Monday, May 02, 2011

New England Aboriginal life - introducing language

Note to readers: This is the third in a continuing series introducing readers to past and present Aboriginal life in New England. Those who are interested can find a full list of posts by either clicking New England Aboriginal life or, if you want, to read in date order from one up, click on Introducing New England Aboriginal life.

My last post in this series, New England Aboriginal life - Collarenebri rap, was as the name says.

I wanted to follow that post with some other visual material. However, I have been having continuing and frustrating download problems. For that reason, some text.

Language is central to life. New England's Aboriginal languages were progressively destroyed by European intrusion and then re-emerged much later as a consequence of the language revival movement.

The following material introducing Aboriginal languages is taken from a paper I delivered in Armidale last year. I still have some editing to do on the paper to incorporate comments received, but the core is okay.

Please note that I am not a linguist. I still struggle with pronunciation!   

In 1788 there were perhaps 250 Aboriginal language groups in Australia incorporating perhaps 700 dialects[i]. The precise distinction between language and dialect can be a difficult one. In general, speakers of different dialects within a language group are likely to be able to understand each other or at least recognise that they speak different varieties of the same language.

The distinction between languages and dialects has become an issue among some Aboriginal people who object to their language being classified as a dialect of another. I will talk a little later about classification problems. From my perspective, the question of the relationship between languages and between languages and dialects should be seen as a technical one.

In considering languages, we also need to make a clear distinction between language and political or territorial boundaries[ii]. The broad language groups often covered substantial areas in geographic terms. There were a variety of shifting territorial and political boundaries within each language group. Just speaking the same or a related language did not make for everlasting friendship.

All Aboriginal languages share some common features. In grammatical terms, they have relatively free word order, allowing all possible ordering of subject, verb, object. Words show case, tense and mood by the addition of meaningful segments. Verbs and nouns have markers added to indicate who does what to whom, when and how. New words are formed by adding other meaningful segments. This can make for very long words, really sentences in themselves.

Most Aboriginal languages have only three vowels – i, a and u – although a few have four or more. As a New England example, the Bundjalung language group occupying territory stretching from the Clarence Valley into Southern Queensland uses four vowels – i, a,u and e - each of which can be pronounced as a longer vowel[iii]. There are also two semi-vowels in many languages, y and w

Words generally begin with a consonant, although Yaygirr (the Gumbainggiric language spoken around the mouth of the Clarence River) contains many words beginning with vowels such as aagal, sea[iv].

Within this language diversity, all the New England language groups now appear to belong to what has come to be called Pama-Nyungan, the dominant language grouping over much of Australia. I say now because one New England language, Anaiwan found on the southern New England Tablelands, was for a long while seen as distinct, not related to other Aboriginal languages. It took the pioneering work of linguist Terry Crowley to show that Anaiwan was in fact related to adjoining languages.[v]

Coined by the linguist Kenneth Hale from the words pama (person in Cape York) and nyunga (one in south western Australia), Pama-Nyungun languages have commonalities in the structure of words and the way words to relate to each other.

All the almost 190 Pama-Nyungan languages suffix their verbs and nouns to show grammatical relations. They are grouped into perhaps twenty major language groups.

It is clear is that with so many languages and dialects, only a few languages had many thousands of speakers, with numbers tailing away to hundreds in other cases. In some case, contiguous related languages or dialects covered large areas like links in a chain. People easily understood their neighbours because they shared vocabulary and could at least understand structure and pronunciation. As the chain lengthened, language difficulties increased; people at opposite ends might barely understand each other.

New England illustrates this pattern in an interesting way.

The Anaiwan or Nganyaywana Aboriginal peoples from the southern areas of the New England Tablelands appear to have been relatively homogeneous and limited in number although, as we shall see a little later, even here there is debate about the number of dialects. By contrast, the larger Bundjalung language group may have had as many as twenty separate dialects[vi].

To the west, the Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi), the peoples occupying a vast sweep of territory from the Upper Hunter through the western slopes and plains into what is now Queensland, may have had at least five major dialects, seven if the related languages of Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaaliyaay are included[vii]. Bigambul, the language group on the slopes and plains in Queensland to the north was also reported to be close to Gamilaraay[viii].

The following map drawn from Austin, Williams and Wurm 1980 and cited by Peter Austin (2006) shows one estimated distribution of Gamilaraay dialects[ix]. Note that the map terminates the Gamilaraay language at the Liverpool Ranges. In fact, it seems likely that Gamilaraay was spoken in the Upper Hunter.


Apart from any shared language features, communication among different languages was also made easier because most Aborigines were multi-lingual. Marriage partners were commonly exchanged with other groups, while groups mingled as well for social, ceremonial and trade occasions. This was to facilitate European expansion because many explorers and settlers made use of Aboriginal guides to bring them into new country.

With so many languages and dialects as well as the very different sounds, it is not surprising that the expression of things such as group names into English should lead to widely varied spellings and to subsequent confusion about the exact distribution of peoples and language.

If we take the Dainggatti or Dhanggati language group spoken in the Macleay Valley and its headwaters, alternative spellings given by the Austlang data base include (among others) Djaingadi, Dang-getti, Danghetti, Danggadi, Dhang-atty, Thangatti, Thangatty, Dangati, Dangadi, Dunghutti, Thungatti, Tangetti and Tang-gette[x].

This was further complicated by attachment of names reflecting location or particular groups rather than language.

Michael O’Rourke’s study of the Kamilaroi, draws this out very clearly[xi]. As an example, he points to the case of the Barradine area north of Coonabaraban which was assigned to both Burrigalu and Gamilaraay.

Burrigalu – burrie+galu: literally myall-tree + human plural – meant those who inhabit the myall country or myall dwellers. To O’Rourke’s mind, this was primarily a group or locality name. However, it could also mean the local variant or dialect of a larger language.

In contrast, the name Gamilaraay itself - gamil + array: literally no + having or having gamil for no – denoted a form of speech, the broader language spoken by the Kamilaroi as a whole. Even here, Gamilaraay could describe the language (that speech which has gamil for no) or, by implication, its speakers (those who use gamil for no).

The Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative points to the same issues with Bundjalung.[xii] It notes that it was thought that the term ‘Bandjalung’ was originally used to describe the dialect spoken around Bangawalbin Creek and was only later used used as a general term for the whole language, as well as as a term to refer to certain individual dialects. The Co-operative also notes that each dialect has a specific name of its own. Dialects include: Wahlubal (also known as Western Bandjalang), Yugambeh, Birrihn, the Barryugil dialect, Bandjalang, Wudjebal, Wiyabal, Wuhyabal, Minyangbal, Gidhabal, Galibal and Ngarrahngbal. Many of these names point to some characteristic peculiar to that dialect. For example, Gidhabal means ‘those who say gidha (alright)’, while Wiyabal means ‘those who say wiya (you)’.

Importantly, and as Tamsin Donaldson puts it, the Aborigines used several etymologically distinct naming systems, with different naming systems calling forth different names[xiii]. This way of classifying languages was not unique to the Australian Aborigines. All people have ways of drawing distinctions between us and them by distinguishing particular speech or territorial or political associations.

[i] The introductory overview material is drawn especial from John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999 pp 69-75; and Peter K Austin, Article MS 1711 Countries and language – Australia, Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics ELL2, pp 2-9,. accessed on line 19 August 2009

[ii] In using the term political boundaries I am not implying formal structures of the type associated with, for example, nation states. A closer analogy would be the type of relationships found in mediaeval Europe, in Scandinavia or indeed in Homer’s Greece. The 18th century Kamilaroi war leader the Red Kangaroo provides an interesting case study. Having taken control from the previous elders, he had built the Gunnedah mob up into a strong force by absorbing other groups. Raids from the Bundarra mob on the Goonoo Goonoo and Manaella mobs led them to seek support from the Red Kangaroo. The Red Kangaroo argued that support should be provided because the power of the Bundarra mob posed a threat. A joint war party was formed that defeated the Bundarra group. The case shows how political alliances were formed and used in Aboriginal Australia. (Michael O’Rourke, “Sung for Generations”, published by the author, Canberra 2005, pp 306-311).

[iii] Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, Bundjalung,, accessed on line 19 August 2009.

[iv] Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, Yaygirr,, accessed on line 19 August 2009.

[v] W G Hoddinott, The languages and myths of the New England area, in Isabel McBryde (ed), Records of times past: Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978, pp 52-64, pp 56-57.

[vi] Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, Bundjalung,, accessed on line 19 August 2009.

[vii] The material on the Gamillaraay is drawn from Peter K Austin, The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) Language, northern New South Wales — A Brief History of Research, SOAS, University of London, 2006, accessed on-line 17 December 2008.

[viii] Flick Isabel & Heather Goodall, Isabel Flick: the many lives of an extraordinary woman, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2004, p3.

[ix] Austin 2006 p 2

[x] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Australian Indigenous Languages Data Base (Austlang),, accessed on line 6 May 2010.

[xi] Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century, Michael O’Rourke, Griffith 1997 especially pp 26-32.

[xii] Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative, Bundjalung,, accessed on line 19 August 2009

[xiii] O’Rourke, 1977, p 28


whaa? said...

An interesting summary of N England.
There is evidence from 3 tribes' legends and from numerous languages that Indonesian Hindu Sanskrit speakers sailed in ships to east Australia to mine gold. (Skt provided about 600 words in N Australian languages _ ANU Asian Studies.)
Kamilaroi seems to carry some Skt, as well as legends similar to Hindu tradition. This may connect Oz with Bali and Javanese kingdoms, and possibly Angkor Wat. John Welch

Jim Belshaw said...

I can't say that you are wrong, John, but you do suprise me!

whaa? said...

1961 I think Paul Barratt was surprised that a couple of us went to the same concert as him when we should have been doing 2nd yr homework, he said.
I gave a paper on Hindu contact at the 2nd Oz Hindu Conference last year. The Indian people kept gasping and repeating the Aboriginal words and names that came up. One of the Gadigal (Sydney) tribal welcomers-to-country confirmed some material,as she recognised it from her relative's legends, and whom I had met.
Obviousl I'm itching to post it all here.

Jim Belshaw said...

John, will email you. Dear me, 1961!