22 November 2015


The Tasmanian Bayala database keeps throwing up small insights into the Tasmanian languages, and suggests the launching of a goose chase.

Your Amateur Researcher happened to be checking the word ‘munwaddia’, given as meaning ‘feather’.

Fig. 1 ‘Feather’

When this word is analysed into what are assumed to be its component parts, in this case fixing mun- as the stem, the database automatically throws up other words beginning the same way.

Apart from ‘feather’ beginning mun-, there are ‘flour’ and ‘white’ and ‘parrot’, seen in the second column in Fig. 2:

Fig. 2 Other mun... words

What can flour, white and parrot possibly have in common?

White birds and their feathers, and white flour

Fig. 3 Some white things: cockatoo and bag of flour

Nothing, except that some parrots, and their feathers — as well as flour — are white.

With this discovery you are encouraged to look further into the database to see what else might crop up.

So here are two additional entries beginning mun... that might well be linked to the underlying theme of ‘white’: fog and cloud.

Fig. 4 More white things: ‘fog’ and ‘cloud’

Clouds, and fog, are both white at times.

White skulls
Next, ‘skull’ presents itself. Skulls are white, round, bones:

Fig. 5 Another white thing: ‘skull’ is possible ‘white’

What about the suffixes?
By the way, this all makes you wonder about the suffixes on all these mun- words. And of course about the quality of the records.
For example, could -wadya in Fig. 1 mean something specific? Could -dum in Fig. 2 really indicate ‘heavy’? (Probably not.)

Fig. 5 suggests that perhaps the stem is is actually mu- rather than mun..., with suffixes -na and -gina. There are certainly many examples of both -na and -gina suffixes elsewhere in the database. However, what the significance of these two suffixes is has yet to be determined.

What does braga mean?
The last example (in Fig. 5) prompts an inquiry into the first part of the word for ‘skull’: 

Fig. 6 Skull

Above are the completed records for ‘skull’

What could braga / briga mean?
Try asking the database:

Fig. 7 Possibly ‘breast’ and other meanings

Could it be that the link between ‘skull’ and ‘breast’ (if ‘breast’ is actually correct) is something ‘round’, which both might be said to be? Unfortunately there is nothing in the database to support this view. Then what could the connection be? 

draga, raga and possibly braga: ‘spear’
More speculation required. It is just possible that braga might be ‘spear’. Spears have points, which would fit some examples in Fig. 7, but skulls do not. Some other spear words have a form not unlike braga: draga and raga.

Fig. 8 draga / raga: ‘spear’

Features of Tasmanian languages
One intriguing feature of Tasmanian languages is that consonant clusters are permitted: such as ‘dr-’ in draga. Another is that sometimes words have prefixes: thus raga, and draga with a prefixing d-, are both ‘spear’. Could it conceivably be that braga- in Fig. 7 is also a version of ‘spear‘ — rather than ‘breast’ as suggested above? But this is approaching the far fetched, and the goose chase has at this stage become wild. (Yet another such feature not pursued here is syllables inserted into the stems of words.)

mun...: ‘white’ after all?
Finallly, having run ourselves into the ground, let us return to mun-, meaning ‘white’, where we began. Now what do we make of the following record?

Fig. 9 mun- here meaning ‘black’ rather than white

Conclusion: inconclusive
This short essay has been a glimpse into the tantalising character of the Tasmanian records. When a glimmer of light seems to offer a clue to interpreting them, the picture soon becomes as confused as ever. Can we draw any conclusions from this latest scamper through them? Probably that mun- has something to do with ‘white’.

Jeremy Steele
Sunday 22 November 2015