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Morphological Redundancy – Why say something twice when once will do?

Morphological Redundancy – Why say something twice when once will do?

In Batsbi (a language spoken in the Caucusus in North-East Georgia), if you want to say ‘she is ripping the dress’ you might say something like yoxyoyanw k’ab. In this word, each instance of ‘y’ (highlighted in bold) indicates that it is indeed just one dress that she is ripping.

Linguists call this phenomenon multiple exponence, where a single meaning is indicated within a word more than once, for no apparent reason. This, when you think about it, is pretty weird. Typically we think of languages as incremental in nature: intuitively, we assume that when we add something to a word or a sentence we are adding meaning to that word or sentence. But in multiple exponence this clearly can’t be the case. The dress in the Batsbi example is no more singular than any other singular object in the world, so why have three ‘y’s’ rather than just the one we would expect?

In other words, why say something twice when once will do? The short answer is we don’t know (yet!) – sorry to disappoint! But what I can answer is a slightly different question: what does it actually mean to say something twice?

Multiple exponence is not the only way you might say something twice within a word. There is another phenomenon known as overlapping exponence, where the same meaning is indicated by multiple markers in a word (as with multiple exponence), but each marker is also doing some other job. For example, in Filomeno Mata Totonco (a language from Mexico) you say ‘you are coming’ using the word tanpaati. This word has two suffixes, paa and ti, both of which mean ‘you’ (second person). However, the paa also indicates that the event is progressive (like the English –ing), while the other suffix ti indicates that the subject is singular rather than plural. So speakers of this language mention that it’s you who is coming twice, but we couldn’t remove either of the suffixes from the word without affecting the meaning, as both of them also tell us something else about what’s going on.

In Wipi, a language spoken in the Fly River Delta on the south coast of Papua New Guinea, if you want to say that you are building two houses you would use the word arangen which literally means ‘I build two’. This word is rather interesting since you need both the prefix, a, and the suffix, en, to know that this is indeed only two houses as opposed some other number of houses. Yet neither of these affixes actually means ‘two.’ Instead, the suffix en is ambiguous between one or two; we might say it means less than three. The prefix a, in contrast, is used when you are building two or more houses; in other words, it means more than one. Thus, if you are building more than one house but also less than three, there is only one interpretation: you are building two houses. This is called distributed exponence. It’s remarkable that speakers of Wipi say how many houses they are building twice, but in order to know the exact number of houses, you need to listen both times!

The Fly River Delta

It’s amazing really, when you look closely at a simple question like what does it mean to say something twice?, that there is such complexity and diversity in the answer. Beyond what we saw, there are all sorts of in-between cases and the multiple types can interact. As such, teasing them apart can be a real challenge. When I say something twice, it might be that each time gives you more information in subtly different ways. It is untying this kind of subtle diversity which hopefully gives us some hint as to why speakers and languages would ever do such a thing to begin with.

How to count to 1296 in Ngkolmpu

How to count to 1296 in Ngkolmpu

In order to feed his family for the year, and prove himself a worthy man, a man living in southern New Guinea is expected to grow 1296 yams (dioscorea sp.) each season. In Ngkolmpu, a language spoken by around 200 people who live in this region in a single village 15kms within the Indonesian side of the border between West Papua and Papua New Guinea, there is a single word for this number ntamnao.

To speakers of English, this seems like an arbitrarily specific number; yet to Ngkolmpu speakers it’s perfectly natural. Ngkolmpu, along with most of its related languages, has what is known as a senary numeral system also known as a base-six system. In English, we use a decimal system which is based on recursions of ten units while senary systems are based around recursions of six. In Ngkolmpu, the words for one to six are naempr, yempoka, yuow, eser, tampui and traowow. Seven is naempr traowo naempr or ‘one six and one;’ thirteen is yempoka traowo naempr or ‘two six and one.’ You should be starting to see the pattern now. But what happens when you get to six groups of six, i.e. 62 or 36? Well there is a specific word for that ptae.  In fact, in Ngkolmpu there are words for 62, 63, 64 and 65. That’s all the way up to 7776! Related language Komnzo even has a word wi which is used for 66 or 46,656! If you want to learn how to count to 7776 in Ngkolmpu the entire system is presented in Table 1.

1 naempr
2 yempoka
3 yuow
4 eser
5 tampui
6 61 traowo
7 naempr traowo naempr
8 naempr traowo yempoka
13 yempoka traowo naempr
36 62 ptae
216 63 tarumpao
1296 64 ntamnao
7776 65 ulamaeke

Table 1 – Senary numerals in Ngkolmpu

While we are used to decimal counting systems in English, lots of languages around the world use different systems. What is remarkable is that these senary systems are essentially unique to the southern New Guinea region. As far as we know, the only languages which use base-six are found in this region. In Ndom, a completely unrelated language to Ngkolmpu spoken on Yos Sudarso Island around 250kms away have a sort of light six-base system. Ndom displays unique words for the numbers one to six, but no words higher terms and no way to construct them from lower numerals; this is what is known as a ‘restricted numeral system.’ As far as we know, this complex base-six system as we see in Ngkolmpu and its relatives are an entirely unique development. This then raises a crucial question: How and why did such a system emerge?

Pic 1 – Yams and plantains for distribution after a feast

This is a hard question to answer. The leading theory on this is based on the primary use of the counting systems: yam tallying. In the communities of southern New Guinea, the various species of dioscorea aka yam are extremely important for every part of life. They are the primary food staple and, as we said before, the general consensus is that it takes a ntamnao of yams to feed a family for a year. Good yam gardeners count their yams to ensure they have enough food for the year but just as importantly for the bragging rights that accompany being a good gardener. Additionally, yams serve many ceremonial roles, for instance a wedding feast can’t be held without a ntamnao of yams which are meticulously counted, brought to the bride’s village and counted again with all parties present. Smaller feasts might require a tarumpao (216) which are counted and distributed to participants as in Picture 2. The significance of counting yams in these cultures has been hypothesised as the motivation for the development this counting system; something we don’t really see anywhere else in the world. The next question is why base six and not some other number? Well, the main yams consumed in this region are teardrop shaped with a round end and a narrow end. These when placed into small piles naturally fall into neat piles of 6 (Picture 3). This provides a motivation for a specifically 6 based system and supports the claim that numeral system emerged through the practice of tallying yams.

Pic 2 – 6 yams in a pile

The Ngkolmpu system only has numerals up to 7776 but hypothetically could be used to count to any number. Numeral systems of this type are known as ‘unrestricted numeral systems.’ We take this for granted in English but in smaller communities these are typically not that common. For example, in Marind a culturally dominant language spoken by around 9000 people in the same region as Ngkolmpu have words for one and two only. Counting is done by counting fingers and toes without any productive means for extending beyond that. Similar are the body part tallies of New Guinea such as the Oksapmin body part tally where one can count up to 27 by listing names for the places along the fingers, hands, arms and head for values up to 27 (Picture 4). This is very different to the Ngkolmpu system as we see in Table 1.

Pic 4 – Oksapmin body tally system

It was previously thought that unrestricted numeral systems could only develop in cultures which had sufficient organisational bureaucracy to warrant such a system. What the southern New Guinea situation shows is that the agrarian practices of yam cultivation under certain conditions also allow for the development of advanced counting systems. So, it looks like if people want to count something enough, they can develop the systems to do so which is remarkable.

The next time you have to count up something in multiples of six spare a thought for the Ngkolmpu and their wonderful counting system.


A daggy blog post

A daggy blog post

One of the most ubiquitously Australian words is the word dag. A word known and loved by basically any Aussie.

Classic daggy dad
Fig. 1 – The classic daggy-dad weekend look

It’s a light-hearted insult referring to someone who is unfashionable or socially awkward, basically a bit of a dork (Fig 1). But like most insults in Australian English it’s also used affectionately as a term of endearment (what does this say about how Australians relate to each other?). Typically in these cases, it is used to convey a sense of regard for the unashamedness of the dag in question – to express the lovable quality of someone who is just oblivious to certain social norms.

Fig. 2 – An actual dag.

However, the origins of this this word are anything but loveable. According to the popular story (which appears to be supported by Macquarie Dictionary and The Australian National Dictionary), this usage is derived from the older meaning (attested in 1891) of the word dag to refer to a matted clot of wool and dung that forms around a sheep’s bum (Fig 2). By 1967 something  ‘dirty and unkempt’ could be referred to as daggy and by the 1980s we were using the word for Figure 2 for the unfashionable yet loveable dad in Figure 1.

As an Australian, I am proud of my dagginess and am pleased to know our daggy little word has a pretty gross origin.