Linguistics Terms

Featured Languages



Corroboree (Australia): an Aboriginal festival celebration where people sing, dance, and tell stories in the language of the ancestors

Delek (Goulburn Island): white clay which the men, women, and children mark themselves as an act of cultural significance

Ddraig Goch (Welsh): the red “Welsh dragon,” an ancient symbol of Wales that appears on the Welsh flag

Eisteddfod (Welsh): annual festival of Welsh culture dating back to the Middle Ages. Up to 150,000 people gather to celebrate the Welsh language and culture and enjoy plays, concerts, games, rides, and competitions, all in Welsh.

Hula (Hawaiian): dance form, including many different styles, always accompanied by words that are sung or chanted

Kumu Hula (Hawaiian): hula master, such as Keali’i Reichel, shown in Language Matters

Kupuna (Hawaiian): elder, meant to be respected and honored, such as kupuna Arline W. Eaton, interviewed in Language Matters

Kurrula (Mawng): saltwater

Man-yawok (Kunwinjku): cheeky yam; grasshopper species (Katydid) that calls out when one should gather cheeky yams; end of the season when cheeky yams are ready to eat – three meanings for the same word, demonstrating Kunwinjku ecological knowledge

Mele (Hawaiian): chants of Polynesian origins, including elevated speech forms such as songs and poems. From giving thanks to calling on the dead, mele come in many forms and have many different uses.

Ngalyurr (Kunwinjku): species known as Leichhardt’s grasshopper; the herb species that grasshopper eats; and the onset of the wet season when that grasshopper appears – three meanings for the same word, an example of ecological knowledge encoded in the Kunwinjku language

Pa (Hawaiian): word that can mean “wall,” “yard,” “dish,” “the touch of wind on your skin” and more, demonstrating the many interlocking, poetic meanings possible in a single Hawaiian word, as explained by Hawaiian linguist Puakea Nogelmeier in Language Matters.

Pūnana Leo (Hawaiian): “language nests,” or language immersion preschools, that has helped spur the revival of Hawaiian, modeled on the Kohanga reo language nests pioneered by the Māori in New Zealand.

Stomp (Welsh): Welsh poetry slam held every year at the Eisteddfod, shown in Language Matters

Warramurrungunji (Australia): creation myth about the original female ancestor of Aboriginal people, who came out of the sea onto dry land and sowed the earth with her children. Warramurrungunji gave her children the gift of language and taught them who should speak which languages – enshrining the idea that language and identity are connected, and celebrating diversity.

Yamannganu Mirlawurda (Wurdirrk): “Give me fire” — words of the extinct language Wurdirrk remembered on film by Charlie Mangulda in Language Matters

Yma O Hyd (Welsh): “Here For Ever,” famous Welsh-language anthem sung by Dafydd Iwan, who is interviewed in Language Matters


Linguistics Terms

Creation Story: a narrative typically describing the beginning of the world and the emergence of the first humans, found in many different cultures. In Language Matters, Charlie Mangulda narrates the Warramurrungunji creation story in Amurdak – a story with as much significance in north-western Arnhem Land, Australia, as the story of Genesis and Adam and Eve has in many Western cultures.

Dominant Language: a language backed by overwhelming official, commercial, and cultural forces, usually expanding within and across countries at the expense of smaller languages. English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Hindi are prime examples.

“Double L”: a common sound in Welsh (as in “Llewelyn”), known by linguists as a voiceless lateral consonant and notoriously difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Linguist David Crystal demonstrates how to do it in Language Matters: form an L, breathe in, feel the air around the sides of your tongue, and blow out!

Endangered Language: a language which faces the threat of extinction if it continues to lose spheres of use and speakers, particularly among children. Read more…

Extinct Language: A language with no remaining fluent native speakers. Sometimes called sleeping or dormant, extinct languages may still be remembered through individual words, place names, ritual use, archival materials, or even by partial speakers or “hearers.”

Immersion School: a school where a given language is the medium of all or almost all instruction and is explicitly meant to be used in all contexts, like the Nāwahī school in Hawai‘i shown in Language Matters.

Last Speaker: typically the last fluent, native speaker of a language, like Charlie Mangulda, the last speaker of Amurdak, featured in Language Matters.

Language vs. Dialect: a language is typically defined by linguists as being “mutually unintelligible” with any other language – speakers of different dialects can understand each other, even with difficulty, while speakers of two different languages may not. In practice, mutual intelligibility depends on many factors, and the definition of “language” and “dialect” may depend on political and cultural considerations – hence the famous quote, originally in Yiddish, A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un a flot. (A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.)

Language Documentation: recording, processing, and archiving the language practices of a community through writing, audio, and video recordings, usually undertaken by linguists on endangered languages. Read more…

Language Revitalization: community efforts to revive a language, usually extinct or severely endangered, often with a focus on creating new fluent speakers. Similar terms include “language maintenance,” “language reclamation,” and “language revival.” Read more…

Official Language: a language legally recognized by a regional or national government, e.g. Hawaiian in the state of Hawai‘i, Welsh in the UK. Though often an important first step, official recognition does not necessarily guarantee the use of a language in official documents, education, signage, the legal system etc.

Multilingualism: the ability to speak more than one language at a fluent or native level. Read more…

Song Man: Aboriginal poet who keeps traditional wisdom and storytelling alive through song. Solomon Nangamu, shown in Language Matters, is a song man who preserves the Manangkardi language through performance, even though the language has not been spoken for generations.

Featured Languages

Amurdak: Aboriginal language, heard in the Warramurrungunji creation story in Language Matters. Amurdak has one remaining speaker, Charlie Mangulda of Goulburn Island, Australia.

Hawaiian: Polynesian language, officially recognized in the state of Hawai‘i, with over 10,000 speakers, up from about 1,500 in 1983 due to the Hawaiian cultural renaissance

Kunwinjku: Aboriginal language with under 2,000 speakers in Arnhem Land, Australia, including Goulburn Island

Mawng: Aboriginal language with fewer than 300 speakers, the most commonly used language on Goulburn Island. Sung by Johnny Namayiwa in Language Matters.

Welsh: Celtic language, officially recognized in the United Kingdom, surrounded by English but bolstered by the Welsh language movement since the 1960s, though the total number of speakers has still fallen, according to a census, from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011. (Possible reasons for the drop include migration patters, and lack of use after children leave the education system.)

Wurdirrk: Extinct Australian Aboriginal language, from which Charlie Mangulda remembers just a few words in Language Matters: Yamannganu mirlawurda “Give me fire.”