Queensland, Australia is where Dyirbal is spoken. (Photo courtesy of goodfreephotos.com)
La Cañada High School

Dyirbal: A language feature

You could argue that Glottochronology, the branch of linguistics that uses statistical data, is unique solely for its ability to determine when languages evolved and formed on their own. Glottochronology helps linguists answer one essential question: how long does it take for a language to change to the point where it becomes completely unrecognizable to those who speak and study it?

Dyirbal Glottochronology is so fascinating, particularly for reasons that will be explained through some branches of linguistics.  

Dyirbal (which is pronounced as the English word “gerbil”), also known as Djirubal, is a member of the Australian Aboriginal language family that is spoken in the Australian state Queensland. It is a member of the sub-family Dyirbalic, which is part of a larger language sub-family called Pama-Nyungan, according to Ethnologue.

Dyirbal has five dialects, which are Dyiru, Gulnguy (also known as Gulngay), Girramay (also known as Keramai), Mamu, and Ngadjan (also known as Ngatjan). As of the census conducted in 2006, there are only 28 speakers of Dyirbal left.

This language has so many intriguing qualities, and I wish I could cover all of them in this article. For example, there is no exact word for “language” in Dyirbal. You must speak differently around your in-law relatives, and talking about anything in a vague manner is considered quite odd.

Glottochronology has been used to document and explain how Dyirbal has changed over time and why it’s become unrecognizable to some speakers. Linguists first studied Traditional Dyirbal, but discovered Young Dyirbal when they travelled back to Australia years later.

In this new version of Dyirbal, there was one less grammatical gender, free order was no longer free, and some words were being used differently than how they were in Traditional Dyirbal.

Morris Swadesh is a linguist known for attempting to measure language change. He said that all languages change at the same pace. In the case of Latin and the Romance languages, for example, he found that languages kept 86% of their simplest words the same after 1,000 years.

Swadesh’s list method was primarily met with disagreement from researchers; now, historical linguists agree that the rate of change is different for every language. One factor might be the size of the speaker population, or that languages have “stable periods” that change in sudden bursts (as one linguist put it.)

One specific factor, known as language death, has clarified how Dyirbal has changed over the past few decades. Dyirbal is still a living language, but faces death due to the shrinking  population of speakers that still use it to communicate. It also runs the risk of being simplified further to a creole or pidgin, and English could completely take over as the main language in the future. Given that Dyirbal is complicated in nature, this doesn’t make it easy for linguists to figure out how soon, or even how, the language might die off.

Swadesh suggested a solution he claimed would work for every language out there, which involves compiling a list of words that are learned early on by children. For this idea to work, the words should be ones that do not get replaced or switched around through generations.

After the list has been compiled, it should then be compared to the exact same list of selected words in the descended language. What linguists say you must find while comparing your two lists together is that some words are replaced or have had some sounds changed around, but many haven’t changed at all.

Swadesh thought that he could use this to calculate how old a language was. He even planned to use this data for a lexical chronometer, which would help estimate how long it would take for a brand new language to form.

Harvard University professors Keith Plaster and Maria Polinsky collaborated to write an extensive study on Dyirbal. In the beginning of their paper, they explain the various noun classes of the language.

A noun class is a specific category of nouns, and nouns are grouped in to classes for particular reasons. For example, nouns can be grouped together into one class based on their grammatical gender or other properties they have in common.

Dyirbal uses four noun classes, which are Absolutive, Dative, Genitive, and Ergative. While some languages happen to use one or two, few of them utilize all of these noun classes. Its inherently complex nature is what makes it so interesting. The concepts represented in Dyirbal noun classes are shown in a table created by Robert M. W. Dixon, a professor of linguistics.

In fact, linguist Pieter Muysken once said, “had Dixon not gotten around to studying Dyirbal in the sixties, our view of the extent to which human language can differ may have been completely different.”

There are four kinds of Dyirbal noun classifications, which are different from noun classes. The first is animacy and masculinity in humans. The second is femininity, which describes humans, fire, water, “dangerous things,” and fighting.

The third is edible plants, described as “non-flesh food” in the paper. The fourth is everything else, with “residue” stated next to this in parenthesis.

Let’s just take a moment to think about the fact that in Dyirbal, nouns have the potential to be edible or harmful. That is amazing.

According to Plaster and Polinsky, “most birds are in class II because they are thought to be spirits of dead women. However, willy wagtails, which as birds should be in class II, are instead in class I because they are believed to be mythical men. Several other birds are also assigned to class I based on such mythical connections.”

This is one example that demonstrates how noun classes are assigned to nouns in Dyirbal.

The concept about Dyirbal that stands out the most to me is the fact that women are thought to be “dangerous things” according to the noun class they belong to, which is number two. This is because mythology has connected women to things that are seen as dangerous in the language.

If you would like to watch some in-depth videos about Dyirbal, head on over to the YouTube channel NativLang for more information.

You will have to look hard to find a language that has the interesting qualities that Dyirbal possesses, and has grabbed the attention of many linguists for years. 

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