20 October 2015
TASMANIA: Having a look at suffixes
Affixes: prefixes, infixes, suffixes — the lot
Joseph Milligan, who provided more extensive vocabularies than anyone else, famously stated about the Tasmanian languages:
“The affixes, which signify nothing, are la, lah, le, leh, leah, na, ne, nah, ba, be, beah, bo, ma, me, meah, pa, poo, ra, re, ta, te, ak, ek, ik, etc.”
He further declared: “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.”
Today we can only take his word on the matter of pronunciation. And he is right about there being prefixes and suffixes. But it is a pity that when he had the chance to enquire as to the specific meaning of the suffixes he did not do so, instead dismissing them as meaningless. You might equally say of English that its prepositions are meaningless. In Aboriginal languages, the suffixes are what make them all work.
Pronouns and cases
Milligan was not alone in giving no explanation of the suffixes. Hardly any of the multitude of them are identified by any of the recorders. One word often appearing as a suffix, mina: 1sg — ‘I’ and ‘me‘ — is identified; as equally is nina 2sg ‘thou’, ‘thee’ (you). But what about ‘we’, ‘you’ (plural), and ‘they’? And did the pronouns have ‘you-two’ and ‘you-all’ forms in common with other Aboriginal languages? And likewise ‘we-two’ and ‘we-all’ (as well as inclusive and exclusive versions of these), and ‘they-two’ and ‘they-all’? There is virtually no trace of these vital words in any of the lists.
Similarly, what about the case endings of nouns? There is no information, or practically none, about nominative (subject) and accusative (object) functions. Nor about the possessive (‘of’), the dative — whether ‘to’, ‘towards’ or ‘for’ (known as allative and purposive by some specialists), nor the ablative (‘by’: causitive; ‘from’: elative; ‘with’: comitative; and ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘on’: locative). Nor instrumental ‘with’, ‘using’ (as ‘I hit the nail with a hammer’). These are all common in Aboriginal languages, and may well have been present in the list of suffixes ‘signifying nothing’ to Milligan.
So it is that your amateur researcher (YAR) is currently investigating the vocabularies of the several languages of Tasmania, in an attempt to establish that Milligan’s list really did mean something after all. The Tasmanian languages are shown in the following illustration:
Map by Claire Bowern
in counter-clockwise sequence from where they were first encountered in the south:
together with possibly South; and perhaps others.
While large numbers of suffixes have been determined from the records, many may not have been accurately fixed. For as Milligan cautioned, it is necessary to catch hold of the STEM of a word, and separate it from any SUFFIX present. But the question remains: where does a particular stem end and a suffix start? Very often it is not easy to tell ...
karnamoonalané conversation (a great talking)
mar.pe.gen.ne.mar.tun.ni I think
Try it yourself.
The main purpose of the present essay is to propose the identification of one suffix, which might even be a combination of two.
Aboriginal languages probably universally have a pair of contrasting suffixes for the concepts ‘having’ and ‘lacking’, sometimes termed proprietive, and abessive or privative, respectively.
One particular suffix had been noted in the Tasmanian database, which is combined with a variety of words without any apparent connection with one another. Here it is:
Fig. 1 -wadina records
The suffix concerned: -wadina. The last, purple, column reveals the source of the records, and the language where known. Many records include no such territorial information, but where it occurs in the examples above it is NE in all instances — except one for neighbouring Oyster Bay. This would suggest that the corresponding suffix for other languages might be something different.
The proposed meaning for the -wadina suffix is the proprietive ‘having’. The first two examples suggested it might mean ‘red’, as part of the term ‘ochre red’ but on further reflection this explanation seemed unlikely.
And such is the impoverished quality of the Tasmanian records generally that in almost every case in the table when YAR attempted to establish a precise meaning he was unable to find anything worth reporting to back up the suggestion that the linking concept for -wadina might be ‘having’.
It might be briefly noted that some of the entries are for body parts; but as many are not, that does not appear to be a feasible interpretation of -wadina either.
Note also that ‘spit’ in the centre of the table might actually be a mis-transcription of ‘shut’.
And the record for ‘child’ might in reality mean ‘woman-having’, this being confirmed in part by Fig. 5 (luwa: ‘woman’) as well as by multitudinous other examples in the database. But ‘woman-having’ would be a more appropriate term for a ‘husband’ (one who has a woman) than for a child — unless ‘child’ were to be viewed as ‘mother-having’.
Many meanings of luwina
A rare record occurs in the database where luwi actually means ‘child’ rather than ‘woman’:
Fig. 2 luwi-na: ‘child’
Note, however, that the word luwi- (with diverse suffixes) also happens to mean a variety of other things, among which are ‘blue wren’, ‘cold’ (weather), ‘cut’ (wood with axe), ‘gun’, ‘hip bone’, ‘itch’, ‘moon’, ‘navel’, ‘night’, ‘one’, ‘plenty’, ‘rub’, ‘sister’, ‘sky’, ‘snake’, ‘stone’, ‘sun’, ‘three’, ‘tree’ and ‘tuber’. This might seem an oddly diverse collection, but sometimes some possible links can be dimly perceived. Thus the group [cold / night / moon / sun / plenty] might all be to do with looking at the heavens, at night, when it might be cold, and when there are myriads of celestial objects to look at: the European recorder catching the words at the time might well have jumped to incorrect conclusions as to meanings. Even [cut / gun / itch] might conceivably be linked through ‘weapon’, old muskets when discharged with shot perhaps causing ‘itch’ rather than severe wounding. And so on.
Consider then three other examples:
Fig. 3 Child-having
In Fig. 3 it is assumed that baga and biga are different renderings of the same word, ‘child’.
There are many records for ‘testicles’ (apologies here for any indelicacy in mentioning this word and subject) in the Tasmanian Bayala database. Most are similar to the following, which was collected in 1793 by the officers of the French frigates La Recherche and l’Espérance, at Recherche Bay in the south-east of the island.
Fig. 4 Ball
mada indicates circularity, roundness, or ‘ball’.
But two of the examples in Fig. 3 have a different (i.e. non-mada) concept for ‘testicle’. The third example has (at first sight improbably) the identical form to the second, but an entirely different meaning: not ‘testicle’ but ‘mother’.
Perhaps from Fig. 3 it might be inferred that the Tasmanians had real understanding of the procreative process, for how else might the different attributed meanings be reconciled?
The next table merely provides some common words for ‘child’ and ‘woman’.
Fig. 5 ‘child’ and ‘woman’
YAR is not particularly happy with the identification of -wadina as meaning ‘having’, but puts it forward in the hope that some reader might be prompted to offer a more plausible interpretation.
The intention is to provide, in due course, suggestions as to what other suffixes might mean.
Tuesday 20 October 2015