26 January 2016


The word marama in the Tasmanian word lists caught the attention again today. The meaning given for it is ‘star’.

No-one quite knows when the last person was able to walk from the Australian mainland to Tasmania. Why it was possible at all was because it was the ice age — or more precisely the last ice age. In fact we are still in the remnants of that ice age, because ice is still piled up, sometimes kilometres thick it is said, in Antarctica. If it all melted, they say, sea levels would rise, around 60 metres. Your Amateur Researcher (YAR) really knows nothing of all this, but this much can be reasonably surmised. If many of the land masses on the planet in the last ice age looked like Antarctica today, with ice stacked on them say to a depth of two kilometres, and if the same amount of water existed then as now in one form or another, there would be lots of it on the land, and correspondingly much less in the oceans. Everywhere, not just in the Bass Strait. So often you could get from one place to another without a boat.
But eventually the ice age mostly went away, and water returned to the oceans. The sea levels rose and Tasmania was isolated. Thus the Aboriginals who had lived there for say 40 000 years were separated from the rest — let’s say 10 000 years ago. That’s twice the time from the building of the Pyramids to the present. A huge long time, and all the while with nothing ever written down. Now back to today.

So marama means ‘star’, according to the records:
Fig. 1 Marama: stars

This appears to be the record that various others have subsequently copied. The author of it was one Jorgen Jorgenson, who produced one of the best lists of Tasmanian words. This actual record is from the papers of T.H. Braim, held by the Mitchell Library (State Library of NSW, reference MLA 614). It is in turn recorded on the Tasmanian Bayala Database as follows:
Fig. 2 marama: ‘star’

‘T-W’ (i.e. Tasmania West) in the ‘Source’ column reveals that the word was taken down on the western side of the island.
So what? Well, for those who might wonder whether the Tasmanian languages arose entirely separately from those on the mainland, there is the following evidence, or coincidence, to consider.

In the Anon notebook, compiled by one or more of the First Fleeters around 1790-91, there is the following entry:
Fig. 3 ‘The sun setting red’

This record also features in the Bayala databases, the one entitled ALLSYD, as follows:
Fig. 4: dyara marama guwing: red shine sun

The question arises, which actual word means what?

While there are several other records suggesting that dyara means ‘bone’ and ‘distress’, there are also the following where it (or a word like it) indicates ‘redness’:
Fig. 5: dyara: red

While YAR could readily provide a comprehensive table to show that guwing means  ‘sun’, the following simplest one will do:
Fig. 6: guwing: ‘sun’

So that leaves marama, for which the meaning suggested in the yellow column of (Tasmania) Fig. 2 is ‘star’, and in (Sydney) Fig. 4, ‘shine’. Stars shine, that’s a fact. And it could be just a coincidence that the same word for these ideas is used by different languages far apart in space, and by languages far apart in time (Sydney language: AD 1790; Tasmanian: from pre ice age).

More coincidences
Can it also be a coincidence that the Wiradhuri language [Wira] in central NSW, and Muruwari  [Mrwi] up on the Queensland border, also have words identical or similar to marama for ‘shine’ / ‘star’, as indicated in the table below?
Fig. 7 Inland examples of ‘shine’, ‘star’

While ‘star’ and ‘shine’  are from the point of view of modern speakers of English — and other languages — quite different concepts, Aboriginal people might well have used one word for both ideas. Stars do shine. And when Aboriginal informants were asked what those little lights in the night sky were they might have stated the obvious: ‘Shine’.
Perhaps marama is the only such example of a trace of the mainland in Tasmanian languages. In fact it is not. Other words with mainland links include dark, dive, eat, eye, fear, laugh, path, quick, rise, swim, tongue and others. Some of these might possibly have been recorded from Sydney men who had been involuntary visitors to Van Diemen’s Land in the early days. In some such way, ‘kangaroo’ from far north Queensland was recorded in Recherche Bay in south-east Tasmania in the 1790s. However, it would seem unlikely that all such words can have been imports of this sort, and that some at least must have been residual forms from the ancient Australian language presumed to have been common across much of the land mass in prehistoric times.

Jeremy Steele
Monday 14 December 2015


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