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Untie mi, Barry

A munanga (non-Aboriginal) friend was telling me a funny story the other day.  She got a text message from a Kriol-speaking relative but she didn’t know who it was from. The number wasn’t stored in her phone. So she replied with a ‘who’s this?’ type message and then the reply came…

“Untie mi, Barry”

This SMS caused quite a bit of confusion. Untie him? Why, what’s happened? Has he been locked up? Is someone holding him captive? Knowing that Kriol speakers are susceptible to not expressing themselves perfectly clearly over text messages, she didn’t completely panic. But still… ‘Untie me, Barry’?

After going back to the message about 5 times, finally it clicked. My friend was reading the stress wrong and the sender was using non-English spelling to show that he was ‘writing’ in Kriol (Kriol being the main language spoken by about 20,000 people in Northern Australia).

Finally, my friend got the stress and inflection right and decoded the message:

Aunty, Me: Barry!

(In standard Kriol spelling, it would read: Anti, mi: Barry.)

I had a good chuckle when my friend told me this story.  But from a linguistic perspective, I love that Kriol speakers (as well as other Indigenous language speakers) are getting into new literacy practices like you get with text messaging, email and facebook. These writing forms have a lot more in common with spoken language than traditional writing forms like letter-writing and prose do. So naturally, Kriol speakers want to capture Kriol in their text messages. But unless you’ve learned the standard writing system (only some have), then you just have to approximate and do the best you can. In terms of language development, this is exciting because it may mean that new standardised spellings may evolve, naturally.

But in the meantime, Barry’s Aunty is happy that Barry isn’t tied up at all. And next time he texts her, she’ll know who it is…

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