22 November 2015


The Tasmanian Bayala database keeps throwing up small insights into the Tasmanian languages, and suggests the launching of a goose chase.

Your Amateur Researcher happened to be checking the word ‘munwaddia’, given as meaning ‘feather’.

Fig. 1 ‘Feather’

When this word is analysed into what are assumed to be its component parts, in this case fixing mun- as the stem, the database automatically throws up other words beginning the same way.

Apart from ‘feather’ beginning mun-, there are ‘flour’ and ‘white’ and ‘parrot’, seen in the second column in Fig. 2:

Fig. 2 Other mun... words

What can flour, white and parrot possibly have in common?

White birds and their feathers, and white flour

Fig. 3 Some white things: cockatoo and bag of flour

Nothing, except that some parrots, and their feathers — as well as flour — are white.

With this discovery you are encouraged to look further into the database to see what else might crop up.

So here are two additional entries beginning mun... that might well be linked to the underlying theme of ‘white’: fog and cloud.

Fig. 4 More white things: ‘fog’ and ‘cloud’

Clouds, and fog, are both white at times.

White skulls
Next, ‘skull’ presents itself. Skulls are white, round, bones:

Fig. 5 Another white thing: ‘skull’ is possible ‘white’

What about the suffixes?
By the way, this all makes you wonder about the suffixes on all these mun- words. And of course about the quality of the records.
For example, could -wadya in Fig. 1 mean something specific? Could -dum in Fig. 2 really indicate ‘heavy’? (Probably not.)

Fig. 5 suggests that perhaps the stem is is actually mu- rather than mun..., with suffixes -na and -gina. There are certainly many examples of both -na and -gina suffixes elsewhere in the database. However, what the significance of these two suffixes is has yet to be determined.

What does braga mean?
The last example (in Fig. 5) prompts an inquiry into the first part of the word for ‘skull’: 

Fig. 6 Skull

Above are the completed records for ‘skull’

What could braga / briga mean?
Try asking the database:

Fig. 7 Possibly ‘breast’ and other meanings

Could it be that the link between ‘skull’ and ‘breast’ (if ‘breast’ is actually correct) is something ‘round’, which both might be said to be? Unfortunately there is nothing in the database to support this view. Then what could the connection be? 

draga, raga and possibly braga: ‘spear’
More speculation required. It is just possible that braga might be ‘spear’. Spears have points, which would fit some examples in Fig. 7, but skulls do not. Some other spear words have a form not unlike braga: draga and raga.

Fig. 8 draga / raga: ‘spear’

Features of Tasmanian languages
One intriguing feature of Tasmanian languages is that consonant clusters are permitted: such as ‘dr-’ in draga. Another is that sometimes words have prefixes: thus raga, and draga with a prefixing d-, are both ‘spear’. Could it conceivably be that braga- in Fig. 7 is also a version of ‘spear‘ — rather than ‘breast’ as suggested above? But this is approaching the far fetched, and the goose chase has at this stage become wild. (Yet another such feature not pursued here is syllables inserted into the stems of words.)

mun...: ‘white’ after all?
Finallly, having run ourselves into the ground, let us return to mun-, meaning ‘white’, where we began. Now what do we make of the following record?

Fig. 9 mun- here meaning ‘black’ rather than white

Conclusion: inconclusive
This short essay has been a glimpse into the tantalising character of the Tasmanian records. When a glimmer of light seems to offer a clue to interpreting them, the picture soon becomes as confused as ever. Can we draw any conclusions from this latest scamper through them? Probably that mun- has something to do with ‘white’.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 22 November 2015


20 October 2015

TASMANIA: Having a look at suffixes

Affixes: prefixes, infixes, suffixes — the lot
Joseph Milligan, who provided more extensive vocabularies than anyone else, famously stated about the Tasmanian languages:
“The affixes, which signify nothing, are la, lah, le, leh, leah, na, ne, nah, ba, be, beah, bo, ma, me, meah, pa, poo, ra, re, ta, te, ak, ek, ik, etc.”

He further declared: “The distinctly different pronunciation of a word by the same person on different occasions is very perplexing, until the radical or essential part of the word, apart from prefixes and suffixes, is caught hold of.”

Today we can only take his word on the matter of pronunciation. And he is right about there being prefixes and suffixes. But it is a pity that when he had the chance to enquire as to the specific meaning of the suffixes he did not do so, instead dismissing them as meaningless. You might equally say of English that its prepositions are meaningless. In Aboriginal languages, the suffixes are what make them all work.

Pronouns and cases
Milligan was not alone in giving no explanation of the suffixes. Hardly any of the multitude of them are identified by any of the recorders. One word often appearing as a suffix, mina: 1sg — ‘I’ and ‘me‘ — is identified; as equally is nina 2sg ‘thou’, ‘thee’ (you). But what about ‘we’, ‘you’ (plural), and ‘they’? And did the pronouns have ‘you-two’ and ‘you-all’ forms in common with other Aboriginal languages? And likewise ‘we-two’ and ‘we-all’ (as well as inclusive and exclusive versions of these), and ‘they-two’ and ‘they-all’? There is virtually no trace of these vital words in any of the lists.

Similarly, what about the case endings of nouns? There is no information, or practically none,  about nominative (subject) and accusative (object) functions. Nor about the possessive (of), the dative — whether ‘to’, ‘towards’ or ‘for’ (known as allative and purposive by some specialists), nor the ablative (‘by’: causitive; ‘from’: elative; ‘with’: comitative; and ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘on’: locative). Nor instrumental ‘with’, ‘using’ (as ‘I hit the nail with a hammer’). These are all common in Aboriginal languages, and may well have been present in the list of suffixes ‘signifying nothing’ to Milligan.

Tasmanian languages
So it is that your amateur researcher (YAR) is currently investigating the vocabularies of the several languages of Tasmania, in an attempt to establish that Milligan’s list really did mean something after all. The Tasmanian languages are shown in the following illustration: 

Map by Claire Bowern

in counter-clockwise sequence from where they were first encountered in the south:
Oyster Bay
together with possibly South; and perhaps others.

While large numbers of suffixes have been determined from the records, many may not have been accurately fixed. For as Milligan cautioned, it is necessary to catch hold of the STEM of a word, and separate it from any SUFFIX present. But the question remains: where does a particular stem end and a suffix start? Very often it is not easy to tell ...
karnamoonalané conversation (a great talking)
mar.pe.gen.ne.mar.tun.ni I think
mur.man.a.wee.bob.ar.ree fighting
Try it yourself.

Proprietive: ‘having’
The main purpose of the present essay is to propose the identification of one suffix, which might even be a combination of two.

Aboriginal languages probably universally have a pair of contrasting suffixes for the concepts ‘having’ and ‘lacking’, sometimes termed proprietive, and abessive or privative, respectively.

One particular suffix had been noted in the Tasmanian database, which is combined with a variety of words without any apparent connection with one another. Here it is:

Fig. 1 -wadina records

The suffix concerned: -wadina. The last, purple, column reveals the source of the records, and the language where known. Many records include no such territorial information, but where it occurs in the examples above it is NE in all instances — except one for neighbouring Oyster Bay. This would suggest that the corresponding suffix for other languages might be something different.

The proposed meaning for the -wadina suffix is the proprietive ‘having’. The first two examples suggested it might mean ‘red’, as part of the term ‘ochre red’ but on further reflection this explanation seemed unlikely. 
And such is the impoverished quality of the Tasmanian records generally that in almost every case in the table when YAR attempted to establish a precise meaning he was unable to find anything worth reporting to back up the suggestion that the linking concept for -wadina might be ‘having’.

Body parts?
It might be briefly noted that some of the entries are for body parts; but as many are not, that does not appear to be a feasible interpretation of -wadina either. 
Note also that ‘spit’ in the centre of the table might actually be a mis-transcription of ‘shut’. 
And the record for ‘child’ might in reality mean ‘woman-having’, this being confirmed in part by Fig. 5 (luwa: ‘woman’) as well as by multitudinous other examples in the database. But ‘woman-having’ would be a more appropriate term for a ‘husband’ (one who has a woman) than for a child — unless ‘child’ were to be viewed as ‘mother-having’. 

Many meanings of luwina
A rare record occurs in the database where luwi actually means ‘child’ rather than ‘woman’:

Fig. 2 luwi-na: ‘child’

Note, however, that the word luwi- (with diverse suffixes) also happens to mean a variety of other things, among which are ‘blue wren’, ‘cold’ (weather), ‘cut’ (wood with axe), ‘gun’, ‘hip bone’, ‘itch’, ‘moon’, ‘navel’, ‘night’, ‘one’, ‘plenty’, ‘rub’, ‘sister’, ‘sky’, ‘snake’, ‘stone’, ‘sun’, ‘three’, tree’ and ‘tuber’. This might seem an oddly diverse collection, but sometimes some possible links can be dimly perceived. Thus the group [cold / night / moon / sun / plenty] might all be to do with looking at the heavens, at night, when it might be cold, and when there are myriads of celestial objects to look at: the European recorder catching the words at the time might well have jumped to incorrect conclusions as to meanings. Even [cut / gun / itch] might conceivably be linked through ‘weapon’, old muskets when discharged with shot perhaps causing ‘itch’ rather than severe wounding. And so on.

baga: child
Consider then three other examples:

Fig. 3 Child-having

In Fig. 3 it is assumed that baga and biga are different renderings of the same word, ‘child’.
There are many records for ‘testicles’ (apologies here for any indelicacy in mentioning this word and subject) in the Tasmanian Bayala database. Most are similar to the following, which was collected in 1793 by the officers of the French frigates La Recherche and l’Espérance, at Recherche Bay in the south-east of the island.

Fig. 4 Ball

mada indicates circularity, roundness, or ‘ball’.

But two of the examples in Fig. 3 have a different (i.e. non-mada) concept for ‘testicle’. The third example has (at first sight improbably) the identical form to the second, but an entirely different meaning: not ‘testicle’ but ‘mother’.

Perhaps from Fig. 3 it might be inferred that the Tasmanians had real understanding of the procreative process, for how else might the different attributed meanings be reconciled?

The next table merely provides some common words for ‘child’ and ‘woman’.

Fig. 5 ‘child’ and ‘woman’

YAR is not particularly happy with the identification of -wadina as meaning ‘having’, but puts it forward in the hope that some reader might be prompted to offer a more plausible interpretation.

The intention is to provide, in due course, suggestions as to what other suffixes might mean.

Tuesday 20 October 2015


30 August 2015

Tasmanian: rana: 'bone'

Working on the Tasmanian vocabuaries
Here is a typical fragment of Tasmanian vocabulary:

Fig. 1 Extract from the Joseph Milligan list held by the Mitchell Library <http://www.acmssearch.sl.nsw.gov.au/search/itemDetailPaged.cgi?itemID=430548>

It is by Joseph Milligan, in 1857.

It features long words. Here is part of what Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) has made of this particular fragment:
Fig. 2 Extract from the Tasmanian database, in the Bayala series of Australian language databases developed by YAR

In the above database extract the green numbers on the left are where the words occur in N.J.B. Plomely’s book, by page and line number:
Plomley, Norman James Brian. 1976. A word-list of the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Launceston: N.J.B. Plomley in association with the Government of Tasmania.

As reading the above fragment is to too difficult, here is a detail:
Fig. 3 ‘brother/, ‘brow’

And here is another, from near the end of the list:
Fig. 4 ‘chin’, ‘chine’

Just to explain what is going on, the grey columns feature the original records: the Tasmanian words in the bold-type column, and their translations in the other grey column.
The brown columns are respellings in a standard way of the original Tasmanian words.
If a particular word has been analysed into components, the full word is placed in the paler of the two brown columns.
The yellow column is YAR’s own estimation of what any entry actually means.

As for the blue and red middle columns, they are where the analysed sub-components are placed. Such placing is admittedly somewhat arbitrary, although not entirely. It should be added too that the dividing of words into constituent elements owes much to guesswork at this stage. As more knowledge is acquired, the guesswork becomes less wild.

As of the time of writing, this database has over 15000 entries.

A small discovery: rana
What a database does is to enable comparisons to be made among the records. It is the main advantage a present-day researcher has over the original recorders. They had access to the language speakers, but they did not have computers.

What interests YAR in this particular fragment of records is the suffix -rana, in the bright red central column, or as a separate word in the dark brown column. The words ‘brother’, brow’ and ‘chine (backbone) feature rana as a word or suffix, as shown in the two detailed extracts.

As is the case in so many Tasmanian words, something like rana crops up quite often. mina is another instance of a word or part-word with frequent occurrences. It would of course just be too simple to identify what such an item means in one instance, and assume it meant that for all. Too simple indeed. But it does appear that with ‘brow’ and ‘chine’ we have a common meaning: ‘bone’. What the rana in brother (and various other instances) signifies has yet to be determined.

rana: bone suffix
The following table presents evidence of where -rana might indicate ‘bone’. You will notice that the word ‘bone’ actually forms part of the original (grey) translations in some instances while in others it does not. For example, in the first entry, bada is one of the Tasmanian words for ‘head’, giving bada-rana ‘head bone’ rather than ‘skull’:

Fig. 5 Words featuring -rana ‘bone’

Fig. 6 bada: ‘head’

rana as a word
rana does not occur only as a suffix. The following table presents several instances of when rana features as an independent word. The table also offers an insight into the mindset of the original Tasmanians. For rana was not just bone as we know it, but something hard, bone-like. In fact only the first of the examples is specifically for ‘bone’. But a waddy (club), fingernail, and shell are all hard (bone-like) things.

Fig. 7 rana: bone

More than one Tasmanian language: chin
Should you be wondering about  gumi and waba both meaning ‘chin’ in Fig. 4, this is because the words come from difference languages within Tasmania:

WABA: south-east
Fig. 8 South-east: waba chin

GAMU: north-east
Fig. 8 North-east: gumi chin

YAR still has a very long way to go in making sense of the Tasmanian lists.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 30 August 2015


19 August 2015

Mistakes in the word lists

Europeans encountered Aboriginal people from before the upheaval that began in 1788. Lists of words were obtained in Botany bay in 1770, and then at Cooktown. The scene below is representative of such occasions. 

'The first settlers discover Buckley' by Frederick William Woodhouse, 1861 [State Library of Victoria]. This work is out of copyright.

However, in the moment depicted here, it is unlikely that any word lists were made. The occasion was when the escaped convict William Buckley (1780-1857), who had lived for years among Aboriginals at the south-west of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, arrived at John Batman’s camp in July 1835.

But now and again vocabulary items were sought when Europeans found themselves in company with the original inhabitants. So you can imagine a scene somewhere in Tasmania where a white man (let’s call him Riyana) was with an Aboriginal (say, Balawa). They had no shared language, but Riyana was keen to learn some words, and was taking notes. Time and again in such settings the questions would begin with words for what it is seemingly easiest to ascertain: the names for parts of the body. So Mr Riyana might point to his own hand with an enquiring look, and be given a word for it. He would then write the word down, with ‘hand’ alongside. But any words given at such a moment might in reality include ‘my hand’, ‘that’s my hand’, ‘finger’, palm of the hand’, thumb’, ‘fist’, even ‘forearm’, ‘wrist’ and so on. Mr Riyana cannot recognise these subtleties, and so just writes ‘hand’ for whatever Balawa has told him.

Let us continue the speculation. Just below where they are sitting there is a creek. Now Mr Riyana points towards the creek enquiringly once again. Dutifully he writes down the response, with ‘creek’ beside his entry. Only later — perhaps much later by someone with a database — it is revealed that Balawa’s word was not ‘creek’ but ‘frog’, he having mistaken the croaking going on in the creek for what Riyana was asking about. Next Riyana points to a distant hill and asks its name. Balawa sees the stretched out pointing arm, with Riyana apparently holding out his finger for consideration, having no idea that for the moment they have stopped talking about body parts. Balawa, seeing the white finger displayed, asserts: “That’s your ‘finger’”. Riyana dutifully records the name of the hill as ‘Finger’, which of course it is not.

The opportunities for getting the wrong end of the stick are numerous, and accordingly the stated meanings in word lists should be regarded with caution.

Imagine Riyana now points at Balawa’s nose, his finger close but not actually touching. 
In the Tasmanian records are the following, probably from situations much as described:

Fig. 1 The main entries for ‘nose’

In the records there are several similar entries for each row in the table. Those appearing in Fig. 1 are just one from each group.

Below are additional ‘nose’ records but with perhaps only a single instance of each:

Fig. 2: Lesser entries for ‘nose’

Accordingly these might be taken as less certain.

It is, however, the first group, Fig. 1, that is of especial interest, and in particular the last three, nos 6-8, the mina collection.

Let us digress briefly. Obtaining the names of body parts in this way is a somewhat personal business. The most personal item of all in a language is the first person singular pronoun, ‘I’ (1sgNOM), and ‘me’ (1sgACC). These in some of the Tasmanian languages are both mina. There appears to have been no distinction in the nominative and accusative usages.

Fig. 3 ‘I’, ‘we’: the first person singular nominative and accusative pronoun in some Tasmanian languages

Is is chance alone that has the same word mina occurring in words for ‘nose’, and for ‘I’, and ‘me’? Perhaps not. For when Riyana pointed to Balawa’s nose, Balawa might well have thought Riyana was pointing directly at him, not specifically at his nose, so giving the response ‘me’, and not ‘nose’. [See Fig.1, Row 6]
In the next two rows, Balawa might have replied, ‘my nose’ (mina riwari, or mina wari). Indeed there are traces of the word for ‘nose’ riwari and wari in Rows 1, 4 and 5 (drawaridiya, muniwara, rawariga).

It is tempting to consider the same mistake occurring in words for tongue, in Fig. 4:

Fig. 4 Words for ‘tongue’, the number of records for each being shown in the last column

However, while mina does occur for ‘tongue’, there are only four records for it. There are far more (15) for the nearly similar word mini, and quite a few (7) for a somewhat less similar collection beginning m-m... So ‘nose’ probably really was mini, with mina as a variant, or a mis-recording, of mini. The mini–mina similarity was probably just a coincidence.

Further confusion
Tantalisingly, mina seems to have had a role as a suffix, for both nouns and verbs. Two tables follow, one for each of these parts of speech. Admittedly, in some of the examples mina could be interpreted as the 1sg pronoun, but how are we now to know?


Fig. 5: Nouns suffixed with mina. These can’t all have meant ‘my’, could they?


“punna meena”
bana mina =
“burn (hurt by fire)”
smoke xxx :
Plomley mj [A610:177:19] [OyB]
binagara mina =
vomit :
Plomley sn [:387:9] []
blugamina =
whistle :
Plomley sn [:467:39] []
dagara-mina =
cry :
Plomley mj [:194:1] [OyB]
“tyackaree - meena”
diyagari-mina =
spit :
Plomley mj [:406:10] [OyB]
“kamena meena”
gami-na-mina =
spit :
Plomley mj [:405:37] [T-se]
ligrumina =
sweat :
Plomley mj [:420:15] [T-se]
mana-mina =
spit :
Plomley sn [:405:40] []
munmina =
“to black with charcoal”
blacken :
Plomley gar [:165:35] [OyB]
wadamunimina =
sleep :
Plomley gar [:396:4] [T-NE]
Fig. 6 Verbs suffixed with mina. These , too, can’t all have meant ‘my’, could they?

Examples of confusion
The following tables show instances of apparent misunderstanding between the European word collector and his informant. (‘His’? Alas, in Your Amateur Researcher’s records the major collectors were all men, apart from Mary Everitt for Gundungarra.)

Frog and stream

Fig. 7 ‘frog’ and ‘stream’ confusion

The ‘finger’ story really happened, at least once:

Fig. 8: birili: Sydney language word for ‘finger’

Fig. 9: Map showing Berrilee, 30 or so kilometres from Sydney, off the highway to Newcastle.

Final word
In 1824 the French medical officer and explorer R.P. Lesson had an encounter with the wife of the noted Sydney Aboriginal man Bungaree. Her English name was Gooseberry. Whether she was making fun of the hapless Frenchman we know not, but here are three of his records of interview.

Fig. 10 Records from an interview between R.P. Lesson and Gooseberry, in 1824, somewhere to the northward of Sydney

When Lesson pointed at her eye, Gooseberry said ‘Gooseberry’, that is to say ‘me’. Just as described above for ‘nose’.

When he pointed to her lip, she said ‘kiss’, clearly knowing some English.

And Lesson recorded nandara for ‘teeth’, but what Gooseberry actually said was two words: ‘that tooth’ (that is a tooth).


Wednesday 19 August 2015