Picture: Kangaroo. Walking along one day on the newly-discovered coast of Australia, Captain Cook saw an extraordinary animal leaping through the bush.
“What’s that?” he asked one of the aborigines accompanying him.
“Uh – gangurru.” he replied – or something like that. Captain Cook duly noted down the name of the peculiar beast as ‘Kangaroo’.
Some time later, Cook had the opportunity to compare notes with Captain King, and mentioned the kangaroo.
“No, no, Cook”, said King, “the word for that animal is ‘meenuah’ – I’ve checked it carefully.
“So what does ‘kangaroo’ mean?”
“Well, I think,” said King “it probably means something like ‘I don’t know’…”

But it was too late, and so ever since,  the English word ‘kangaroo’ has been based on a misunderstanding, and really means ‘I don’t know’. At any rate, that’s how the story (probably apocryphal) goes.

It may well have been this story which Quine had in mind when he came up with the ‘Gavagai’ example used in ‘Word and Object’. The word has achieved a kind of fame in itself: there is now a species of beetle named after it, and it was used by Umberto Eco as the name of a minor character in his novel ‘Baudolino’.

Quine was concerned to give a fundamental explanation of how we manage to use words: ‘how surface irritations generate, through language, one’s knowledge of the world’. He addressed in particular the problem of radical translation – how we can find a translation for words in an entirely unknown language which has no known correspondence with our own. Utterances such as ‘ouch’, he suggested, are relatively straightforward – the word properly corresponds with the occurence of pain. But other words, even nouns, do not correspond so exactly to the pattern of stimuli we happen to be experiencing at the time.

Suppose we have a linguistic explorer and a native subject: a rabbit runs past and the native exclaims ‘Gavagai!’. The linguist forms the reasonable hypothesis that ‘Gavagai’ means ‘rabbit’, but how can he be sure? Putting aside some difficulties about ‘yes’ and ‘no’, he can ask the native in a series of different situations the simple question ‘Gavagai?’ and see what responses he gets.

Quine wants to build up from ‘stimulus meaning’, which is equivalent to a list of all the stimuli which would prompt the native to say ‘yes’ in response to the stereotyped question, to more complex and natural kinds of meaning – ‘occasion sentences’ which are true in particular sets of immediate circumstances (eg when a rabbit is present) and ‘standing sentences’ which are true irrespective of what happens to be going on around us at the moment, for example.

But the upward path proves unexpectedly difficult. As a matter of fact, the native’s tendency to agree may be influenced by extraneous factors – he may have seen a rabbit a few minutes before and hence be prepared to accept a mere rustling in the grass as sufficient evidence. Or he may observe a characteristic ‘rabbit fly’ unknown to the linguist which betokens the presence of a rabbit even in the absence of any other evidence. Or perhaps he dissents, not because he thinks there isn’t a rabbit, but because he presumes the linguist to be a hunter and there isn’t at the moment a clear shot available.

But even if we can get round these difficulties, there simply is no guarantee that any finite set of observations pin down the correct meaning of the word ‘gavagai’. Even if we can establish identity if stimulus meanings, we cannot thereby verify ‘intrasubjective synonymy’ of ‘gavagai’ and ‘rabbit’. The native may use the word in exactly those situations in which the linguist would use the word ‘rabbit’, but it could still mean something different: ‘temporal section of a rabbit’ or ‘set of undetached rabbit parts’. For that matter, it could mean ‘rabbit or dalek’ or ‘rabbit before the year 3000 and bear after that’. Ultimately Quine affirms the ‘indeterminacy of translation’ – we cannot provide certain radical translations (and since translation is, for Quine, much the same as understanding, we can never be sure we have correctly understood any linguistic utterance either).

A natural reaction to this disastrous conclusion is incredulity. Yes, of course, some degree of uncertainty attaches to everything; yes, we can always come up with a fantastic alternative meaning for any sentence which is logically consistent with the circumstances, but so what? We just know that in practice translation is possible. There are two things which can be said in reply.

First, problems of translation and misunderstanding are not as exceptional as all that. It would be entirely possible for an Englishman and an American to have lengthy conversations about robins without realising that the word refers to entirely different birds on different sides of the Atlantic (hence, in part, the bemusement which generally creeps over a British audience during one particular scene in ‘Mary Poppins’); or indeed, to talk about turtles without realising that one used the word in a significantly more inclusive sense than the other.

But second, Quine never denied that in ordinary conversation and translation we seem to manage pretty well – the question is how, exactly? It’s not difficult to explain that once you have seen enough examples of the use of ‘gavagai’ the meaning becomes obvious – but stating exactly how it becomes obvious, and how all those implausible alternatives are recognised as implausible, is extremely difficult, as the creators of translation programs have found. One can liken Quine’s attitude to translation to Hume’s puzzlement over induction – it seems to work: indeed, without it we should be in grave difficulty, but why it works is an utter mystery.

To quote one last practical example, we can return to poor old Captain Cook. Although the legend of his misunderstanding still thrives, it appears from more recent research that in fact the word he heard all those years ago probably did mean ‘kangaroo’ in a particular local dialect after all. So what about Captain King’s ‘meenuah’? It turns out that the word he was reporting was probably one that meant, not ‘kangaroo’, but ‘edible animal’…

One Comment

  1. 1. Peter says:

    Ivodne Galatea says:

    I thought I should write to you (as a native of the country) and tell you that in fact Kangaroo means “large grey kangaroo” in the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr of the area of Cooktown (as discovered by Haviland 40 years ago).

    Here’s a a scan from Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher pages 157-160 to tell the full story

    “The Guugu Yimithirr language has one famous claim to fame, and is consequently celebrated throughout the wide world of trivial pursuits. The story runs roughly like this. In July 1770, Captain Cook’s Endeavour was grounded off the northeastern coast of Australia, near the mouth of a river soon to be named Endeavour, in a place that was later to become Cooktown. During the weeks when the ship was being repaired, Captain Cook and his crew made contact with the native population of the continent, both human and marsupial. With the former, relations were at first rather cordial. Cook writes in his diary on July 10, 1770:

    “in the A.M. four of the Natives came down to the Sandy point on the North side of the Harbour, having along with them a small wooden Canoe with Outriggers, in which they seem’d to be employed striking fish. They were wholy naked, their Skins the Colour of Wood soot. Their Hair was black, lank, and cropt short, and neither wooly nor Frizled. Some part of their Bodys had been painted with red, and one of them had his upper lip and breast painted with Streakes of white. Their features were far from being disagreeable; their Voices were soft and Tunable.”

    The other natives were treated with somewhat less respect. In the Account of the Voyages, which was based on the diaries of Cook and his officers, we read the following description for what unfolded later that week:

    “Mr. Gore, who went out this day with his gun, had the good fortune to kill one of the animals which had been so much the subject of our speculation — The head, neck, and shoulders, are very small in proportion to the other parts of the body; the tail is nearly as long as the body, thick near the rump, and tapering towards the end: the fore-legs of this individual were only eight inches long, and the hind-legs two and twenty: its progress is by successive leaps or hops, of a great length, in an erect posture; the skin is covered with a short fur, of a dark mouse or grey colour, excepting the head and ears, which bear a slight resemblance to those of a hare. This animal is called by the natives Kanguroo. The next day, our Kanguroo was dressed for dinner, and proved most excellent meat.”

    The Endeavour returned to England the following year with the skins of two kangaroos, and the animal painter George Stubbs was commissioned to do a likeness. Stubbs’s kangaroo immediately caught the publics imagination, and the animal shot into celebrity. Eighteen years later, the excitement reached fever pitch when the first living specimen, “the wonderful Kanguroo from Botany Bay,” arrived in London and was displayed in the Haymarket. English thus gained its first word of Australian aboriginal origin, and as the fame of the animal spread to other countries, “kangaroo” became the most prominent feature of international vocabulary that was exported by a native language of Australia.

    Or was it?

    While the kangaroo’s enduring popularity in the Old World was not a matter for doubt, the authenticity of the word’s roots in Australia soon came under suspicion. For when later Australian explorers spotted the animal in other parts of the continent, the local Aborigines never came up with anything remotely similar to “kangaroo.” Natives the length and breadth of Australia didn’t even recognize the word, and some of them actually assumed they were being taught the English name for the animal when they heard it. Since many different native languages were spoken across the continent, the fact that the Aborigines in other parts of Australia did not recognize the word was not, in itself, so suspicious. But most damaging to the credibility of “kangaroo” was the report of another explorer, Captain Philip Parker King, who visited the mouth of the very same Endeavour River in 1820, fifty years after Cook had left. When Captain King asked the Aborigines he met there what the animal was called, he was given a completely different name from what Cook had recorded. King transcribed the name in his own diary as “minnar” or “meenuah.”

    So who were those natives with voices soft and tunable who had given Cook the word “kanguroo” in 1770, and what was their language? Or had Cook simply been duped? By the mid-nineteenth century, skepticism about the authenticity of the word was rife. In 1850, John Crawfurd, a distinguished Orientalist and Stamford Raffles’s successor as the resident of Singapore, wrote in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia that “it is very remarkable that this word, supposed to be Australian, is not to be found as the name of this singular marsupial animal in any language of Australia. Cook and his companions, therefore, when they gave it this name, must have made some mistake, but of what nature cannot be conjectured.” Myths and legends of all kinds soon spread. The most famous version, beloved of comedians unto this day, is that “kangaroo” was the phrase for “I don’t understand,” the answer allegedly given by the bemused natives to Cook’s question “What is this animal called?”

    More responsible lexicographers elected to remain cautious, and the Oxford English Dictionary hedges with appropriate elegance in the following definition, which—at the time I’m writing—still appears in the online edition: “Kangaroo: stated to have been the name in a native Australian language. Cook and Banks believed it to be the name given to the animal by the natives at Endeavour River, Queensland.”

    The mystery from Down Under was eventually resolved in 1971, when the anthropologist John Haviland began an intensive study of Guugu Yimithirr, a language spoken by an aboriginal community of about a thousand people who these days live some thirty miles north of Cooktown, but who previously occupied the territory near the Endeavour River. Haviland found that there is one particular type of large gray kangaroo whose name in Guugu Yimithirr is gangurru. The paternity of the name could thus no longer be in doubt. But if so, why wasn’t Captain King given the same name by the speakers of the same language when he visited in 1820? As it happens, the large gray gangurru that Cook’s party spotted is only rarely seen near the coast, so King probably pointed at a different type of kangaroo, which has a different name in Guugu Yimithirr. But we will never know which type of kangaroo it was that King saw, because the word he recorded, “minnar” or “meenuah,” was no doubt minha, the general term that means “meat” or “edible animal.”
    So Captain Cook was not duped. His linguistic observations are now rehabilitated, and in consequence, Guugu Yimithirr, the language that bequeathed to international vocabulary its most famous aboriginal icon, has won a place in the hearts and minds of trivia addicts all over the world.

    Thanks, Ivodne.

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