Mother's tongue

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[This is a guest post by Chips Mackinolty.]

Not sure how long I have been a subscriber but it has been a huge joy as a non-linguist enormously interested in language(s). Many of the posts I find too hard and puzzling, many not. As a graphic artist, over nearly 40 years I have incorporated many different languages — many Aboriginal ones from here in Australia — and thus have worked with language speakers and linguists and always have enjoyed the experience (most recently over COVID-19 material). 

Above is my most recent image … the three women spent two hours debating precisely how best to put "into print" the message they wanted to convey. Hilariously, after I did the first version, one of the women who didn't initially want to be depicted decided she wanted to be. And then the insertion of the letter "h" in "ngarrihwokdi" made the words a more emphatic "now" sense to speaking their mother's tongue. The joys of translation!

Selected readings

VHM:  Bonus note on Strine

I wrote to Chips telling him that it would be a few days before I could make this post, because there was a backlog of other things that had to go up first.

He replied:  "No rivers!" and kindly provided this explanation: Australian rhyming slang for "No River Murrays" (i.e., "No worries").


  1. Noel Hunt said,

    June 29, 2021 @ 9:44 pm

    'No Murray Rivers'? Having lived in Australia for more than 60 years, I have never heard this expression. Perhaps a recent coinage, or particularly local to some region, and thus with no wide currency.

  2. Christine Nicholls said,

    June 29, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

    How about "No Wucking Furries"? There's a bit of a teaser in that too, with the possible range of sounds in the pronunciation of "u" in Furries…

  3. Chiara Maqueda said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 2:11 am

    @ Noel Hunt.

    It's "No Murray Rivers", not the reverse, thus the rhyming slang. It may well be a regionalism, common among young people in Melbourne and Sydney during the 70s.

  4. Chiara Maqueda said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 3:38 am

    Whoops! I made the same mistake as @Noel Hunt.
    It is "No River Murrays", and thus the rhyming slang!

  5. David Nash said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    @ Noel Hunt: that goes for me too. That floating plural -s is unusual for rhyming slang. Chips could be pulling your leg. Maybe some allusion to Sir Murray Rivers, QC.
    @ Christine Nicholls: have you actually heard it used?

  6. David Nash said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 6:56 am

    Clarification: @ Christine Nicholls: I was asking about "No rivers!". (What you cite is not uncommon, or as "No wuckers!".)

  7. chiara Maqueda said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    No river Murrays, for example:

  8. Doug Marmion said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 6:58 pm

    I hadn't heard this piece of slang before, but I note it's in the Macquarie Dictionary Aussie Word of the Week although in a slightly different form:

  9. Joyce Melton said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 8:12 pm

    Is it just me or is that apostrophe misplaced? Unless they are all sisters? Or the phrase references a metaphorical mother, since, in a sense, they are all sisters.

  10. Noel Hunt said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 8:46 pm

    My metathesis of 'No River Murrays' is entirely understandle, since the common name is 'the Murray River', 'the River Murray' being a highly marked alternative. Despite the suggestion that it may have been current in the 1970s in Sydney, having grown up in Sydney at that time, I can attest to it never having been used there.

  11. Julian said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 9:15 pm

    I also regard 'river Murray' as highly marked, but for some reason that escapes me that's what it's officially called by people like the Murray-Darling basin Authority.

  12. Ngamudji said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 9:42 pm

    I have never heard that rhyming slang in 65 years of living in Victoria. But perhaps it is a South Australian expression?

    In Australia, putting the word "river" before instead of after a river's name is a distinctively South Australian usage. Where South Australians speak of the "River Murray", other Australians call it the "Murray River".

  13. R. Fenwick said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 10:31 pm

    For those interested, the language is the Kunwinjku dialect of Bininj Kunwok, a non-Pama-Nyungan language of Australia's Northern Territory.

    The clause type is an interesting one, as well. A demonstrative of the nawu-class (here manbu) introduces any phrase, nominal or verbal, that serves to modify or clarify the preceding clause; its sense might be rendered in English by possessive phrases, relative clauses, topic phrases, or a range of other grammatical tools. Manbu shows agreement for the noun class generally referred to as the "vegetable" class, though it also includes nouns of other semantic classes and here is governed by kunwok "language". A nice parallel to this clause is seen in a recent notification on Twitter regarding COVID information:

    Mahni ngurribekken kunwok NT government-beh manbu kundjak kabirringeybun Coronavirus.
    ["Here you listen [in Kunwinjku] language, from the NT Government, manbu sickness they name Coronavirus."]

  14. Chips Mackinolty said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 10:36 pm

    @ Joyce Melton

    They are related, but not as sisters– and indeed they come from different clan groups. So, yes, they are each referring to their mother in a literal as well as metaphorical sense. Each of them is a grandmother!

  15. Alexander Browne said,

    July 1, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    The River X / X River difference led me to find this blog post:

  16. R. Fenwick said,

    July 3, 2021 @ 12:28 am

    Regarding the question of the apostrophe positioning, it could also be of relevance that nowhere in the Kunwinjku is there a word meaning "mother". The word importing that sense is karrardwarreken, which is rather "one's mother's country".

  17. Bathrobe said,

    July 3, 2021 @ 7:17 pm

    @ R Fenwick

    Is this construction (manbu) similar to that mentioned in Ken Hale's paper on The adjoined relative clause in Australia, as found in Warlpiri?

  18. R. Fenwick said,

    July 6, 2021 @ 12:41 am

    (First, I should disclaim that my familiarity with the complex linguistics of Australian Aboriginal languages is piecemeal. My field of expertise lies elsewhere.)

    From my reading of Hale's paper, yes, it seems to be broadly similar, though the relevant Warlpiri structure doesn't involve noun class agreement. Also, occasionally the Bininj Gunwok clause of this type may indeed be embedded rather than adjoined. (All examples I cite are in Gundjeihmi dialect, cited from Nicholas Evans's 2003 grammar. The subordinating demonstrative in these examples is nawu, with agreement for na– "ᴍᴀꜱᴄ" rather than man– "ᴠᴇɢ".)

    galuk nagudji nawu badi gumekkebabilidohdombuni
    "and one [young man] {who was right there}… would try to put the fire out"

    and again, verbless nominal phrases are often deployed in this construction, in a way Hale's paper doesn't note in Warlpiri. Often this is the case for introducing afterthoughts after a complete main clause:

    badjolengminj baruy, nawu gunj}
    "it got cooked and ready, that kangaroo"

    and also earlier-mentioned entities from a narrative:

    djirndi nawu, goddoukgoddouk nawu, gorlobbok nawu
    "that quail, that bar-shouldered dove, that peaceful dove…"

    or even first mentions of, as Evans puts it, participants that should be readily identifiable once linguistic identification is made through naming:

    maih nawu, gunj nawu bonj andiwo
    "right, that animal, that kangaroo, give me some then"

    Now I think about it a bit more, this last usage actually reminds me of a construction in Ubykh, where a common form of narrative refocusing is done by converting a noun into the root of a stative verb and deriving a non-finite imperfect relative from it: literally, "the one that was X" (although the Ubykh form shows the more usual embedding):

    zagʲat’ə́gʷara aykʲ’án afaʨ’áyt’ fạ́nəwtʷ’ən
    "a certain cat coming along and taking that nose out of the fire…"

    Perhaps the Bininj Gunwok form is a syntactic expression of a similar type of structure?

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