24 January 2011


A generation after the upheaval of 1788 and the arrival of the First Fleet, and around 150 km north of Sydney, Lancelot Edward Threlkeld was superintending the outpost he had set up at what is now Belmont on Lake Macquarie on behalf of the London Missionary Society. The purpose was to make contact with the local indigenous people and to undertake all that missionaries normally hope to do. Threlkeld believed that he would better achieve this objective if he could communicate, if he himself learnt the language of the area. And he assiduously applied himself to doing this, and recorded his language acquisition in publications spanning over thirty years from 1825 until his death in 1859. These included a grammar, sample sentences, and translations of two of the Gospels as well as various prayers. His was a major achievement, and opened up the study of Australian indigenous languages.
Threlkeld was helped in particular by one man, Biraban, also known as McGill, who was fluent in English having been a servant at the Military Barracks in Sydney in his boyhood. His name meant ‘eaglehawk’, or ‘wedge-tailed eagle’. Or perhaps this word really signified any big bird, as the same word meant ‘emu’ in languages south of Sydney:
"birribain" biriban = "emu" emu  : KAOL Ridley [WODI] [:111:31] [Wodi]
"Birre.bine" biriban = "Emu" emu  : Larmer (RSNSW) BBay [:225.4:34] [DYRGN]
"Birriban" biriban = "Emu " emu  : Russell: Recollections [:25:2] [Gga]
Biraban had a wife, Patty. Her name might have been purely an English name, or perhaps an English spelling of an indigenous word. Some translation possibilities include ‘bite’, ‘more’ and ‘snake’, as the following references suggest:
"puttilliko" badi-li-gu = "to bite." bite  : Tkld AWA Aust Voc  [:61:51] [Awa]
"buttikaġ" badi-gang = "any animal; ass, ox" bite-thing  animal: Tkld AWA Lex [:206:9] [Awa]
"butti" badi = "more; to do more ; to continue the action" keep on  -badi = more: Tkld AWA Lex [:206:7] [Awa]
"buttêr" badir = "Carpet snake" snake  carpet: Mathews DARK 1903 [:281.1:10.2] [Dark]
"Poteer" badiya = "Snake" snake  : King, C.M. [:3:2] [BPI]
Amongst the mass of Threlkeld material there are revealing insights. One is provided in the following series of sample sentences. There was no commentary on the circumstances under which they were collected, but they follow one after the other, as if descriptive of a particular event or moment. 
Minnahring tin be kah-kah-lah buk-kah? 
minaring-din bi gagala baga
What is from thou wast furious.?
On what account was't thou so furious?
Ngukung tin bahng kahkahlah bukkah.
ngugang-din bang gagala baga
Wife from I was furious.
On account of Wife I was furious.
Minnahring tin ngahtohng. (an Idiom.) 
minaring-din ngadang
What is from no one. 
From no cause.
Minnabring ko be noun torah? 
minaring-gu bi-nun durá
What is for thou her pierced?
What didst thou pierce her with?
Kotah ro, Wahre ko, Bibi to.
gadaru warayi-gu bibi-du
Waddy with, Spear for, Axe has. 
With a Waddy; Spear The Axe has.
Minnahring tin be noun torah?
minaring-din bi-nun durá
What is from thou her pierced?
From what cause didst thou spear her?
New-wahrah kahn to bahng turah bounnoun.
nyuwara-gan-du bang durá bunun
Anger being have I pierced her.
Through anger, I speared her.
These are unchanged from the original, apart from the re-spelt second line in each group.


The following book on Egyptian hieroglyphs:

Budge, Ernest Alfred, Sir. 1958. Egyptian language: easy lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphics with sign list. London: Routhledge & Kegan Paul., page 114,
provides a glimpse at much the same subject.:

åu-f h·er Xat.bu taif h·emt

He slew his wife, 

åu-f h·er Xaa - set na en åu

he threw her [to] the dogs’.

What can one say, other than what the French have done:
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Jeremy Steele
Monday 24 January 2011


pkw said...

Biriban was first called We-pohng according to U of Newcastle site, written by David Andrews Roberts: source not cited. Do you have any information about this name? Kay

pkw said...

Biriban was first called We-pohng according to U of Newcastle site, written by David Andrews Roberts: source not cited. Do you have any information about this name?

pkw said...

This name is also cited by Gunson in Biography on DAAO site:(ver updated 2007-11-14, but not in 2009-08-12 update. ) It may have come from ?Threlkeld's 1850 Reminiscences. His wife was Ti-pah-mah-ah according to Gunson/ Threlkeld

pkw said...

KVS did the 2009 update of DOAAO