After my recent blogiversarial lamentations that I’ve strayed away from my original intention of blogging about linguistics and languages and focusing more on politics and indigenous affairs, I feel re-inspired to write about linguistic curios a little more. So here’s a purely matter-of-fact, non-partisan linguistic post.

On the bus this morning, I noticed a sign on the back of the driver’s little compartment, that read something along the lines of:

  • Drinking alcohol is prohibited on this bus
  • Possession of an opened container
    of alcohol is prohibited on this bus

I’ll draw attention to the second point. Note that they don’t merely use an unmarked adjective ‘open’, but a perfect participle construction, a de-verbal adjective ‘opened’. It is of the generalised form verb-en.

The intended meaning is clear: any container that has ever been opened (after being initially sealed, that is), as opposed to merely being temporarily ‘open’ and thus closable, is prohibited. Sydney Buses are clearly precluding any protests from drunken juvenile delinquents claiming that their container of alcohol is not in fact ‘open’, after they’ve quickly re-lidded their bottle of spumante.

‘Open’ is one of those verbs that is so telic that it doesn’t even permit its own inverse: *unopen. This is a purely linguistic constraint though, since it’s perfectly pragmatically acceptable to perform the inverse action of ‘open’, namely, to ‘close’.

I don’t know if there’s a linguisticky term for these verbs, but I’m sure some of my more knowledgeable readers will know at least one.

As a test, these verbs often occur in the construction un-verb-en, but never un-verb. That is, it is possible to describe the state of something that hasn’t undergone the change of state; you can describe something as ‘unopened’, but it is (linguistically) impossible to say you will unopen something (in English at least). However, these verbs often have counterparts; verbs that encode the inverse action, even if the original verb cannot be inversed.

For instance break: it is entirely appropriate to say you broke my arm and the doctor mended/fixed my arm but it is impossible to say *the doctor unbroke my arm. Moreover, break will happily allow unbroken as in unbroken lines (on a road).

Doesn’t everyone think about these things on the bus?

Or, in a bid to be linguistically egalitarian:

Veni, vidi, ba-ya-nggi¹.

Kybrook Farm was visited yesterday by one of the federal government survey teams that are travelling around aboriginal communities in the Territory in a bid to explain the policy changes involved in Howard and Brough’s intervention.

Wamut, in Ngukurr, writes about his experience with the intervention on Wednesday. The Kybrook version was a different survey team from that of Ngukurr, and it appears that it was much more friendly and constructive here. The interpreter too, was utilised frequently, though I suspect the need was less apparent. They made it clear that their role was to allay any misinformation that we may have had about the proposed legislation, to take note of any concerns and questions, and pass them on to the relevant department.

I have to say I feel somewhat sorry for the bureaucrats whose job it is to explain the details of the legislation since, for one, the legislation is yet to pass and in fact, may well not go through for all we know, which may render their efforts pointless. Secondly, they appear to not have all the information that communities require.

Serious questions were raised about the logistics of the quarantining of commonwealth welfare payments, the centrepiece of the intervention, designed, apparently, to ‘stem the flow of the rivers of grog’.

How would the quarantied monies be accessible? Who decides which items are allowed to be purchased with quarantined money? What will small shops in remote areas have to do to facilitate the proper use of money?

The only question that we received an answer for on this topic was how long the quarantining of money would go for. The answer was twelve months. This naturally provoked a whole slew of other questions, the main one being ‘what then?’ Would all the money that had been quarantined and not spent become immediately accessible, for any purpose?

The community’s concern was that without adequate foresight as to what to do after the twelve months, the situation may just immediately revert back to the current scenario, meaning that the twelve months of quarantining would have done little but cause humbug for those who do the right thing.

The survey team had no answers for this, but emphasised that part of their role was to relay the community’s concerns back to the taskforce in Alice Springs.

The Problems

Overwhelmingly, the biggest problems here are housing and roads.

The most recent house to have been built in Kybrook Farm, is now fifteen years old. Most of them are over thirty years old. All need urgent repairs to insulation, electricals, plumbing, roofing, sewerage and the solar hot water systems. Overcrowding is also a problem, especially in bohba, the wet season, when the community population swells.

The community association has for decades been sending applications to whoever normally funds such things. Each time, the applications have been rejected. They are understandably cynical then, when government bureaucrats come into town and suddenly start paying attention to their needs. That said, such is the situation that they’re quite happy to take advantage of the fact that the spotlight is currently focused on these matters.

Kybrook has been trying for years to have their access road from the highway bitumenised. The failure of Pine Creek council to do so has indirectly caused property damage to just about every vehicle within the community. It may have also been responsible for deleterious health effects. Just last week, a child was sent to Katherine with athsma, caused by the dust when cars drive even slightly too fast.

The road also effects education. The Pine Creek school bus won’t go to Kybrook because the road is too hazardous. The community is left to find another way to get their kids to school, which usually means making a couple of trips in the Rangers’ troop-carrier, unless it is otherwise engaged. I have, on a number of occasions now, had to pick up kids stranded in town. I don’t mind, of course, but it really isn’t part of my job description, and I wonder what would happen, after I leave and there just isn’t an available car. It’s a long walk through the bush to Kybrook, especially on a hot ngurugun (‘Sunny time’) day.


So by the end of the meeting, most of us were only a little more enlightened as to the government’s plan, and I still can’t shake the feeling that the intervention is ill-prepared, lacking in detail, and fundamentally designed as an election-year issue, rather than as a plan with the primary goal of helping the country’s most disadvantaged people.


¹As david pointed out, both veni and vidi are inflected (or declined, if you prefer, yes, for we all know that Latin demands its own nomenclature) for 1st person singular, “I came, I saw”, while Wagiman ba-ya-nggi, as the English version of the title suggests, is inflected for 3rd person plural “they left”. But as it’s a classical allusion, I don’t really care about the inaccuracies. I should also credit David with the idea for the Latin/Wagiman title, as he mentioned to me a similar Warlpiri title Veni, vidi, yanulu.

I’m getting quite solid into analysing the syntax of Wagiman verbs now, after a few weeks of collecting good data. I’ve taught myself how to use Toolbox (only rudimentarily though¹) and have been using it to interlinearise my transcribed sentences. I’ve discovered that Toolbox is a very powerful piece of software for linguists, as long as you know how to operate it, but I don’t think I do just yet.

Something I’ve been looking at during this field trip is irrealis verb forms. Wagiman initially appears to only have a few possible tense/aspect combinations; tense is marked in both prefixes and suffixes on the verb, and aspect is marked on the coverb, or with a different suffix on the verb. The verbal affixes (as far as tense goes) are few in number. The prefixes encode past, present and future (each of those with dozens of different inflections for person/number agreement) and the suffixes encode past habitual, perfect past, past, present, future realis and future irrealis.

Until now I held the opinion that affixes had to agree; that a future prefix had to combine with a future suffix, either realis or irrealis, a past prefix with a past suffix, and so on. But I’ve been forced to look at other options lately, on the basis of new data.

gi-nanda-yi ngonggo-gin nijimang, ngigun
2sgA.3sgO.Pres-see-Past 2sg-Gen uncle 2sg.Nom
you should see your uncle, you

wuji ngi-nanda-n
not 2sgA.3sgO.Past-see-Pres
you should not see him

wuji ga-nawu-ndi nung, gahan bakka
not 3sgA.3sgO.Pres-give-Past 3sg.Acc that tobacco
he should not have given it to him, that tobacco

It seems that various combinations of past-tense affixes with present-tense affixes convey different aspectual constructions, but exactly how the combinations can be categorised eludes me at the moment. In the first and third sentences, the combination of prefix and suffix corresponds; the prefix is past-tense and the suffix is present, yet they differ in at least two respects. The first is positive polarity while the third is negative, and while the first is non-past, the third is past tense².

This is quite exciting for me, but also troubling. I had a great, straightforward set of tense affixes once, but now I have to throw it all out the window since the terms past and present no longer apply. Maybe I should adopt a Ngan’gityemerri solution and name the categories tense-1, tense-2, etc.

I should point out that these are far from isoated instances, so ignoring them isn’t an option. They’ve occurred with every seaker I’ve spoken to this time around, and on a number of occasions. Otherwise I’d probably have no qualms about ignoring outlying aberrant data, which is what you do in scientific reseach all the time. I should also point out that I would certainly have heard them in my previous field trips, but at the time I was only concentrating on coverb-verb combinatorial possibilities and in m naivety, probably ignored everything else.


¹Teaching myself how to use Toolbox has been quite a tormetuous affair and this occasion reminded me why I was always so quick to give up on learning it in the past. I thought I had the hang of it after the tutorial exercises – frogs racing turtles and so on – but as soon as I tried my own Wagiman project, everything failed; interlinearising, word formulas, alternate forms and underlying forms. Also, since Wagiman has huge amounts of homophony, I really need sophisticated word formulas to prevent the ambiguity selection box from containing hundreds of possible parses. If you use Toolbox, you should know what I mean.

²I have to investigate this further. It could be that the second should be translated as ‘he shouldn’t give him grass in general’ as opposed to ‘shouldn’t have‘. If this is the case, things would be much easier for me. Except then the second entence would stand out, as in that case, one would have expected wuji gi-nanda-yi.

Factors appear to be combining to obfuscate what should be some straightforward syntactic analysis.

Wagiman has inalienable body parts, in that they may occur as adjuncts, specifying where an action took place on someone’s body. For instance, to say “my arm hurts” you could say mangh-nga ga-yu lari nganing-gin, which is literally ‘my arm (in the third person) hurts’. But you may also say mangh-nga nga-yu, lari which is ‘I hurt, arm’. A better example would be bowh-ma nga-ya, marttal ‘I swell up, foot’, meaning ‘my foot swells up’. It is clearly not the speaker that is swelling up, merely their foot.

Now this is usually no problem, except when combined with the optional dropping of overt subjects, which in transitive predicates would have to take ergative case, and the fact that the intransitive pronoun paradigm is identical to the object-is-third-person column of the transitive pronoun table (basically, you can’t tell from the prefix whether it’s a transitive predicate with a 3rd singular object or just an intransitive predicate), then you run into some issues.

Verbs pair with coverbs in Wagiman to form complex predicates, whose overall transitivity may differ from the transitivity of either – and occasionally both – of the contributing elements. We therefore need other factors to give us clues as to the transitivity of the overall predicate, like case marking or bound pronouns.

Now, see this sentence:

Wurnang-wurnang-nga ga-yu lagiriny
wag.tail-rdp-asp 3sgA(3sgO?)-be.pres tail(abs?)

Either: The tail is wagging
or: (the dog) is wagging, tail
or: (the dog) is wagging (his) tail

I’ve put the option of the verb containing the 3rd singular object bound pronoun in brackets, the two are form-identical. Same goes for the absolute case on tail; it is impossible to say if it is there or not (and even harder to argue that it matters).

The differences between the three alternate glosses is as follows. In the first, the tail is the subject of an intransitive clause and takes the zero-marked absolutive case, ‘the tail is wagging’. In the second, the understood dog is the subject of an intransitive clause and the tail is an inalienable body part. That is, it isn’t the dog itself that is wagging, it is the tail. But syntactically it resembles the sentence above, “I swell up, foot”, it isn’t “I” that is swelling up to be particular, it is the foot.

Finally, in the third, the dog is the subject of a transitive clause, so it should take the ergative case marker but is dropped anyway, and the tail is the absolutive-marked object. This shouldn’t ordinarily happen like this though, since the verb ‘be’ is monovalent; it only allows one syntactic argument; a subject. But other monovalent verbs in Wagiman occasionally form complex predicates that are transitive overall; the valency of the verb is not always a good indicator.

To cut a long and technical story short, I have gone for the second option based entirely on a hunch, but it could potentially be either of the three.

A hunch. Ha! See how scientific theoretical syntax is?

I watched School of Rock last night and came to a profound realisation: Jack Black is an annoying person.

But I also noticed something in a line that threw my grammaticality nerve a bit. The scene involved the principal of the school informing the multiple sets of parents that all the children in the class were… missing (I’m paraphrasing):

Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that all your children are missing (laughs)

The noun phrase all your children is what threw me. I don’t quite remember how to transcribe it in formal logic terms, but I think it’s ambiguous between two quantifications. On one side, it could mean every person that is a child of any of the addressees (therefore including children that aren’t in the class or even the school), or it could mean the children of all adressees (which is understood to be restricted to only those in the class). The difference boils down to whether the possessive has scope over just the pronoun you or the entire determiner-phrase all you. Here is how I see it:

[all [your children]] versus [[all you]-r children]

The first of these seems intuitive when you look at its simplicity, but I reckon the second is an option, and was clearly the option used in this scene – otherwise it would have included the parents’ other kids too, which wouldn’t have made much sense.

I’ve been pondering this one sentence now for a while and can no longer give a definite answer as to whether or not the second of these is grammatical for me, but given that it immediately set something off when I heard it, I’m guessing I have some syntactic issue with it.

We know that the possessive -’s is a phrasal clitic (the Queen of England’s crown), or at least has been since a few hundred years ago, but what of the possessive pronoun forms. Can our, for instance, be analysed as being composed by the pronoun us plus an added phrasal clitic -’s? i wouldn’t have thought so, but if a sentence like all your children are missing can be analysed as ‘the children of all of you’, then the scope of the possessive must at least be considered to be broader than the phonological word that it is a part of.

Perhaps some brilliant syntactician out there can lend a little expertise to this rather awkward and brief outline.


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