Monthly Archives: March 2018
Australian English decidedly finds its origins in British English. But when it comes to chasing down Irish influence, there are – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld – some knowun knowuns, some unknowun knowuns, and a bucket load of furphies.
Larrikins, sheilas and Aboriginal Irish speakers
The first Irish settlers, around half of whom were reputedly Irish language speakers, were viewed with suspicion and derision. This is reflected in the early Australian English words used to describe those who came from Patland (a blend of Paddy and Land).
The Irish were guided by paddy’s lantern (the moon); their homes adorned with Irish curtains (cobwebs); and their hotheadedness saw them have a paddy or paddy out. These Irish were said to follow Rafferty’s Rules – an eponym from the surname Rafferty – which meant “no rules at all”.
More than a few Irish were larrikins. In his book Austral English, E.E. Morris reports that
in 1869, an Irish sergeant Dalton charged a young prisoner with “a-larrr-akin about the streets” (an Irish pronunciation of larking, or “getting up to mischief”). When asked to repeat by the magistrate, Dalton said: “a larrikin, your Worchup”.
This Irish origin of larrikin had legs for many years, and perhaps still does. Unfortunately, here we have our first furphy, with more compelling evidence linking larrikin to a British dialect word meaning “mischievous or frolicsome youth”.
But if larrikin language is anything to go by, these youths went way beyond mischievous frolicking – jump someone’s liver out, put the boot in, stonker, rip into, go the knuckle on and weigh into are just some items from the larrikin’s lexicon of fighting words.
With the Dalton furphy, though, we see evidence of something called “epenthesis”, the insertion of extra sounds. Just as Dalton adds a vowel after his trilled “r” in a-larrr-akin, many Aussies add a vowel to words like “known” and “film” (knowun and filum) – and here we see a potential influence of the Irish accent on Australian English.
In contrast to larrikin, the word sheila is incontrovertibly Irish. Popular belief derives it from the proper name, Sheila, used as the female counterpart to Paddy, a general reference to Irish males.
Author Dymphna Lonergan, in her book Sounds Irish, prefers to derive it from Irish Gaelic síle, meaning “homosexual”, noting Sheila wasn’t a particularly popular Irish name as it began to appear down under.
Significantly though, St Patrick had a wife (or mother) named Sheila, and the day after St Paddy’s Day was once celebrated as Sheelah’s Day. So, Sheila was something of a celebrity.
Barrack is another likely Irish-inspired expression. A range of competing origins have been posited for this one, including the Aboriginal Wathawarung word borak, meaning “no, not”, and links to the Victorian military barracks in Melbourne.
But the most likely origin is the Northern Irish English barrack, “to brag, be boastful of one’s fighting powers”. The word has since sprouted opposite uses – Australian barrackers shout noisy support for somebody, while British barrackers shout in criticism or protest.
Perhaps surprisingly to many, the Irish were the first Europeans some Australian Aboriginal tribes encountered.
This contact is evident in the presence of Irish words in some Aboriginal languages. For instance, in the Ngiyampaa language of New South Wales, the word for shoe is pampuu, likely linked to a kind of shoe associated with the Aran Islands in Ireland, pampúta.
Didgeridoos, chooks and shouts: An Irish language perspective
Lonergan argues that more attention should be directed to this sort of Irish Gaelic influence.
Lonergan points, for example, to archival evidence linking the origin of didgeridoo to an outsider’s perception of how the instrument sounds, questioning the degree to which the sound corresponds to the word.
As a counter-argument, she notes an Irish word dúdaire meaning “trumpeter or horn-blower”, as well as Irish and Scots-Gaelic dubh, “black” and dúth, “native”. She observes that Irish and Scots-Gaelic speakers first encountering the instrument might well have called it dúdaire dubh or dúdaire dúth (pronounced respectively “doodereh doo” or “doojerreh doo”).
Similar arguments are made for a number of other words traditionally viewed as having British English origins.
The Australian National Dictionary sees chook (also spelled chuck) as linked to a Northern English/Scottish variation of “chick”. However, Lonergan notes this is phonetically the same word (spelled tioc) the Irish would have used when calling chickens to feed (tioc, tioc, tioc).
Another potential influence also comes from the transference of Irish meaning to English words. For example, the Australian National Dictionary is unclear as to the exact origin of shout, “to buy a round of drinks”, but Lonergan links it to Irish working in the goldfields and an Irish phrase glaoch ar dheoch, “to call or shout for a drink”.
Lonergan posits that Irish miners translating to English might have selected “shout” rather than “call” – “shouting” could easily have spread to English speakers as a useful way to get a drink in a noisy Goldfields bar.
Good dollops of Irish in the melting pot
Irish influence on Australian English is much like the influence of the Irish on Australians themselves – less than you’d expect on the surface, but everywhere once you start looking.
And those with a soft spot for Irish English might feel better knowing that some of their bête noires are in fact Irish (haitch, youse, but, filum and knowun).
As Irish settlers entered the Australian melting pot, so too did a hearty dose of their language.
The study of modern languages in British secondary schools is in steep decline. The number of students taking French and German GCSE has more than halved in the last 16 years. But as the UK prepares to forge new relationships with the wider world, and with a question mark over the status of English as an official EU language, it may be that many more Britons will need to brush up on their language skills – not unlike their medieval ancestors.
In the Middle Ages, a variety of vernacular languages were spoken by inhabitants of the British Isles, from Cornish to English to Norn – an extinct North Germanic language. The literati of the time learned to speak and write Latin.
But another high prestige language was also used in medieval Britain. After the Norman Conquest, French became a major language of administration, education, literature and law in England (and, to some extent, elsewhere in Britain). To get ahead in life post-1066, it was pretty important to “parler français”.
French would have been the mother tongue for several generations of the Anglo Norman aristocracy. But many more Britons must have learned French as a second language. Medieval biographies of saints, such as the 12th-century recluse Wulfric of Haselbury, tell of miracle workers who transformed monoglot Englishmen into fluent francophones.
In reality, many probably acquired French at “song” school, where young boys were taught reading and singing before moving on to study Latin at “grammar” school.
But, by the late 14th century, standards of French in Britain were slipping – at least in some quarters. Perhaps not such a problem at home, where English had already assumed some of the roles previously performed by French. But if British merchants wanted to export wool, or import bottles of Bordeaux, knowledge of French was still a must.
It’s around this time that the “Manieres de langage” – or “Manners of Speaking” – began to appear. These model conversations, the earliest used to teach French to English speakers, were used by business teachers who taught all the necessary skills for performing basic clerical work.
As well as teaching learners how to ask for directions and find lodgings in France, the “Manieres” feature rather more colourful language than you’d find in today’s textbooks.
Some of the dialogues are made up entirely of insults and chat-up lines. Learners could quickly progress from “Mademoiselle, do I know you?” to “You’re quite sure you don’t have another boyfriend?”. And if things didn’t quite go to plan, an expression such as: “Va te en a ta putaigne … quar vous estez bien cuillez ensemble” (That’s it, run along to your whore! You’re made for each other!) may have proved useful.
The “Manieres” also taught learners about life across the Channel. In one dialogue a Parisian chap mentions to an Englishman that he’s been to Orléans. The Englishman is amazed: “But that’s near the edge of the world!” he exclaims. “It’s actually in the middle of France,” replies the Parisian, “and there’s a great law school there”. Once again, the Englishman is taken aback. He’s heard it’s where the devil teaches his disciples black magic. The Parisian is exasperated until the Englishman offers to buy him a drink.
Lessons from the past
The French spoken in Britain was mocked from at least the 12th-century, even by the British themselves. In the “Canterbury Tales”, for instance, Chaucer teases his Prioress for speaking the French of “Stratford-at-Bow” (rather than proper Parisian).
English swearing’s European origins
Like many a language learner in Britain today, the Englishman in the “Manieres” lacks confidence in his linguistic abilities and worries about how he is ever going to speak like a native.
But the “Manieres” also suggest there was less separating the French of Britain from “proper Parisian” than we might think. When the Englishman lets slip he’s never actually been to France, it’s the Parisian’s turn to be amazed. How could anyone learn such good French in England?
These language learning resources date from a time when the association between linguistic identity and nationality was looser than it often is today. French doesn’t just belong to the French, according to the “Manieres” – learners can take pride in it too.
In Oxford, business school French proved so popular its success seemed to rattle the dons. In 1432 a University statute banned French teaching during lecturing hours to stop students skiving Latin.
It’s hard to imagine needing to curb enthusiasm for learning a foreign language in Brexit Britain. But perhaps there are lessons in the “Manieres” that could help promote language learning in the 21st-century classroom.
As Hobart’s Old Government House was being demolished in the late 1850s, workers made a remarkable discovery. Lifting the floor, they found an old pine board covered with four rows of pictures. Six scenes painted in oils depicted interactions between white people and Aboriginal men, women and children.
An old colonist who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land back in 1804 remembered seeing such a picture board. She told The Mercury newspaper in November 1874 how she recalled it
hanging on a gum tree at Cottage Green [now Battery Point] where … there was an Aboriginal “Home”, to the occupants of which rations were issued.
In the early decades of the Australian colonies, British officials tried different techniques to communicate with Aboriginal people. Some strategies were brutal, such as when Governor Arthur Phillip had Arabanoo, and later Colebee and Bennelong, kidnapped. The Governor planned to restrain these Aboriginal men until they learned English and could act as go-betweens (eventually Bennelong became an intermediary and a companion to Phillip).
Other communication strategies were more creative. Around 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie used proclamations nailed to trees to try to convey messages to Aboriginal people in New South Wales. None of these are known to have survived. In the 19th century, visiting Italian scientist Enrico Giglioli thought that Tasmania’s colonists were copying Macquarie’s approach when they began using picture boards.
The Tasmanian picture board found stashed under Old Government House is rare. Only six others like it survive, all bearing the same picture sequence. This design has become relatively well known. Yet people continue to debate the meaning behind the boards. Some believe they depict the rule of law, others see martial law.
The central motif of the Lieutenant-Governor shaking hands with an Aboriginal leader, and the other pictures illustrating equality, have led scholars to conclude that picture boards were used to promote conciliation and harmony.
In 2014, fellow historian Nick Brodie and I were astonished to read detailed descriptions of two very different Tasmanian picture boards, in a manuscript by an unidentified author held in the Allport Library in Hobart. The author wrote about “Several Paintings of Panel […] about Eighteen Inches Square” that were “divided into compartments each of which represented a series of Actions admonitory to the Natives of the course intended by the Government to be pursued in future towards them”.
These visual warnings to Aboriginal people were part of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur’s propaganda campaign during the Vandemonian War. We were intrigued by the scenes the writer described. To bring these to life, we invited Melbourne-based Tasmanian artist Simon Barnard to create impressions of what these other picture boards might have looked like.
The manuscript described scenes mirroring events that actually occurred. Take, for example, the Aboriginal man pictured in chains. In August 1830, following an altercation between field police and Aboriginal people at the Shannon River in Central Tasmania, the Colonial Times reported how an Aboriginal leader was
led in chains to the capital […] a large and heavy cart chain was twisted around his neck, and the other end of it was in the left hand of one of the conquerors.
The newspaper stated that two Aboriginal men were killed during the Shannon River affray. Other Aboriginal men, including the well-known resistance leader and convict from New South Wales, Musquito, were hanged in Hobart.
The two boards described in the manuscript presented Aboriginal people with a grim choice. Resist the British and guns and death awaits you. Adopt colonial ways and things will be better for you. The writer even suggested that “Official Rank & Station should be open to them [Aboriginal people] & […] they might even aspire to the dignified & confidential Employment of Postman”.
The accounts of these more recently rediscovered boards complicate our understandings of Van Diemen’s Land, by showing how the colonial government offered stark terms. Depicting “soldiery […] firing upon a tribe”, these images convey the brutal realities of the Vandemonian War more accurately than the board found under Old Government House. Rather than implying friendship and equality, the sequences of pictures on these other two boards illustrate diverging paths for Tasmania’s Aboriginal people following the British invasion.
Friday essay: journey through the apocalypse
The altercation-themed board’s picture sequence showed how, if Aboriginal people continued to resist the invasion, they would continue to be shot by soldiers, field police, armed settlers, and convicts. Those taken into custody could face the hangman.
On the other hand, the assimilation-themed board depicted how, in order to survive, the island’s original inhabitants could adopt Western ways. It showed Tasmanian Aboriginal people peacefully trading with the newcomers, being subservient to the Lieutenant-Governor, wearing colonial clothing, attending church, and taking up employment.
Aboriginal engagement with picture boards
Little evidence has survived to tell us how Aboriginal people engaged with or reacted to picture boards. We know at least one Tasmanian Aboriginal man became familiar with the imagery.
On 26 November 1830, the Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review reported how Surveyor-General George Frankland gave the well-known leader Eumarrah a “little sketch” that illustrated:
[…] the consequences of the Aborigines adopting a peaceable demeanour, or of continuing their present murderous and predatory habits. In one part of the sketch, the soldiery were represented firing upon a tribe of the Blacks, who were falling from the effects of the attack. On the other part were seen, another tribe, decently clad, receiving food for themselves and families.
Ultimately this colonial propaganda was telling Tasmanian Aboriginal people that they really had no choice at all. Assimilate to survive. Resist, and perish.
The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.
Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.
All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.
Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.
Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.
We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.
Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.
We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.
The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.
In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.
You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.
What languages tell us
Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.
For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.
There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.
Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.
Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.
Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.