26 January 2016

Grub for grub

Meeting some Tasmanians
It’s the year 1793, and the place later known as Tasmania. Ten years before the first European settlement to be established. There had been occasional European sightings and visits since 1642, and this was one such, by the French. It was the expedition, under Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, that was looking for the lost explorer La Perouse. They were in Recherche Bay, named after their own ship, on the south-east coast.
Fig. 1 Tasmanians in 1793 preparing food, by Piron

This painting by the artist Piron records the second of two encounters with the local people. Two of the French met 42 local inhabitants on the first occasion, and a larger group met 17 or so on the second. As can be seen, the Aboriginals wore no clothes. They led a hunting and gathering life style, which meant that they did not get their food from shops (there were none), or out of tins. And that some of the things that served as food people today might not much like the sound of.

Collecting words
The French took the opportunity of these friendly meetings to make lists of words, mostly body parts  and things that could be seen round about. A hundred or so words were collected, and Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) happens to have copies of four of the lists, made by the following crew members:
Willaumez senior, Ensign on the Recherche
Mérite, a volunteer on the Recherche
Riche, naturalist on the Esperance
Piron, artist on the Recherche
This last list was probably Piron’s from the signature, but you can decide:

Fig. 2 Illegible signature: Piron [?]

He is marked with the red arrow is this beginning of the list of the ship’s company. Two of the other list compilers are indicated with blue arrows

Fig. 3 On the Recherche: from:
Labillardière, Jacques Julien Houton de. Relation du Voyage à la Recherche de La Pérouse: Fait par Ordre de l’Assemblée Constituante pendant pes Années 1791, 1792 et pendant la 1ère. et la 2de. Année de la République Françoise. Tome Premier [Vol. I]. Paris: Chez H.J. Jansen, Imprimeur-Libraire, 1800.

Are the words correct?
When we see a word list compiled by someone on the spot, and when we see such remarks as that they checked for the meaning by asking various questions and repeating each word to make sure it was right, we tend to believe the compilers. And believe them we must, for how are we to know any differently? Except today we have computers and databases.
Here are words that look as though they sound in more or less the same way, taken down in 1793 during these encounters:
Fig. 4 baruwi: ‘insect’ [Mérite]

Fig. 5 baruwi: ‘caterpillar’ [Riche]

Fig. 6 baruwa: ‘eat’ [Riche]

Fig. 7 baruwa: ‘for me’ [Piron?]

In the last column you can see who collected the word. The first two examples (by Mérite and Riche) pretty well agree: baruwi means a caterpillar, or an insect. We might call it a ‘grub’. The last two (by Riche again and probably Piron) are given quite different meanings. What could account for this?
First baruwi might be different from baruwa. However, the records do not offer much immediate support for either ‘eat’ or the pronoun ‘for me’.  So could there be anything else to explain the meanings given?

Tasty morsel

Fig. 8 Offering a choice grub

Perhaps this: a person offers a tasty grub to another to eat. ‘For me?’, the other enquires.

Were ‘eat’ and ‘for me” complete misunderstandings of what was going on? This is admittedly sheer speculation. But how else can the wordlists sometimes be comprehended?

Jeremy Steele
Friday 18 December 2015


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