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


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