Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I don't really feel the 'inspired wandering' vibe at the moment. Maybe it is because I have become a bit sedentary in a familiar world, while there are challenges, they just dont seem all that news worthy.

I am doing some 'work' in Sydney ( ie hanging around the library at the Sydney Uni), which is great. I think that I will feel more inspired to write when I am doing things that are unusual and out of the way- like working in Ngukurr or travelling overseas. I will be doing both these things in the next six months or so, so when the inspiration returns, I will be sure to write about it....

On the other hand I have been thinking alot, most lately about how people 'know' things and how they talk about information to each other, 'epistemic modality' ( i think ;) , like the word maitbi in Kriol which turns up all through the discourse but seems hard to pin down how to predict when it might be used and to use it successfully myself.... any ideas ? Why do people say in English 'I think I will go now' ( when they know they will), why do people speaking Kriol often say maitbi when they clearly know the answer to your question.....any ideas? references? (Catalin I feel sure you have something up your sleeve about this).....


Blogger Wamut said...

I think that when Kriol speakers say maitbi when an English speakers would give a more definitive answer, I think it has a lot to do with the cultural thing of not making yourself seem knowledgeable or standing out from the crowd unless you definitely have the authority to do so.

Like when you ask a question about something or other and the reply is 'maitbi, yu trai ask' or 'yu trai tjek'. You have to be in the right position to be able to speak definitively about something. Like yu ngayarli who isn't allowed to speak definitively about Marra, even though I'm quite sure she's one of the best speakers around.

I guess it's just a politeness and etiquette thing. Much like your observation on the English 'I think I will go now'.

Wanim yu rekin?

3:27 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Thank you Wamutwamut...
Do you think it might also have to do with having a less fixed view about what you can make happen, or maybe what exists or will exist being more subject to change, like 'maitbi minbala gada gu la shop afta'......if you said in english, 'we might go to the shop afterwards' you would say it because you hadnt made up your mind yet... where is seems in Kriol that it is more a matter of 'there could be unforseen factors influencing this action so who am I to say it will defintiely happen' or something lajigat???
....maybe this is the same thing as being socially aware that you can't control all factors and should presume to unless you are biges boswan...

4:11 pm  
Anonymous bulanjdjan said...

Hey Soph,

I reckon Mood/Modality in Kriol is fascinating, but I don't really have anything solid to contribute. My interest peaked while trying to learn to speak Kriol and wondering how to translate English modal verbs/auxiliaries into Kriol. I'm still not all that sure how it's done!

And I agree with Greg, demonstrating deference is heavily codified and practiced in Aboriginal society, with typical markers being speaking slowly/softly, not making eye-contact and giving vague answers. I remember Nick Evans giving an example in a lecture once of a pair of men who were in a respect relationship, where they spied a kangaroo. The younger man said to the older "maybe there's an animal over in that direction, or maybe not. I might look over that way and when I look back someone might have caused the animal to die" when the most direct (= familiar relationship) way would be to say "spear it!"

This also accounts for Aboriginal conduct in formal white settings, e.g. the courtroom, where people speak quietly, head bowed, giving vague answers. Of course notions of shame are also tied in with this behaviour, but I think that 'shame' and 'deference' are two sides of the same coin.

So, yeah, 'maitbi' is a hedge, just as 'you know?' a pragmatic strategy, rather than an indicator that the speaker doesn't know what they're on about.

And back to your 'maitbi' and predicting the future, I don't know if *any* statement made about the future is considered to be a 'fact'. I get the same 'maybe this will happen' reading from 'Yunmi gu shop afta', which is in the present tense. Intention is most certainly expressed, but would anyone really be surprised if it didn't? Maybe the question (and answer) aren't really linguistic, but I'd be really interested to hear what your findings on it are!

3:01 pm  
Blogger Wamut said...

hey sarah,

interesting post. i didn't really think about the impact that kinship relationships have on the situation.

and i'm interested to hear about your questions about mood and modality in kriol... are there any specific questions you could throw out there? i'd be keen to try and help :-)

7:37 pm  
Blogger Wamut said...


I hope yu baba is doing okay and that you are too. Thinking of you.


2:52 pm  
Blogger Catalin said...

I can't comment on maitbi, but it makes me think of the Arabic word inshallah, literally "god-willing" but used quite constantly with any future plans, whether big or tiny, distant or immediate.

I think Bulanjdjan makes a good point about the respect issue. In English saying "I think" or turning something into a question ("isn't it?") are ways of being polite becaue it's politer not to be too terribly sure. That must be because being sure doesn't allow room for disagreement without forcing the other person to contradict you.

Slightly different from the politeness argument is the perspective of mygrandfather who liked to say, "Only a fool is positive," believing that intelligent people always leave themselves room to change their minds.

I guess both are about face-saving, aren't they? For the speaker and the listener....

7:42 pm  
Blogger Sophie said...

Looking through ( quite a small amount) of data, these theories predict that if a person is an 'owner' for some information , likelihood is they wouldnt be as inclined to use 'maitbi' to 'soften' the interaction- and lo, it seems to be so. In narrative structure ( as you can imagine) there seems to be much less use of the word, as opposed to discourse were it is everrryywhere....so when a person is telling a story or lecturing it hasn't turned up once ( but I have only looked at one source so far), it is so exciting actually getting to some language analysis for once!! Thank you for your comments ( I will publish them all hehehe)...Burlanjdjan will you be at Pearl Beach in March??

9:20 am  

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