Linguistics: An Introduction

By William B. McGregor



4.1 — Terms for policeman in Australian languages

Who are these people?
Some people call them cops
Some people call them police
Back home in Broome
We call them linjoo

(M. Manolis, Linjoo Blues)

In the Nyulnyulan languages of Dampier Land (where Broome is located), the cognate terms linyju (Nyikina, Warrwa), linju (Yawuru), linyj (Nyulnyul, Jabirrjabirr), liinyj(a) (Bardi), and linja (Jawi) are used for ‘policeman’ — this word refers to sour, bitter, or salty tastes.


Processes of formation of words for ‘policeman’ in Australian Aboriginal languages (which lacked the concept prior to colonisaton) include almost all processes of word formation discussed in Chapter 4:

  1. borrowing
  2. meaning extension
  3. coinage
  4. derivation
  5. compounding

A number of recurrent meaning characteristics are identifiable.

1. Borrowing

A number of Australian languages have borrowed terms from English, most commonly the word policeman. The map shows the distributions of English borrowings, which frequently exist along side of non-borrowed terms.

Distribution of borrowings of the term ‘policeman’. (Click for larger version.)

2. Meaning extension

Sometimes the meaning of an existing lexical item in a language is extended to cover ‘policeman’. The most common extensions are:

3. Coinage of new terms

Coinage refers to cases in which a term appears to be a pure invention, not based on any known term in the language or any other languages. Possible examples include jurrburlara in Payungu and Thalanyji (Pama-Nyungan, Western Australia), nyurdularra in Tharrgari (Pama-Nyungan, Western Australia), jarnkarra in Panyjima (Pama-Nyungan, Western Australia), and minaypura in Atampaya Uradhi (Pama-Nyungan, North Queensland). (It is of course always possible that terms such as these are not invented out of the blue, but we simply do not know what the basis for their formation is.)

4. Derivation

Many terms for ‘policeman’ involve a derivational affix attached to an existing word in the language. Thus the term in Wunambal and Unggumi (Worrorran, Kimberley) is yirrgal-ngarri (rope-with), a derived form of yirrgal ‘rope’. In some languages the term is a derived form of a verb, as in mirn-mird-gali (tie:up-tie:up-er) in Gooniyandi (Bunuban, Kimberley), mern-merd-kale-ny (tie:up-tie:up-er-masculine) in Kija (Jarrakan, Kimberley), and murd-murd-galu in (tie:up-tie:up-er) in Worlaja (Worrorran, Kimberley); literally these terms mean something like ‘tier-uper’.

5. Compounding

Compounding is another frequently used process for the formation of terms for ‘policeman’. Some examples are: wirtirr-ngumpa ‘stern-face’ in Nyangumarta (Pama-Nyungan, Western Australia), tharra malka ‘thigh stripe/mark’ in Diyari (Pama-Nyungan, South Australia), and wandu-wurril ‘hat-turned up/crossways, lopsided’ in Kuuku Yalanyji (Pama-Nyungan, North Queensland).

Main features of meaning

Semantic bases for terms for ‘policeman’. (Click for larger version.)

For further information see the following article (unfortunately not available on-line):

McGregor, W. B. (2000), ‘Cockatoos, chaining-horsemen and mud-eaters: terms for ‘policeman’ in Australian Aboriginal languages’. Anthropos, 95, 3-22.

Updated: Feb. 11, 2009