Words for new ideas: ‘What’s your age?’

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.

3 thoughts on “Words for new ideas: ‘What’s your age?’”

  1. Hmmm… I just had a quick think about why it’s hard to ask someone their age in an Aboriginal language. But then I realised that in some ways, it’s a redundant question, because (a) you can make a good guess by looking at the person so why bother asking? and (b) chances are, you know the person’s entire life history anyway.
    And if you’re inquiring about a child’s age who isn’t present, there’s the easy system of holding your hand out palm down at the approximate height of the child, indicating their age.
    Love it.
    I have a large scar on my face from being bitten by a dog. When white people ask me how old I was, I approximate at 2 or 3 (cos I can’t remember!) but in language when I’m asked how big I was, I just indicate my height at the time. Both answers are just as accurate and satisfying.
    Yeah, well, that’s my ramblings (maybe I should start blogging again!). And I’ve been no help to Mari. Sorry!

  2. In Diyari, northern South Australia the expression kilpa waldrra is used to refer to and count years – it is composed of kilpa ‘cold’ and waldrra ‘hot’. Apart from social development and social status terms Diyari also has a term karlipamara ‘age mates’ to refer to a pair of individuals who are the same age.

  3. At Jane’s prompting I am copying here the reply I sent to Hoogie in response to the email I initially sent him. ‘Thanks very much for that detailed response. There is a great desire among some people working with NSW languages to invent new words. It really help me to give out informed advice, and to make decisions about what I will aim at in producing resource materials, if I know what decisions have been made in other areas where there are full-speakers. And, in the event, it is giving me support in presenting the case for maintaining linguistic integrity wherever possible.’
    I’d like to thank others for responding to this blog too and invite more of you to respond. I should warn you that anything you write may be taken and reprinted on the Aboriginal languages curriculum support website and/or newsletter:-)8027

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