27 July 2015


For those of us who actually speak English we often fail to see what the difficulties in it are. English seems the simplest of languages: no complicated endings for verbs — as in French and others; no nonsense with genders. Spelling can be a bit tricky, until you get the hang of it.

But every now and then a problem comes up, such as with the word ‘lie’ in vocabularies. What problem? Well, does it mean ‘lie down’, or ‘tell a lie’?

In the Tasmania vocabularies ‘lie’ crops up quite often. Here is an example:

Fig. 1 ‘lies down’ or ‘tell lies’?

“in.er.kie.the.came.cow.wer.min.came” is quite a mouthful for the simple word ‘lie’. And yinagiDigamgawaminGam is almost certainly wrong respelling of it. In reality it is probably several words, but how to split them up correctly? —

yinagi Digamga waminGam perhaps? 

Probably not. And unless you can find meanings for the constituent portions you are just guessing.

Let us look at some other examples of ‘lie’, which might give some ideas.
Three tables are presented for the ‘lie’ examples.

Lie down

Fig. 2 ‘lie down’: this meaning is made plain by the given translation in the central grey column

Tell lies

Fig. 3 ‘tell lies’, or ‘fib’: this meaning is made plain by the given translation


Fig. 4 Meaning of ‘lie’ uncertain.

The examples in Fig. 4 reveal Your Amateur Researcher’s initial guess as to the meaning intended. ‘Fib’ in all cases except the first, gadina.

Items 2-3: lini group (Fig. 4)
In Fig. 4, item 3 linugi nuwili means ‘xxx bad’. The translation 'bad' comes from the ‘bad’ examples below”:

Fig. 5 nuwili: ‘bad’

What might the first word linugi mean if not ‘fib’?

Perhaps lini means ‘shame’? Here are some apposite examples:

Fig. 6 lini: ‘shame’

From this enquiry, linugi nuwili might actually mean ‘shame bad’, which in turn might reasonably be interpreted as ‘lie’, or ‘fib’.

Items 4-6: danga and manin group (Fig. 4)
A search of the database for matches to the words danga and manin produced results that suggested this group of words was to do with ‘lying down’ rather than ‘mendacity’.

Fig. 7 danga and manin

The first two, danga, meaning ‘fall’ and ‘stupid’ suggest being prostrate more than verbal cleverness. You might end up prostrate if you fell or were stupid.

Likewise the next eight items featuring minin or similar are about what might cause someone to be horizontal: death, fighting, injury or sleep.

Realise, dear sole reader, that these are not the only examples that could have been selected for these d-nga and m-n-n letter sequences. They are, however, the ones that tilt either in the direction of ‘telling lies’ or ‘lying down’.

Items 7-9: The last three mysteries (of  Fig. 4)

Fig. 8 Remaining mysteries

Of the last three items, the first is clearly a variant of “towlangany” (Fig. 3, item 3), there stated to mean “tell lies”; while the last remains puzzling after superficial investigation. Only wangini yields new information:

Fig. 9 Wangi: Could be either ‘fib’ or ‘prostrate’

Unfortunately, this new information is inconclusive. As can be seen from Fig. 9 above, wangi can mean either ‘speak’ (suggesting 'fib') or ‘sit’ (lie) — and even ‘kill’, the result of which would be to lie down.

gadina :  item 1, Fig. 4
And so to the the final item among the mysteries of Fig. 4 above.

Fig. 10 gadina: ‘to lie’

The following examples for gadina from the Bayala Tasmanian database throw light on some possibilities of meaning for this word:

Fig. 11 The gadina records

The purple source column reveals the providers of these records: jj, cr, lh and gar (respectively Jorgen Jorgenson, Charles Robinson, Alexander McGeary [published by John Lhotsky], and George Augustus Robinson, father of Charles Robinson).

Only in the case of the last record do we know who the informant was: Pair.he.le.hoin (which might be transcribed Bariliyun). However, there must have been an informant for each of the records, each in turn representing a moment or circumstance when the word was elicited. In our minds we can conjure up scenes of cows, crows and pigs, and sleeping. In looking at this collection of nine records, together with the original one (reproduced in Fig. 10), we might wonder at the range of meanings a single word might have. Yet on further reflection one might also wonder whether all might actually have a common meaning, the one stated in the first (Fig. 10), i.e. ‘lie’. 

Cows and pigs are notorious for lying down. When asked about the animal concerned, the informant might have not stated its name as fauna (especially given that neither cows nor pigs were native animals), but responded instead with the word for what it was doing: lying down.

In the case of ‘crow’, this could have been either a crow perched (lying?) on a twig; or perhaps a mis-transcription of ‘cow’ as ‘crow’.

The final three records are for ‘sleep’. What one does when asleep is ‘lie down’.

Fig. 12 A demonstration of ‘lie’ meaning ‘lie down’

In each case, then, the informant might have been referring to the action or state of the protagonist (lying down) rather than what sort of entity the protagonist was (cow, crow?, pig).

‘Lie’ can have two quite different meanings. In order to avoid perpetuating such confusion the Bayala databases occasionally coin new words, or define what a word means in the databases. So the following are used, for example:
lie = lie down, sleep, rest
fib = tell untruth, lie
bullcow = singular of 'cattle'

Jeremy Steele

Monday 27 July 2015

19 July 2015


Trying to make sense of the Tasmanian language records is difficult, and akin to reading the future from tea-leaf arrangements in a cup. Take this as an example:
war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger
when the sun rise
The record indicates two words. So perhaps one is ‘sun’ and the other ‘rise’.

Fig. 1 wagala widiniga: ‘when the sun rise’

You can be sure there are lots of different records for both ‘sun’ and ‘rise’.

Here are some:

Fig. 2 Some records for ‘sun’

Fig. 3 Some records for ‘rise’

Obvious conclusion
Figs 2 (sun) and 3 (rise) present a broad range of possibilities for both ‘sun’ and ‘rise’.

It is tempting to opt for the apparently obvious choices for wagala widiniga, namely:
wa-gi-lina "sun, moon"
widi "get up"
to yield ‘sun rise’.
Even so, it could be prudent to attempt to be more thorough. 

Further research
What about considering wagala and widiniga, in their respelt forms?
Given that the original recorders’ classing of vowels was often uncertain, a search is necessary for both w-g-l- and w-d-...... words.

wagili etc.
Here are some results for w-g-l-:

Fig. 4 Records featuring w-g-l-

The least objectionable of this group for resolving our present puzzle is the last: wugali: ‘jump’. To jump is to rise.

wadina etc.
"war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger"
wagala widiniga
when the sun rise

For the second word, w-d-n-g-, there was only the one result: the very one we began with, above.

Consequently the search was then broadened to ...w-d-n-..., that is, for the w-d-n- sequence occurring in the middle or at any part of a word or phrase. This time there were no fewer than 100 results. Too broad to be useful.

So a new search was attempted with w-d-n-... exclusively at the beginning of a word. The results dropped to a more manageable 57 (including repetitions where several similar original records appeared).
Some key findings from this reduced group were these:

Fig. 5 Records featuring w-d-n-...

Reduced selection or not, it was a daunting range of possible meanings for w-d-n-... words.

Conundrum of the Tasmanian records
In the above list the parentheses — [ — in the grey columns indicate that the wadina etc. word is part of a longer expression. 
Note that the EngJSM translation (yellow column) does not always match the original ‘English’ (grey column) translation. This is because the original translation might relate to a two- or three-word original record. So the yellow translation might be a temporary ‘best guess’ at the significance of the wadina etc. portion.
Where there is no entry in the yellow column, this means that so far it has not been possible to hazard a meaning for either (or any) portion of the original record. To insert a wild (and possibly wrong) guess impairs the functioning of the database. Hence the blanks.

The large size of the Fig. 5 table demonstrates the difficulty of making sense of the Tasmanian records. From such an array of potential meanings, fixing on an actual true meaning would seem often little better than guesswork.

The purple ‘source’ column in the tables includes the regional language, or area, where known. Thus ‘T-NE’ represents Tasmania: North-East, and OyB indicates Oyster Bay, the five language areas being marked on this map:

Fig. 6 Language ares in Tasmania

What does wagala widiniga really mean?
The challenge in arriving at a meaning for the original record
"war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger"
wagala widiniga
when the sun rise

seems hopeless, given the range of second-word possibilities. 

widi... words
When, however, a search was made exclusively for widi words, the following were among those that  resulted:

Fig. 7 Records featuring widi...

Apart from two items in Fig. 7 (widi), all records were to do with ‘up’ in some form: sky, high, rise, moon, sun — even ‘head’. Perhaps all were right, but for the present exercise we might opt for widi to mean ‘sun’ (or equally ‘moon’).

Drawing it together
Back to the beginning then, and 
"war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger"
wagala widiniga
when the sun rise

The object is to consider the results presented in the tables, to determine if there might be any reasonable matches for the ‘when the sun rise’ original translation.

In Fig. 4 (wagili etc.), the records meaning ‘hair’ seemed unlikely to have anything to do with ‘sun rise’ and could thus be safely discounted. Likewise, too, the meanings of ‘calf’ and ‘shellfish’ could be dismissed. This left the single most likely  possibility: ‘jump’.

In Fig. 5 (wadina etc.), the only records seeming likely candidates were ‘high’ and ‘heaven / sky’, when hyena, black, testicles and all the improbable rest were omitted.

Fig. 7 (widi...) seemed promising. widi was featured with extras: either suffixes, or perhaps additional words. Reflecting on this, it seemed profitable to re-examine the original record, widiniga:

Fig. 8  widiniga

An aside
By the way, the Wiradhuri word for ‘fire’ is wi.
And the Sydney language word for ‘fire’ is gwiyang, which includes the element -wi-.
The sun is a big fire in the sky.
This observation might, of course, be regarded as an entirely irrelevant coincidence — except for the fact that traces of mainland languages keep cropping up in the Tasmanian lists.

A final reflection
If widiniga were perchance two words, widi niga, what might niga mean?

Time for a final search.

Fig. 9 niga

There were more results for niga than shown in Fig. 9, but this last table is a reasonable summary nevertheless. 
It seemed safe to discount the first item ‘bird’ as having nothing to do with the sun, or rising.
It seemed equally safe to reject the last item in the table, ‘this’ for the same reason.  There are many records for the demonstrative ‘this’ in the Tasmanian database, mainly as nigu, nigi, niga and nginigu
This left three items in the middle of the table, ‘there’ and ‘hill’. These could be related: a ‘hill’ might be viewed as ‘over there’. 

So just for fun it was postulated that in this case niga was indeed ‘hill’. 

Tentative conclusion
So how does the original record look now?
"war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger"
wagala widi niga
when the sun rise

wagala: jump
widi: sun
niga: hill

This yielded a final (and of course possibly erroneous) translation for:
"war.ka.la we.tin.ne.ger"
wagala widiniga
as ‘jump sun hill’.

Fig. 10 wagala widi niga: jump sun hill

The sun jumping over the hill conjures up a new, and charming, way of thinking about a sunrise.


Sunday 19 July 2015

05 July 2015


It is very easy to grab the wrong end of the stick. It is very easy to jump to wrong conclusions. Perhaps that is being done here.

In the early Tasmanian records collected by Plomley:
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.

there is a section about the upper arm. It comprises small groups of words in the series:
bara / bari 
baga / bagi
dala / dila / dula

dala group
It was the dala / dila / dula group that first caught the attention of Your Amateur Research (YAR).

Fig. 1 Shoulder: dala etc.

It was then noticed there were some similar words:
Fig. 2 Other body parts near, and somewhat akin to, shoulder

Plomley himself states:
“... the Tasmanians appear not to have distinguished the upper arm from the forearm; and there were other differences of conception, from which the conclusion may be drawn that the natives thought of the body in relation to regions rather than to segments.” [p.82]

Plomley adds:
“The shoulder is not clearly distinguished from either the arm or the back. Thus, wer.ne.ner (one record by cr [Charles Robinson]) belongs to the wer.ner group (arm): and the to.len.ner group (perhaps also tal.lar.ner) to the tole.len.ner group (back).

The parangana - par.ren.ner - puggarenna series makes up the only words which appear to refer exclusively to the shoulder, ...” [p.82]

The question is: what was in the minds of the Tasmanians in using these words? Apparently not exactly the same viewpoint as the Europeans’.

Given the fact that for the most part we are dealing with word stems of two or three syllables only, to which many distinguishing suffixes may be aded, there is the possibility for the researcher today to make an incorrect analysis. There are, for example, in the Plomley records about 350 words of the form beginning bVrV, where ‘V’ is any vowel. Three hundred and forty-seven in fact, which is a great many — and great is the possibility for drawing wrong conclusions.

In the dala / dila / dula group are to be found the following, among many other words:

Fig. 3 Shellfish have ‘arms’, or ‘shoulders’

There is also the following:
Fig. 4 A bird has an ‘arm’, or ‘wing’

Why pick these out? What connection might they have to some human body parts? Because, perhaps, the Tasmanians were seeing a fauna-object with arms / wings rather than specifically 'shoulder' etc. as provided in the given English translation.

bagi group
The same process can be identified in the baga / bagi group.
Fig. 5 Shoulder bagi etc.

Once again, the word is ‘shoulder’, or perhaps ‘arm’.

In passing, note that the second record, ‘bagny’, has here been taken to be a mis-transcription of the same original handwriting of ‘baguy’  in the record above — confirmed by ‘bagui’ in the record below it.

And now, a final record to consider:
Fig. 6 Feather bagi etc.

In Fig. 6 the record is virtually identical to the final one in Fig. 5, yet now with the meaning ‘feather’. But what if ‘feather’ were itself an incorrect interpretation of what the unknown Oyster Bay  informant were trying to convey: ‘wing’ (i.e. an ‘arm’ of a bird)?


If this analysis were to be correct, it demonstrates that the records cannot be taken at face value, and that the given translations are a clue to what the Tasmanian word meant, rather than an absolute indicator. Scrutiny of the records can yield insights.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 5 July 2015