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

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