30 August 2015

Tasmanian: rana: 'bone'

Working on the Tasmanian vocabuaries
Here is a typical fragment of Tasmanian vocabulary:

Fig. 1 Extract from the Joseph Milligan list held by the Mitchell Library <http://www.acmssearch.sl.nsw.gov.au/search/itemDetailPaged.cgi?itemID=430548>

It is by Joseph Milligan, in 1857.

It features long words. Here is part of what Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) has made of this particular fragment:
Fig. 2 Extract from the Tasmanian database, in the Bayala series of Australian language databases developed by YAR

In the above database extract the green numbers on the left are where the words occur in N.J.B. Plomely’s book, by page and line number:
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.

As reading the above fragment is to too difficult, here is a detail:
Fig. 3 ‘brother/, ‘brow’

And here is another, from near the end of the list:
Fig. 4 ‘chin’, ‘chine’

Just to explain what is going on, the grey columns feature the original records: the Tasmanian words in the bold-type column, and their translations in the other grey column.
The brown columns are respellings in a standard way of the original Tasmanian words.
If a particular word has been analysed into components, the full word is placed in the paler of the two brown columns.
The yellow column is YAR’s own estimation of what any entry actually means.

As for the blue and red middle columns, they are where the analysed sub-components are placed. Such placing is admittedly somewhat arbitrary, although not entirely. It should be added too that the dividing of words into constituent elements owes much to guesswork at this stage. As more knowledge is acquired, the guesswork becomes less wild.

As of the time of writing, this database has over 15000 entries.

A small discovery: rana
What a database does is to enable comparisons to be made among the records. It is the main advantage a present-day researcher has over the original recorders. They had access to the language speakers, but they did not have computers.

What interests YAR in this particular fragment of records is the suffix -rana, in the bright red central column, or as a separate word in the dark brown column. The words ‘brother’, brow’ and ‘chine (backbone) feature rana as a word or suffix, as shown in the two detailed extracts.

As is the case in so many Tasmanian words, something like rana crops up quite often. mina is another instance of a word or part-word with frequent occurrences. It would of course just be too simple to identify what such an item means in one instance, and assume it meant that for all. Too simple indeed. But it does appear that with ‘brow’ and ‘chine’ we have a common meaning: ‘bone’. What the rana in brother (and various other instances) signifies has yet to be determined.

rana: bone suffix
The following table presents evidence of where -rana might indicate ‘bone’. You will notice that the word ‘bone’ actually forms part of the original (grey) translations in some instances while in others it does not. For example, in the first entry, bada is one of the Tasmanian words for ‘head’, giving bada-rana ‘head bone’ rather than ‘skull’:

Fig. 5 Words featuring -rana ‘bone’

Fig. 6 bada: ‘head’

rana as a word
rana does not occur only as a suffix. The following table presents several instances of when rana features as an independent word. The table also offers an insight into the mindset of the original Tasmanians. For rana was not just bone as we know it, but something hard, bone-like. In fact only the first of the examples is specifically for ‘bone’. But a waddy (club), fingernail, and shell are all hard (bone-like) things.

Fig. 7 rana: bone

More than one Tasmanian language: chin
Should you be wondering about  gumi and waba both meaning ‘chin’ in Fig. 4, this is because the words come from difference languages within Tasmania:

WABA: south-east
Fig. 8 South-east: waba chin

GAMU: north-east
Fig. 8 North-east: gumi chin

YAR still has a very long way to go in making sense of the Tasmanian lists.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 30 August 2015


19 August 2015

Mistakes in the word lists

Europeans encountered Aboriginal people from before the upheaval that began in 1788. Lists of words were obtained in Botany bay in 1770, and then at Cooktown. The scene below is representative of such occasions. 

'The first settlers discover Buckley' by Frederick William Woodhouse, 1861 [State Library of Victoria]. This work is out of copyright.

However, in the moment depicted here, it is unlikely that any word lists were made. The occasion was when the escaped convict William Buckley (1780-1857), who had lived for years among Aboriginals at the south-west of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, arrived at John Batman’s camp in July 1835.

But now and again vocabulary items were sought when Europeans found themselves in company with the original inhabitants. So you can imagine a scene somewhere in Tasmania where a white man (let’s call him Riyana) was with an Aboriginal (say, Balawa). They had no shared language, but Riyana was keen to learn some words, and was taking notes. Time and again in such settings the questions would begin with words for what it is seemingly easiest to ascertain: the names for parts of the body. So Mr Riyana might point to his own hand with an enquiring look, and be given a word for it. He would then write the word down, with ‘hand’ alongside. But any words given at such a moment might in reality include ‘my hand’, ‘that’s my hand’, ‘finger’, palm of the hand’, thumb’, ‘fist’, even ‘forearm’, ‘wrist’ and so on. Mr Riyana cannot recognise these subtleties, and so just writes ‘hand’ for whatever Balawa has told him.

Let us continue the speculation. Just below where they are sitting there is a creek. Now Mr Riyana points towards the creek enquiringly once again. Dutifully he writes down the response, with ‘creek’ beside his entry. Only later — perhaps much later by someone with a database — it is revealed that Balawa’s word was not ‘creek’ but ‘frog’, he having mistaken the croaking going on in the creek for what Riyana was asking about. Next Riyana points to a distant hill and asks its name. Balawa sees the stretched out pointing arm, with Riyana apparently holding out his finger for consideration, having no idea that for the moment they have stopped talking about body parts. Balawa, seeing the white finger displayed, asserts: “That’s your ‘finger’”. Riyana dutifully records the name of the hill as ‘Finger’, which of course it is not.

The opportunities for getting the wrong end of the stick are numerous, and accordingly the stated meanings in word lists should be regarded with caution.

Imagine Riyana now points at Balawa’s nose, his finger close but not actually touching. 
In the Tasmanian records are the following, probably from situations much as described:

Fig. 1 The main entries for ‘nose’

In the records there are several similar entries for each row in the table. Those appearing in Fig. 1 are just one from each group.

Below are additional ‘nose’ records but with perhaps only a single instance of each:

Fig. 2: Lesser entries for ‘nose’

Accordingly these might be taken as less certain.

It is, however, the first group, Fig. 1, that is of especial interest, and in particular the last three, nos 6-8, the mina collection.

Let us digress briefly. Obtaining the names of body parts in this way is a somewhat personal business. The most personal item of all in a language is the first person singular pronoun, ‘I’ (1sgNOM), and ‘me’ (1sgACC). These in some of the Tasmanian languages are both mina. There appears to have been no distinction in the nominative and accusative usages.

Fig. 3 ‘I’, ‘we’: the first person singular nominative and accusative pronoun in some Tasmanian languages

Is is chance alone that has the same word mina occurring in words for ‘nose’, and for ‘I’, and ‘me’? Perhaps not. For when Riyana pointed to Balawa’s nose, Balawa might well have thought Riyana was pointing directly at him, not specifically at his nose, so giving the response ‘me’, and not ‘nose’. [See Fig.1, Row 6]
In the next two rows, Balawa might have replied, ‘my nose’ (mina riwari, or mina wari). Indeed there are traces of the word for ‘nose’ riwari and wari in Rows 1, 4 and 5 (drawaridiya, muniwara, rawariga).

It is tempting to consider the same mistake occurring in words for tongue, in Fig. 4:

Fig. 4 Words for ‘tongue’, the number of records for each being shown in the last column

However, while mina does occur for ‘tongue’, there are only four records for it. There are far more (15) for the nearly similar word mini, and quite a few (7) for a somewhat less similar collection beginning m-m... So ‘nose’ probably really was mini, with mina as a variant, or a mis-recording, of mini. The mini–mina similarity was probably just a coincidence.

Further confusion
Tantalisingly, mina seems to have had a role as a suffix, for both nouns and verbs. Two tables follow, one for each of these parts of speech. Admittedly, in some of the examples mina could be interpreted as the 1sg pronoun, but how are we now to know?


Fig. 5: Nouns suffixed with mina. These can’t all have meant ‘my’, could they?


“punna meena”
bana mina =
“burn (hurt by fire)”
smoke xxx :
Plomley mj [A610:177:19] [OyB]
binagara mina =
vomit :
Plomley sn [:387:9] []
blugamina =
whistle :
Plomley sn [:467:39] []
dagara-mina =
cry :
Plomley mj [:194:1] [OyB]
“tyackaree - meena”
diyagari-mina =
spit :
Plomley mj [:406:10] [OyB]
“kamena meena”
gami-na-mina =
spit :
Plomley mj [:405:37] [T-se]
ligrumina =
sweat :
Plomley mj [:420:15] [T-se]
mana-mina =
spit :
Plomley sn [:405:40] []
munmina =
“to black with charcoal”
blacken :
Plomley gar [:165:35] [OyB]
wadamunimina =
sleep :
Plomley gar [:396:4] [T-NE]
Fig. 6 Verbs suffixed with mina. These , too, can’t all have meant ‘my’, could they?

Examples of confusion
The following tables show instances of apparent misunderstanding between the European word collector and his informant. (‘His’? Alas, in Your Amateur Researcher’s records the major collectors were all men, apart from Mary Everitt for Gundungarra.)

Frog and stream

Fig. 7 ‘frog’ and ‘stream’ confusion

The ‘finger’ story really happened, at least once:

Fig. 8: birili: Sydney language word for ‘finger’

Fig. 9: Map showing Berrilee, 30 or so kilometres from Sydney, off the highway to Newcastle.

Final word
In 1824 the French medical officer and explorer R.P. Lesson had an encounter with the wife of the noted Sydney Aboriginal man Bungaree. Her English name was Gooseberry. Whether she was making fun of the hapless Frenchman we know not, but here are three of his records of interview.

Fig. 10 Records from an interview between R.P. Lesson and Gooseberry, in 1824, somewhere to the northward of Sydney

When Lesson pointed at her eye, Gooseberry said ‘Gooseberry’, that is to say ‘me’. Just as described above for ‘nose’.

When he pointed to her lip, she said ‘kiss’, clearly knowing some English.

And Lesson recorded nandara for ‘teeth’, but what Gooseberry actually said was two words: ‘that tooth’ (that is a tooth).


Wednesday 19 August 2015

09 August 2015

Tasmanian HAIR

Hair? In Aboriginal languages there are often different words for it. Hair on the head, beard, and the not politely mentioned pubic hair. And the Tasmanians just the same.

A search in the Tasmanian Bayala database brings up 97 responses to ‘hair’, although numerous of them are duplicates either occurring more than once in the Plomley records ...

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.

... or because the same word was collected more than once, by different recorders.

One of the most common of these ‘hair’ words, accounting, in various forms, for almost 20 of the entries is the following:

Fig. 1 gidana: ‘hair’ words

Tasmanian long words
The last in this group appears to be two words. Or was it just another of the notoriously long Tasmanian word such as:

Fig. 2 lagumabana: ‘hair‘ — a typically long Tasmanian word

In the opinion of Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) there were no more long words in Tasmanian than in Aboriginal languages generally. That is, words were usually of two or perhaps three syllables. Consequently any word that smacked of being a long one was probably two or more words run together, or conceivably a single word with a combination of suffixes appended. Unfortunately the suffixes were never identified in the records. Joseph Milligan, one of the most extensive recorders, dismissed them as follows:

The distinctly different pronunciation of a word by the same person on different occasions is very perplexing, until the radical or essential part of the word, apart from prefixes and suffixes, is caught hold of. The affixes, which signify nothing, are la, lah, le, leh, leah, na, ne, nah, ba, be, beah, bo, ma, me, meah, pa, poo, Ta, re, ta, te, ak, ek, ik, etc. [Plomley, p.30]

‘Signify nothing’, indeed. The suffixes are, like prepositions in English, the gears that make the whole language machine operate.

More ‘hair’ words from different parts of the island
Here are some other groups of records for ‘hair’, with the number of instances given in the final (green) column:

Fig. 3 Other groups of words for ‘hair’

There are a few more examples still for ‘hair’, not included in the Fig. 3 table.

The purple column shows the region, and hence the language, the words come from: West, Oyster Bay (central east), South-East, North-East.

As mentioned, sometimes the original records show more than one word, other times a 'long' word. A separation of the word into its component parts has been attempted in the brown 'respelt' column in Fig. 3, and elsewhere. This is often just a guess.

There is something missing in this analysis so far: ‘beard’. Here are some typical records

Fig. 4 ‘Beard’ examples

What do the first two examples actually mean? And are the others really 'beard' or 'chin'?

Undisclosed words for ‘hair’
The first two examples in Fig. 4 are two-word items. The next four of the examples give a clue as to the meaning of the first word in each: either ‘chin’ or ‘beard’. In the opinion of YAR, the real meaning of this word is ‘chin’. So what about the second word in each of the first two examples?

Fig. 5 ‘Hair’

Neither wagili nor burina / barana are listed in the ‘hair’ words in the records, but we can deduce from Fig. 5 that they actually mean ‘hair’. In fact anything thin, wavy and growing seems to have been regarded in much the same way:

Fig. 5 ‘reed‘ — hair-like

Having gone this far, we might as well try to crack one more puzzle, ‘armpit’:

Fig. 6 ‘armpit’

The first two examples in Fig. 6 are double barrelled once again. Surely at this stage we safely infer that burina, the second component, means ‘hair’. And the third item in Fig. 6, gada, is revealed as meaning ‘armpit’. So gadi burina would appear to mean not ‘armpit’ but ‘armpit hair’.

Final puzzle solved
Likewise the first two items in Fig. 4, reproduced below:

Fig. 7 ‘chin hair

do not mean ‘beard’ but rather ‘chin hair’.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 9 August 2015