Mari Rhydwen is working with people developing resources for teaching Indigenous languages of New South Wales. She asks if speakers of traditional languages in Australia have engineered terms for talking about age in years and, if so, how they did it. It’s quite possible that they have invented terms for other things (reading, school, money), but haven’t felt the need to talk about people’s ages in terms of years, except in English.
I could only think of age grade and status terms (child, woman with children etc) in traditional languages to describe someone’s age, and of the use of ‘Christmas’ to mean ‘year’, but I couldn’t recall an instance where someone described someone’s age in terms of Christmasses.
Over to blog-readers for their ideas. Here’s a start from Robert Hoogenaad:
There are all kinds of ways that Aboriginal people in Central Australia who are speakers of an Indigenous language have “engeneered”, ie coined, ways of talking about Western concepts, including days of the week, months and counting, often by adapting the English terms to the language’s phonology, but I know of nothing about ages reckoned in years – only as Jane says, by broad “age grade” (really social development and social status) terms. These do not even necessarily correlate with age ranges, except at the grossest level.
In other words, I do not know a translation for “How old are you?”, nor for an answer, “I’m 8 years old.” Though if you pressed certain people to come up with something (eg as a translation) they would no doubt do it: the problem is that another speaker of the language would not be able to understand it.
The word for ‘sun’ in Warlpiri, wanta, is used both in the sense of ‘day’ and of ‘year’, but I do not know of any evidence that it can be used to specify someone’s age. Currently most people do not know their age (though they may know their date of birth), and given that the calculations are outside the skills of most, they are not likely to work it out easily. But as people are starting to celebrate birthdays for their very young children, maybe that is changing. But my bet is that they will use English for this purpose.