In every extended family there is someone whose presence creates awkwardness. Everyone has that peculiar relative who makes every family gathering difficult. When that person is around, you will go to great lengths to avoid conversation. This aspect of family dynamics seems to be universal. One culture, in fact, recognizes this and developed a language specifically designed for those awkward conversations.
Travel to Australia’s Norther Territory, and you will encounter the Warlpiri people. This aboriginal tribe consists of about 5,000 – 6,000 members. The Warlpiri language is one of the largest aboriginal languages in Australia, with about 3,000 native speakers.
The language has many curious characteristics. There is, for example, a speech register known as Tjiwirri used in initiation rites in which words refer to their opposites. (Read more about Tjiwirri at Learn Fun Facts.)
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the language stems from the cultural view of awkward relationships. The Warlpiri consider it impolite or shameful to have a conversation with certain relatives. A man should not speak directly with his mother-in-law, for example.
Recognizing that despite one’s best efforts, some social interactions are unavoidable, the Warlpiri have developed their own sub-language for the occasion. It is called the Avoidance Register. It uses the same grammar as ordinary conversation, but the permissible number of words is greatly reduced. They also have a very extensive system of sign language that can be employed to avoid verbal interaction with certain people.
Since the Warlpiri people have a long and impressive history, it seems their customs and language have served them well. If the thought of having to converse with that awkward relative at your next family reunion makes your palms sweat, you might consider seeing if you can move the venue to Australia’s Northern Territory so you can enjoy a good, old-fashioned Warlpiri family gathering.
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Read more fun facts about languages here.
Read more fun facts about curious customs here.