Posted on 19 February 2019

Why are there spelling variations in Indigenous words?

In Newtown, Sydney, there is a sign near the train station that reads ‘the land of the Cadigal people of the Eora nation’. In Stanmore, Sydney, about 2km away, there is a sign that proclaims ‘the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation’. This is the same Indigenous group, so why are there different spellings? The important factor at play here is the difference between orthography and pronunciation. Orthography is the word used to refer to a language’s spelling system. Pronunciation is the way the words are spoken. Both of these have an effect on why it can be spelt Gadigal or Cadigal. So we’re going to start with pronunciation. The first step to understanding the difference is a little exercise. Try saying both Cadigal (with a ‘k’ sound at the start) and Gadigal (with a ‘g’ sound) out loud. Then say them 5 times fast. They’ll sound similar, but you can probably still hear the difference. Now, just say the ‘k’ sound and then the ‘g’ sound, but put your fingers on your Adam's apple when you do. Notice the difference? When you say the ‘g’ sound, you should feel it vibrate slightly. With ‘k’ it will not. In linguistics, this is called voicing, where the vocal cords vibrate while producing a sound. The ‘g’ sound is voiced, so you can feel the vibration, while the ‘k’ sound is unvoiced, so there is no vibration. Apart from voicing, these two sounds are identical -- your tongue, lips, etc., are doing all the same things. It’s the vibration of the vocal cords that differentiates them. In English this difference is important -- it is used to distinguish meaning -- game and came are clearly different words. But, in many Indigenous languages, this voicing does not make a distinguishing difference in meaning. So if you pronounce Gadigal with a ‘k’ sound or a ‘g’ sound -- it is still the same word. It retains exactly the same meaning, despite the different sound. So why don’t we just use the same spelling? This is where we move into the orthographic part of the answer. As any English speaker who has been in a spelling bee, been stuck without spellcheck, or tried to learn a foreign language like French knows, orthography often isn’t perfect. Recommendation has two m’s in it – but it’s not pronounced recom-mendation. Gnome has a silent ‘g’ in it, and knight a silent ‘k’. This is because the Latin alphabet was not crafted for English -- it was adapted for English (and French as well). Prior to colonisation, Indigenous languages were oral. The English-speaking settlers who were the first to write down Indigenous languages naturally used the English alphabet. The spelling of many Indigenous words is what an English speaker believed they heard when listening -- and English speakers distinguish between ‘k’ and ‘g’. So, they wrote what they thought they heard, leading to some wild inconsistencies in records. It’s important to remember that Indigenous Australian languages are actually different languages, despite being written in the same alphabet as English. Like French words in English, they don’t necessarily follow the same rules, and the spelling doesn’t always match perfectly to the pronunciation.

Posted on 19 February 2019

Parma, parmi or parmo. Which one is correct?

Some of the biggest debates in our fair nation revolve around different ways we refer to classic foods. Take, for example, the humble sausage sandwich, or sausage in bread, or sausage sizzle... To really rile a person up, you could refer to a potato cake as a potato scallop, or a potato fritter even. But that controversy is to remain unaddressed today. Another Aussie pastime is shortening of words. But how do we decide which suffix applies? And when two are competing, how do we choose the victor? Australians love to add an -o on the end of an existing, generally shortened word to create a colloquial form of it to use instead. This was first used in occupational names of itinerant street vendors such as the rabbit-oh and bottle-oh. Such vendors announced their arrival by crying out their wares followed by 'oh' – Rabbit Oh!, Bottle Oh!, Milk Oh!, etc. Later it was added to the first syllable of multisyllabic words, such as arvo, afternoon; Salvo, Salvation Army officer; and smoko, smoking break. The -o suffix alternates with the -ie suffix, which is used in pretty much the same manner, though often with a diminutive sense as well, as in doggie, a dog and kiddie, a small child. This is common throughout all Englishes but in Australia we have really taken to it and use it to create colloquial forms of ordinary words where the sense of smallness is not present, such as Aussie, an Australian; brickie, a bricklayer; mozzie, a mosquito; and truckie, a truck driver. There are some words which fluctuate between an -ie ending and a -y ending, such as cabbieauntie, or bogie. The -ie ending is to be preferred for noun forms which need to be distinguished from homophonic adjectives, such as chewie (chewing gum) as opposed to chewy (tough). Very few words can take both suffixes – flanno/flannie, sammo/sammie and rellie/rello are a few of the exceptions. Of course, there is a very big difference between a sicko and a sickie! And then there is -a or -er. This is a suffix added to words that have been shortened, generally to the first syllable, and sometimes changed phonetically, to create colloquial forms, as in acker (academic) and sanger (sandwich). So when faced with the not-so-unique conundrum of whether a chicken parmigiana down at the local pub is a parma, a parmi  (or parmie or parmy) or parmo, the answer is more than likely to be 'it depends'. It depends on where you are, who you're talking to and whether you are understood. But after a quick poll around the table, we found that we preferred parma. But if we were in South Australia, it would have been parmi…