When we enter a new culture, we are aware that there will be cultural differences and often think just of big things like clothing, dancing, singing, and religion. We all know that languages are different, but did you know that the way we use languages, and the manners of language, can also be frustratingly different? As I lived as a Balanda (white person) in a Yolŋu (Indigenous) society in Northeast Arnhem Land, I had to be attuned to these differences and adapt if I was going to truly make friends.
One of the unnerving things about entering into a remote Yolŋu society is that they do not “do” greetings and farewells. When you start learning the language, there is no greeting to learn – which is always the first thing we’re taught to learn, right? However, because Yolŋu observed the discomfort of Balanda who didn’t know how to begin speaking without a greeting, they made one up – nhämirr nhe. It literally means, ‘What condition are you?” (The equivalent of “how are you?”) They also adopted djuṯtjuṯnha, ‘off you go,’ as a farewell. Sometimes you hear nearby Yolŋu children saying “Nhämirr nhe?” to each other and then laughing uproariously. By saying that to each other, they are pretending to be Balanda.
One day, I was driving back into Galiwin’ku [on Elcho Island] with a friend in her Toyota 4WD truck. We were a bit out of town when we came across an old man, walking along the very dusty road, using a big stick to help him. We stopped and called, in English, “Hullo, would you like a ride?” As he hopped in, he said, “What does hullo mean?” Well, have you ever tried to give a meaning to hullo? We paused for slightly too long, not knowing how to answer, when he said, “See! You Balanda are always saying things that have no meaning! Hullo, hullo, goodbye, goodbye!”
My friend and I chuckled, and very shortly, we arrived at his drop-off point. Out he hopped and saying not a word, he walked off. I hadn’t even been there a year at this point, so I was having a battle in my inner being not to say anything. Finally, I said weakly, “Bye.” Without turning, the old man just gave a frustrated swish of his hand as if to say, “Haven’t you learned anything yet?”
Most Yolŋu do understand our discomfort and will answer us as we say goodbye to them. But one day, I was walking down the hill with a very good Yolŋu friend, and we were chatting about something. There came a pause in the conversation, and suddenly my friend just left me, veering off to the road on the right. No goodbye, see you later, tata, djuṯtjuṯnha – nothing. At first, I felt somewhat confronted, and then I nearly punched the air with delight. At last, this friend had accepted me so much, she was treating me as another Yolŋu!
Marilyn (Mally) McLellan spent more than 40 years as a teacher/linguist/Bible translation facilitator, primarily in Indigenous languages.