standing with your brother by a big mob of people and you ask “Gala?” In this instance you may well want to know who the person in question is, but you may also want to know where she is in that big mob of people.
I am often reminded how important context is in the use of and interpretation of Miriwoong in the conversations I have with language workers. The other day we were talking about the different names for rooms in the house and I was practising my Miriwoong by making up sentences. I asked my bajook (‘mother-in-law’) how I would say ‘My Mum is cooking dinner in the kitchen’. She gave me a sentence which translated as ‘My mum is cooking’. I tried again.
“How would I say My Mum is cooking in the kitchen?”
She replied something along the lines of “Well you wouldn’t say in the kitchen because its obvious she is cooking in the kitchen”. Fair point. Not to mention that the concept of kitchen – a room designated for storing and preparing food – is an entirely Western concept. Noticing the importance of context in decoding Miriwoong has been a bit of a revelation for me because my native language, English, has the habit of being specific. When you are speaking English you are constantly providing little traces of context and explicit meaning, such that you can take English out of the immediate context in which it was used and still identify this context and the meaning of the text itself. More is less. The habit of describing the context in text is the backbone of our great literary tradition. Or perhaps the development of a literary tradition ensured that English became a specific, and context-independent language, whereas languages such as Miriwoong have only recently begun to be written down.
The idiom “Are we on the same page?” neatly encapsulates the way English speakers conceive of mutual understanding, and the role of language to this end. Understanding is based on reading or writing the same language. If you have read the same page of text, then in theory you will understand each other. Unfortunately mutual understanding is not always so simple! I am not sure what an equivalent expression would be in Miriwoong. What I am sure of is that it has little to do with metaphors relating to written language. A conversation I had recently with my bajook in answer to the question “Where are you staying?” got me thinking that mutual understanding may be based on a common perspective of the world as opposed to a description in words of this world. Having posed the question, she deftly drew up a map of the area of the town which I had begun describing to her and then marked a spot on the map where my house is. “Here?” she said. And indeed she had marked the exact location of my Kununurra camp.
Needless to say there is more to communication than words!
Dixon, R.M.W (2012) Basic Linguistic Theory Volume 3: Further Grammatical Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.