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.


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

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.