- “A handful of word lists were taken down by early settlers but these are of extremely poor quality; they were compiled by people who for the most part had little respect for the Tasmanians or their languages, and no clear idea of how to represent the sounds they heard. Within the last few decades a new manuscript vocabulary has come to light, compiled by George Augustus Robinson, a self-styled missionary who rounded up the survivors of Tasmanian tribes between 1829 and 1834 and transported them to offshore islands, effectively there to die off. Robinson took down a considerable quantity of vocabulary, some of it from parts of the island that had not been represented in previous lists; but the standard of his transcription was even worse than the rest.”
25 May 2015
First visit to SOAS
Twenty years ago, on Monday 3 April 1995, your Sydney-based amateur researcher into Australian languages called on the ‘School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS: part of the University of London] in London in a vain quest to look up information on the Sydney Aboriginal language gathered by First Fleeter William Dawes’. It was known that they held the notebooks compiled by Dawes. A diary entry further records that: ‘however, one needed a letter of introduction to gain access, from an authority such as a professor anywhere. My own business card from the University of Sydney, where I was an employee in its administration, was not good enough’.
Three years later, on another visit to London, another diary entry records a busy day: Monday 5 October 1998: ‘Then to St John the Baptist church, Eltham, to see the register of Yemmerawannie’s burial. This was an old book about 450 x 250 mm, brown leather bound with two large clasps, with entries from the 1600s. Photographed the Yemmerawannie entry.’ Yemmerawannie was one of two Aboriginals taken to London in 1792 by retiring Governor Arthur Phillip. Yemmerawannie arrived in England in 1793, and died there a year later, aged about 19.
Second visit to SOAS
Then that afternoon having caught the train to Charing Cross — the diary continues: ‘Walked to the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury, where three years ago had been denied admission. This time, with a letter of introduction obtained from the professor of Classics at Sydney University, got in without trouble [and so to the library and] to the Special Reserve, where after a fright of their not holding the material —they being the school of Oriental and African (not Australian) studies), they finally found it. The purpose of the journey: to see the word lists of the Sydney Aboriginal language compiled around 1790 by Lt William Dawes, Royal Marine on the First Fleet. ...
'The precious packet, a small cardboard envelope-folder containing two pocket notebooks [was produced]. The slightly larger had a coloured cover, affecting waterworn stones. The smaller with a plain cover was a re-binding of two notebooks, one a word list arranged alphabetically, the other a "grammar", all in Dawes’s own elegant handwriting.
I was not required to handle these with surgical gloves, nor prevented from writing on them. The only security control was signs saying only portable computers and pencils could be used in the room: yet there was no frisking or search for ballpoints or pens. There I was, with Dawes’s actual notebooks, probably the best record anywhere of the Sydney Aboriginal language.
Tasmanian word lists
'On beginning to make a few notes, I found in a home-made sleeve in the back of the large notebook some lists on differently sized pieces of paper of words of the Van Dieman’s Land language made by the French in 1792 or 1793. Amazingly, these included in two separate lists the word ‘kanguru’ for ‘kangourou’, (spelt in one case with k and the other with c). This suggested the possibility or probability that the word for ‘kangaroo’, already known not to be from Sydney, is of Tasmanian origin. I had always supposed that it might be from Cooktown, the other place where Cook had had some contact with Aborigines when his ship the Endeavour was repaired there after being damaged on the Great Barrier Reef. When was the word first used by white people? From Cook’s (1770) or Phillip’s (1788) visits?’
On later reflection your researcher concluded that the Guugu-Yimidhirr word /gaŋuru/ must have been brought to Tasmania by even earlier ships visiting the island, the Aboriginals repeating it back to the subsequently visiting members of the Bruni d'Entrecasteaux party in Recherché Bay.
Following the 1998 visit to London, a small database was begun of the 200 or so words in the SOAS Van Diemen's Land lists, and once completed that area was allowed to slip from the mind.
On your researcher’s completing a master’s research degree on the Sydney language in 2005, his Macquarie University supervisor generously presented him with a book by way of congratulation. This was a work on Tasmanian languages. It was placed on the bookshelves and, like the SOAS vocabularies, slipped from the mind. And so the years passed.
In the meantime a tourist visit had been made to Tasmania, in October 1999, being your researcher’s first experience of the island. It was not until the present year, 2015, that a second, briefer, visit was made there, during the course of which modest enquiries were made about languages in the course of visiting various museums.
A volunteer in one of the local museums was kind enough to go home and fetch a book she had on the subject of languages, and on being shown it your researcher thought it looked familiar. Indeed on returning home a few days lated he found it was the very work presented to him in 2005-06. This is a collection of all the known 40 or so vocabularies:
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.
It is a work of 478 pages, in which all the word-list entries are presented in the manner of a dictionary, English head word alphabetically by English head word, with all the Tasmanian records listed below for each, complete with all the diverse and often bizarre spellings of them, together with information of the recorder and informant for each, and the area (where known in Tasmania) where it was collected.
Of the Tasmanian vocabularies noted scholar of Australian languages R.M.W. Dixon wrote in 1980:
Dixon, R.M.W. 1980. The Languages of Australia. Edited by W. S. Allen and et al., Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.:
Processing the records
Your researcher considered that it was time to look at the Tasmanian language records more closely, especially given that he appeared to have virtually all of them in a book in his own study. By a process of scanning, optical character recognition and other manipulation, he added all the records to his initial tiny Tasmanian database, thereby enlarging it from 200 records to 10500. But this is just the beginning. The next step is to respell all the records consistently, and to provide consistent translations. These processes will reveal points of interest and enable searches to be made.
Various scholars have already concluded that there were probably several languages on the island, and here is a language map by one of them, Claire Bowern, in 2012. She has identified five languages. A sixth area — coloured grey on the map — was largely uninhabited, and hence had no language recorded for it.
First example of what the database can reveal
After the foregoing introduction, your researcher now offers a small point for this blog entry.
There is a record :
mocha early: salt water
It is by:
Braim in History of New South Wales (1846);
(bmm) manuscript vocabulary, Braim papers, Mitchell Library.
The database is already able to provide the following analysis:
“mocha early” is nothing to do with being ‘early’. Rather mocha is a word for ‘water’.
And “early” is in all probability a misreading of the original handwriting of “carty”, as porvided in:
Vocabulary of Jorgen Jorgenson: (jj) words collected by Jorgen
featured in the 5th line of the table above. “carty”, respelt as /gadi/ turns out to be a word for ‘bad’.
Consequently “mocha carty” or /mudya gadi/ (in the 6th line) is ‘water bad’, or ‘bad water’.
‘Bad water’ is one of the ways the Tasmanians spoke of ‘salt water’, or the ‘sea’. It was, after all, not drinkable.
This in turn reveals that the translation of “mocha carty” in the 5th line of the table above itself contains an error in the translation. It does not mean ‘water bag’ but rather ‘water bad’.
This brief enquiry already confirms what Dixon stated so bluntly: the Tasmanian records are ‘of extremely poor quality’.
JMS Monday 25 May 2015