Languages and dialects

As an Australian living and working in London (coming up for 4.5 years now) I have gradually come to realise how similar yet different British and Australian English are. I don’t mean the obvious differences like ‘lorry’ instead of ‘truck’, or avoiding terms like ‘mozzie’ and ‘salvo’ (see this helpful list), or turning off intervocalic alveolar stop flapping in favour of glottal stop. What I mean are more subtle things like ‘ambit claim’.

Ambit claim? Yes, ambit claim. What looks like a perfectly well formed collocation of innocent words brought only looks of incomprehension from my English interlocutors in a meeting earlier this year (the fact that I was involved in making an ambit claim at the time made explaining the expression doubly embarrassing). A Google search for the phrase returns 15,000 hits and 7 of the top 10 of these are from Australian sites – Merriam-Webster on line doesn’t recognise it, while Encarta has a rather narrow definition that is tagged as being Australian. (I don’t have my copy of Macquarie handy so can’t check if they list it – sorry but I don’t pay for the on-line version. [Jane: Thankfully, since Macquarie Dictionary is now housed at the University of Sydney, our library does get it- see below]. Well, you live and learn.
This kind of non-obvious difference in usage between dialects reminded me of some research I was doing on Sasak a few years ago. I was fortunate to be able to work with four students in Melbourne who came from different villages on Lombok, and spoke four different varieties of Sasak. Everyone in Lombok knows there are ‘dialect’ differences, and that Meriaq-Meriku speakers from the south, for example, say mèrès for ‘sweet’ when everyone else says maiq. What became obvious in our discussions sitting around a table at Melbourne University checking vocabulary however was that there were subtle differences in semantics, collocation and selectional restrictions for cognate lexical items between each of the four varieties. These the ‘native speakers’ were quite unaware of, and rather surprised to learn of them from our discussions.
An issue for people working on language documentation is how to capture and encode this kind of ‘dialect’ differentiation, especially when it is subtle and below the consciousness of native speakers. You would need a pretty large corpus and a high degree of sensitivity to semantic contrasts in order to get a handle on it, I reckon. Or the chance to make plenty of cross-dialect mistakes, as I am doing in London.
ambit claim (say ‘ambuht klaym) noun a claim made by employees to a conciliation and arbitration court which anticipates bargaining and compromise with the employer and is therefore extreme in its demands. Macquarie Dictionary Online

13 thoughts on “Languages and dialects”

  1. Thanks to Jane for including the Macquarie Dictionary Online definition — it’s far too narrow of course since ambit claims can be made about pretty much anything it seems, not just employment. The Google search I mentioned brings up ambit claims by mining companies, Monash University’s ambit claim for their staff’s IP – and that’s just in the first 10 returns.
    As for British English, bulanjdjan, my interlocutors understood the explanation perfectly and could recognise both the phenomenon and the utility of having a lexeme for it, but there just ain’t one. There are examples also like the Sasak ones I mentioned of subtle differences in subcategorisation and selectional restrictions for lexemes that do exist in both varieties but I haven’t made a systematic collection of them.

  2. In response to bulanjdjan, and speaking as an Aus-sympathetic Brit (with about two months’ experience of your fair land), I can say that ‘ambit claim’ was totally unknown to me. I think we’d use ‘opening bid’ for something like this meaning in a negotiating context; but perhaps the terminology of prospecting and land claims, vivid enough to base metaphors on them, is not a part of our experience as ‘the ones who stayed at home’.

  3. Another example (not that more are needed to convince anyone eh) that Nick and I chanced upon while Chatting just now is ring-in. Familiar in Australia (and deployable in a headline such as ‘Ring-in Finch saves the day for Blues‘), and, I’ve just learnt, unknown (and hard to guess the sense of?) in our antipodes. The OED has it, ring n. 2 5. ring-in: a fraudulent substitution; the action of ‘ringing in’ (see RING v.2 13b). Austral. slang. with quotations from 1924. This is narrower than current usage (parallel to what Peter found with ambit claim), which is now more what the AND has as sense 2. ‘One who, or that which, is not of a kind with others in a set’ with quotations from 1945. (And Bulandjan’s question above applies here too: so no UK exact lexical synonym, or so it seems to Nick and me.)

  4. Re the embarrassment of using ambit claim and having to explain it- something similar happened to me with “a Dorothy Dixer question” a while ago. Calling attention to someone asking a Dorothy, and then having to explain what it was, escalated the argument way further than the suggestion that the question was unfair would have done.

  5. Would be really curious to read that list if it ever gets collated Peter!
    There’s a blog by an American linguist living in the UK who regularly reports on similarly cool ‘gaps’ and subtle differences in subcategorisation and selectional restrictions for lexemes that exist in both varieties (being UK and US English), but of course I’ve forgotten the name/URL! Anyone?

  6. All this stuff about English varieties is all well and good and interesting enough, but I wonder if any readers have had an experience during fieldwork similar to mine with Sasak, ie. ‘dialects’ of what speakers take to be a ‘single language’ that show subtle differences in selection and subcategorisation for cognate items. Any suggestions on how to deal with such things in one’s documentation would be most welcome.

  7. Thanks Anthony and Peter!
    Peter, I think various researchers working with Kriol varieties in Northern Australia have been trying to deal with this issue. I’m not really up to speed on where they’re up to, but I know Jason Lee was most recently trying to compile a multi-dialectal Kriol dictionary (only, David’s link to it doesn’t seem to be current…).

  8. 1. Link fixed (thanks Bulandjan).
    2. Examples from fieldwork? Well, we can point to cognate forms whose range of senses differs in closely related languages, but you’re after something more than that Peter: where a speaker, more or less generally aware of the other dialect/language, falsely presumes that a cognate form has the same range of senses (right?). Some potential examples in centralian languages can be proposed, and perhaps students at SAL (now CALL) investigated suchlike, but (for what it’s worth which isn’t much) I haven’t actually noticed a real-life misunderstanding of this kind.
    3. How to deal with such things in one’s documentation? Well, for a start, the OED has been showing how to lexicograph a multidialectal language (as we saw invoked aove).

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