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

No comments: