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

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