30 June 2015


There is a sequence b–d–n... in the Tasmanian language records. There are many examples of it. 

Here are a few such records:

Fig. 1 ‘little’

From these it would seem that badani / budini and the like might signify ‘little’.

budinibuwid is ‘little’.
badani is ‘child’, and a child is something little.
bayaDini bunguDini luguDinini appears to be ‘little possum xxx’.

And there is confirmation that luguDini in this phrase means ‘possum’:

Fig. 2 ‘ringtailed possum’

From this it would seem that badani, or words of the b–d–n...  sequence, means ‘little.
Even the 5th and last record in Fig. 1 above lends weight to the idea: badinuyiru might mean the little voice of whispering. However, the records did not bear this idea out.

Rat kangaroo
The ‘little’ hypothesis would appear to be supported, at first sight’ by ‘rat kangaroo’:

Fig. 3 ‘rat kangaroo’

nanabaDina is, apparently, ‘little rat kangaroo’, suggesting that badina is ‘little’, and thus that nana might be ‘rat kangaroo’.
So in which case, in the top record, what is rubrana? The 4th record in Fig. 3 suggests that rubrana or ribrinana itself means ‘rat kangaroo’. A search for nina or nana yielded nothing to indicate that nana / nina meant ‘rat kangaroo’.

Further b–d–n... records pop up in the ‘Tasmanian’ Bayala database, all to do with birds:

Fig. 4 ‘birds’

The first of this new set of records in Fig. 4 tends to support the ‘little’ theory: badina means ‘egg’, and eggs are little. A swan’s egg, buradina, is morphologically close, and might also be regarded as ‘little’, thus justifying a loose or mis-translation of 'little' as 'egg'.

But the ‘little' hypothesis is virtually exploded anew when it is noticed that most of the other bird records end in the the b–d–n... sequence. They can hardly all mean ‘little’. 
The last, badanawunda, ‘emu’, begins with the b–d–n... sequence.
From this one might reasonably ask: could badana be something to do with fauna?

Support for the fauna concept is provided by the following group of records:

Fig. 5’ fauna’

Bandicoot, respelt badina or bayaDina, is grouped with 'kangaroo' nabiDinina in this new b–d–n... collection. ‘Fauna’ begins to appear a real possibility.

A ‘den’ in the 4th record in Fig. 5 is a home for fauna, the details of this particular record being:

Fig. 6 ‘den’

budina in Fig. 6, meaning ‘cave’, is is not strictly fauna, although it is certainly fauna asociated, in the meaning of ‘den’.

The last two records of Fig.5 'fauna’ are other mammals, ‘whiteman’ and ‘boy’.

And after all this we are not able confidently to assert a meaning for the b–d–n... sequence.
One final example lends no further help.

There is only one flora example so far identified in the database:

Fig. 7 ‘flora’

dinbudina, ‘tea-tree’ completes this ultimately inconclusive search for a significance of the b–d–n... sequence.

Perhaps a reader of this tentative essay might be able to suggest something enlightening.

Jeremy Steele

Tuesday 30 June 2015

17 June 2015


N.J.B. Plomley had provided a 10 000 or so long word list of Tasmanian words in:

Plomley, N.J.B. 1976. A word-list of the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Launceston: N.J.B. Plomley in association with the Government of Tasmania.

The respelling of the few remaining entries in this list had proceeded slightly since the last blog entry (‘Tasmanian snake pain’) was devised and posted an hour ago. The illustration below shows the addition of four words after bawaya: ‘pain in bowels’ in the top line:

The time had arrived to consider the curious entry ‘hebrew’ in the 5th line in the table above. Eventually this was rendered as dibaru. What follows explains why this respelling was chosen.

But first, let us backtrack a little. When looking at vocabulary documents from nearly 200 years ago it is tempting to dismiss as fanciful some of the stranger entries, and ‘hebrew’ here seemed a case in point.

Nevertheless in the previous post it was ventured that ‘hebrew’ might possibly be a considered attempt at rendering a real Tasmanian word into an understandable English form. That is to say it might have been a genuine respelling rather than an apparent and wholly unexpected reference to Judaic people. Note, too, that it is spelt ‘hebrew’ and not ‘Hebrew’. In the previous blog post yibru had been proposed as a modern respelling for it.

Now, in an attempt to give credit to the original recorder, Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) carried out searches in the database for ‘yibru’ or ‘...ibru...’, or just ‘...bru...’. This was reasonable given that some of the recorders had noted that ‘consonant clusters’ were commonly found in Tasmania. These ‘clusters’ refer to consonants put together in a manner very common in English, as is the case in ‘cl’ and ‘st’ in the very word ‘cluster’. Three-letter clusters are also common in English, and the practice is taken still further in the case of, say, strength, or the -ftsb- in ‘Shaftsbury’. 

Cluster-pairs do occur in the Sydney language (the subject of the original Bayala database) but mostly only with with -mb- and -nd-, and in a more limited way in the -lg-, -nb- and -nm- and a few other pairings. Much more frequently, indeed almost invariably except as noted, consonants in Australian Indigenous languages are separated by a vowel.

While the same might once have been the case with Tasmanian, the recorders appear to have heard cluster-pairs in common use.

But back to the searches for words of the form ‘yibru’. These enquiries came to nought. Nevertheless it was noted that the word rendered as ‘hebrew’ was purported to mean ‘skin’ or ‘shin’.

Still with a desire to give the original recorder of ‘hebrew’ the benefit of the doubt, YAR set about improving his still rudimentary Tasmanian database to include a feature found in the others in the Bayala database series: word classification. So he identified and classified all words (about 1400) in the Tasmanian collection that were body parts (as were ‘skin’ and ‘shin’). When this had been completed a new search was carried out for words in the body parts group, but now using the formula:

The non-letter characters in this formula have specific functions in a search:
* [asterisk] = ‘any number of unspecified letters’
@ = ‘any single unspecified letter’

This formula meant that words were being looked for:
—beginning with anything,
—followed by ‘ib
—followed then by any vowel (or letter)
—followed by ‘r
—finally followed by anything.

That is to say, when ‘hebrew / yibru’ was re-tested as yib-ru with a consonant separating the syllables, the following  were the possibilities:

Possible search results for the combination -ib-ru

Ot these ten possibilities, those that actually yielded results in the search (featuring only the only fixtures were b and r as in -b-r-) are tinted above in blue. 
These featured the initial letters ‘d’, ‘l’ and ‘n’, all of which are somewhat related to ‘h’ by shape. 
Here are the key search results:

Body-parts search results for the combination -ib-r-

The most promising of these four examples, by translation, are not the ‘l’ words (‘neck’ and ‘thumb’). Instead the ‘leg’ and ‘knee’ words are of the greater interest—not because they began with d- and n- but because they are most closely in meaning to ‘skin/shin’. ‘Skin’, incidentally, can probably now be discounted as a mis-reading of ‘shin’, leaving the principal word under consideration  as ‘shin’. 

Precision in terminology
In Indigenous languages more specific words were used for the limbs than in English. Thus where we loosely say ‘arm’, Indigenous people used precise words for either ‘forearm’ or ‘upper arm’. Likewise in the case of ‘leg’ they had separate words for ‘leg below the knee’ and ‘leg above the knee’ (thigh). As the word ‘shin’ has been offered in the example under examination, and based on the word given for ‘leg’: diburig (‘tee.bur.ic’), it is possible that the word given for it, transcribed as ‘hebrew’, might have been dibaru

Compare the examples in the table above with the corresponding summary for ‘hebrew’:

So rather than ‘hebrew’ being an example of 19th century nonsense to be dismissed out of hand, the entry for it might have actually provided more specific information about another entry: the one featuring diburig. For ‘hebrew / dibaru’ appears to reveal that not just approximately ‘leg’ was intended in that instance but specifically ‘leg below the knee’, with the nearest word for this in English being ‘shin’.

Jeremy Steele

Wednesday 17 June 2015


N.J.B. Plomley has provided a splendid resource for information on the languages of Tasmania, and there probably were several,. His book of nearly 500 pages:

Plomley, N.J.B. 1976. A word-list of the Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Launceston: N.J.B. Plomley in association with the Government of Tasmania.

This lists all the records Plomley uncovered, arranged somewhat  in the manner of a dictionary. For example, starting on page 385 he presents all the words to do with illness, under the headword ‘sick’.

He has given all the ways in which the numerous reorders spelt the indigenous word for the various disorders shown.

A few of the Plomley entries for ‘sick’.
Note especially “har.war.yer” near the top

From this extract it can be seen that the spellings used for the words are often unclear.

In order to make better sense of the words, Your Amateur Researcher has attempted to respell the Tasmanian words in a consistent fashion so as to try to begin to understand a little more of the language(s).

Here is another fragment, illustrating this process:
Respelling in progress in the Bayala Tasmanian database

The green columns indicate the page and line number in Plomley’s work. The grey columns are the entries featuring the Indigenous word as originally spelt by the recorder. together with the English translation. The brown column is an attempt at consistent respelling of each item.

Why this particular, and odd, collection is here is that it includes some of the more challenging items for respelling.

For example, in the first entry, what is one to make of ‘h’ in the middle?
And in the very last line (397:26) the entry includes ‘fire’. Is this the English word fire? The same question applies in the fourth last line (‘here’); and the 7th last (‘hebrew’). 

Is ‘fire’ a respelling of an indigenous word, including a non-permitted /f/, to be re-spelt, say, biri when considered letter by letter, or baya when considered for the English sound of fire

Likewise is ‘here’, an Indigenous word with the non-permitted /h/, supposed to be respelt, say, yiri, or possibly yiya to rhyme with the English sound for here?

And is ‘hebrew’ possibly yibru, when the English sound is held in mind?

The letter /h/ is particularly challenging. 
—Given that the spellings in the typeset book are all interpretations of the original handwriting by someone (perhaps Plomley himself, or the typesetter perhaps, or possibly an editor) ...
—the /h/ might easily have been a /b/ as these twi letters have much the same shape;
—or if the beginning stroke was a little generous, perhaps it was intended as an /n/. 
—And because in the nineteenth century, when most of the recordings were made, the idea of words beginning with ‘ng-’ was unfamiliar, given that the English language does not contain a single such example, a Tasmanian word with an oddly sounding beginning featuring ng- might have been rendered with an ‘h-’ start.
This is just speculation, but one needs to speculate to make sense of some of the entries.

The respelling list above has numerous examples with ‘v’, another non-permitted consonant in most Indigenous languages, as are the others so far mentioned. 
—Often a /b/ might be misheard, and rendered as a ‘v’; 
—or the original handwriting of ‘w’ might be transcribed as ‘v’;
—or in some common styles of handwriting an ‘r’ might also often resemble a ‘v’.

And what is one to make of the second-last entry, ‘lough.we’? Is this an English-sounding ‘ough’? if so, which ‘-ough’? 
Which of the following seven ‘-ough-’ sounds might one select?

The challenge
It is, however, the entry near the middle of the respelling group that is the focus of attention in this brief essay:
385:9 har.war.yer ‘pain in the bowels’

The question is, how to handle the ‘h’? The rest of the word is fairly straightforward:

— a / wa / ya

So a word that ends with the sound ‘-awaya’. 
But how might it have begun? What was the initial letter?

A search in the now extensive Bayala Tasmanian database reveals just the one possibility:

In the second entry in the coloured table, “pow.wer.yer”, respelt as bawaya, means ‘snake’. At first sight this is an unlikely match for ‘sick’ in the entry above it, especially ‘sick’ meaning specifically ‘pain in bowels’. The “pow.wer.yer” record was made by George Augustus Robinson, but who told it to him is unknown. 

However, it is conceivable that the informant had a pain, perhaps even in the bowels, after an encounter with a snake that did not agree with him (or her). This pain might have been caused by a bite. Or perhaps eating the snake caused a pain in the bowels.

Accordingly a correct translation for ‘har.war.yer’ might be ‘snake’ rather than ‘pain in bowels’.

Jeremy Steele

Wednesday 17 June 2015