How to Address your Mother-in-Law in Dyirbal

If the formal and informal ‘you’ forms of some languages seem like a minefield to the English speaker, Dyirbal, an Australian language from North Queensland extinct since about 1930, offers a challenge of another level yet.

Dyirbal comprised two separate sublanguages, each depending on who was present. A Dyalnuy, or “mother-in-law language”, was used in the presence of certain “taboo” relatives and a Guwal, or everyday language, was used in all other circumstances. Taboo relatives (parents- or children-in-law or a cross-cousins – i.e. a father’s sister’s or mother’s brother’s child – of the opposite sex) could not be approached or looked at, let alone spoken to directly. In the case of cross-cousins, the distinction was made so as to create a distance between people who might be interested in each other as spouses, which was forbidden. Thus the language signalled very clearly who was sexually available to whom.

While this may sound like a linguistic and cultural nightmare, the complexity of the social conventions and the key role that language plays are no less fascinating.


European Melting Pot Fun

Europe’s motto, “united in diversity”, is reflected not least by its 23 official languages and over 50 spoken languages if we include all regional languages, and the mix of cultures and exchange of vocabulary from one language to the others. But how much do you know about our European neighbours, the origin of some everyday words, food and other aspects of culture that have been adopted across borders?

Here is a little quiz… (You can do this quiz in another language by choosing any of the official European language from the top of the page.)

Happy Europe Day! (9th May)

26 European flags


Sounds of Mongolia

Anda Union, a band of musicians from Mongolian grassland, “are on a mission to stimulate their culture and reengage young Mongols, many of whom no longer speak their own language” (cf their website). They are also breath-taking performers.

The group plays its beautiful instruments with frantic energy, the coordination and synchronisation is flawless, the music catchy, the rhythms lively, and the costumes – albeit fairly plain – are stunning (amusingly combined with jeans and trainers in some cases). Throat singing is impressive to witness, with visible tension and concentration on the singer’s face, and surprisingly melodious. The range of sounds from whistling and other vocal effects as well as from their two-string instruments is also beyond expectations.

Similarly to Far East languages, Mongolian seems to require some constriction of the throat muscles, giving a nasal resonance to most sounds. At the end of the performance I attended, there were CDs for sale and the band was available to sign them. It is interesting to notice the striking individual movement in each signature that makes their personal handwriting identifiable even to the non-initiate’s eye.

If you have the opportunity to see them live, be sure to go and expect to be amazed!


Photo: CD cover with signatures

Reading Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art is often referred to by their authors as “stories”. The focus of a composition is not on realistic visuals but on the relationship between the various elements of the story. As the pictures are traditionally drawn in the sand, the scene is seen from above and can be viewed from any angle. Consequently a painting does not equate to a snapshot, i.e. a frozen specific moment perceived from a single human viewpoint, but rather it relays movement and activities unfolding over a period of time and within a space, presented from an external viewpoint.

Elements are arranged according to a sequence of events and may appear several times, or there may be footprints or lines representing a person’s or an animal’s track. As the viewpoint is from above, clouds may be found everywhere in a picture and rain may run horizontally amongst them as it floods the land to eventually form rivers. A black strip on the edge of the picture, a semi-circle on the opposite edge, and elements of life (people, animals, trees, etc.) may simply represent a scene at dawn as the night on one side is being pushed away by the sun on the other, revealing a special place in the middle. Thus paintings may also be maps rather than stories as they contain items from a particular location that Aborigines of the same community will recognise instantly.

It is important to appreciate that Australian Aborigines are very tactile and their paintings are therefore meant to be touched as much as looked at. When an artist explains his work or  tells his story using his picture by way of illustration, he will touch the painting but not necessarily look at it as he speaks. This may explain why aboriginal cave art and painting on shields do not result so much from the application of pigments but from chipping into the support, thus creating a 3D effect.

Because this art tradition has been passed on over 30,000 years, it can sometimes include elements of the last Ice Age in Australia such as prehistoric animals and humans that preceded Aboriginal occupation. Hence Aboriginal art tells stories as much as Aboriginal history and legends.

Photos:,, freemanproject

The Invincible Celtic Spirit

Where there is a strong cultural identity, the related language dies hard. And the Celtic culture seems “indomitable” (see Asterix books). Despite having been pushed to the edge of Western Europe centuries ago and banned as minority languages, Celtic languages are still alive and, when given the slightest opportunity, kick back with a vengeance.

Despite the French Revolution’s attempt at eradicating all regional languages in the name of “equality”, Breton is one of the few that have survived to this day. In 1950, about 1 million could still speak Breton, including 100,000 monolinguals. Since then, the numbers have dwindled and Breton is now classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO, but this has only triggered a sense of urgency and prompted efforts to preserve the language: some universities offer the possibility of doing a degree in Breton and more parents have placed their children in bilingual schools in recent years. As for the culture, the strong, determined and proud Celtic spirit shows no sign of relinquishing, as the many events, celebrations and Fest Noz testify.

In Scotland, although the School Establishment Act of 1616 banished Gaelic, the 2001 census revealed that 60,000 people could still speak it. Then the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which made Gaelic an official language of the country, granting it “equal respect” with English, sparked a keen revival: in 2008, BBC Alba was launched; there has been a surge in demand for Gaelic speakers, translators and teachers; the creation of learning materials for students of the language is a developing market; and the new requirement for making provision for Gaelic has created new jobs. The focus is now on bringing Gaelic up to date with today’s lexical needs.

In the 1990’s, a couple of acts provided that Welsh and English be treated equally in the public sector in Wales, and last year the Welsh Language Measure 2011 gave the Welsh language official status. It is estimated that just over 20% of the Welsh population can speak the language today. Time will tell what this new official status brings to Wales, but the strength of the Celtic genes should not be underestimated.


How to Get Loads of Christmas Presents

Want to know how to get as many Christmas presents as possible? Then read on…

Christmas presentsStart in the Czech Republic or Croatia where presents are opened on St Nicholas’ Day (6th December). Next, travel to Sweden, Germany or Poland for Christmas Eve (24th December) and scoop your second load of gifts after dinner. Now hurry to France and be there early on Christmas morning (25th December) for more pressies. Then rush south to Italy for lunch, after which you can enjoy another round of unwrapping (then again, it might have happened in the morning or you may have to wait for the Three Wise Men’s delivery on Epiphany). Finally, go west to Spain in time for Epiphany (6th January) for a last session of surprises. Happy marathon!

Veselé Vánoce! – Sretan Božić! – God jul! – Fröhliche Weihnachten! – Wesołych świąt! – Joyeux Noël ! – Buon Natale! – ¡Feliz Navidad!


What’s Your Name?

Unlike western first names, which usually have a remote and therefore forgotten or obscure meaning, many African cultures name their children according to the day they were born.

In formerly French colonial countries where the Catholic calendar is used, the name of the child may correspond to the patron saint of that day. Hence, I once met a man whose name was Fête Nat because he was born on Bastille Day: on the French calendar, the 14th July is simply noted as ‘Fête nat.’, short for ‘Fête nationale’ (i.e. national day/celebration). Ewe children, however, are named according to the day of the week they were born, their place in the family and of course gender. So a boy born on a Tuesday is called Kobla, a girl born on Thursday Yawa. If another boy is born on the same day of the week, a suffix, -ga or -vi, is added to each boy’s name, i.e. Kodzoga (born-on-Monday senior) and Kodzovi (born-on-Monday junior). If three boys are born in succession, the third one is called Besa, and the third girl will be named Mansa, etc.

Wednesday Friday Addams’s forenames may not be that fictional, after all…

Photo: Peeter Viisimaa

The USA to become Los EUA (Estados Unidos de América)?

The Latino population in the States (originating mainly from Mexico) has doubled in the past 20 years. Miami in particular seems to have turned into a Hispanic metropolis, with some shops advertising “English spoken here” in their windows. This southern wave is seen by some white English-speaking Americans as a threat, and the US government is going ahead of the duel over linguistic supremacy by passing a new law to “declare English as the official language of the United States”. This new tension is rather ironic for a country built on immigration. Can there really be such a debate between two non-native languages?

Meanwhile, a few hundred Native American languages are dying while their cultures and peoples are conveniently forgotten, dispossessed of their land and confined to reserves, just like wild animals – with the difference that animals benefit from reserves. But of course this is not about legitimacy or fairness; it’s about evolution. Migrations have always occurred and attempts at putting barriers to the Spanish tide over the States will intensify tensions without stopping it.


Take the first north, then second east…

compass roseThere are languages that do not have words for left, right, behind and in front of, but refer to local landmarks or the cardinal directions instead. In Australia, for instance, speakers of some aboriginal languages would mention their north or south hand or tell you that there is a spider on the wall just east of you (which would be behind if you’re facing west, or on your right if you’re facing north, etc.). To go further on in a book, you would be instructed to go west in the book if you are facing south. Similarly, if a snake is coming towards the camera on a TV screen, and the TV set is facing west, they would say that the snake is moving westwards.

This makes our western perspective sound rather self-centred. As we move around, we stay in our own little bubble, as if the world moved around us rather than we in a static surrounding, like the Sun around the Earth rather than the Earth around the Sun. Aboriginal languages require their speakers to remain fully aware of and connected with their environment as the focus is not on themselves but on their surrounding. Westerners tend to think of themselves as being the centre of the world, with what is around them being at their disposal, whereas Aborigines are probably much better aware than the so-called “advanced” civilisations that humans are only a small part of a whole.

Novel as this perspective may be to us, it actually makes much more sense than our arbitrary and egocentric left-and-right way of thinking – that is, if you have a good sense of direction.


Bye Bye, Street Art!

Is this a new trend? In the past three weeks, it has been announced that three sites, derelict buildings famous as street art havens, are to be destroyed or sold on.

The owner of 5Pointz in New York, David Wolkoff, has decided that his site will disappear and reincarnate into a 47-storey skyscraper of apartments. Meanwhile, in Pantin near Paris, the bâtiment des douanes will be revamped in 2013 by BETC, a French advertising agency. And last week, the famous Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin, acquired in 2007 by HSH Nordbank, was permanently evacuated in order to be sold on (more photos of Tacheles here).

The punk, the funky and the colours of free expression are all set to vanish to make way for the trendy, the expensive and the more conventional. Stoke Croft in Bristol, beware! Investors are on the move…

Photos: compleattraveller,, lesphotosdestephaniem,,, bristolculture