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

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