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Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.
Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.
Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.
In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.
In 1981, linguists Terry Crowley and Robert Dixon estimated that between eight and 12 different languages, some mutually unintelligible, were spoken by Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to invasion. They used a variety of colonial records to arrive at this estimate.
Maritime explorers, missionaries and colonial officials wrote Tasmanian Aboriginal words and phrases in their journals. Some, like botanist Allan Cunningham, jotted down lists of words. Others, such as Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, also wrote down the lyrics to Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.
Between 1829 and 1834, the Conciliator of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, travelled the island with an entourage of Aboriginal people, including Truganini, and white servants. They aimed to capture Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had survived the Vandemonian War, which had been fought between Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Robinson relied on interpreters, but he and his white companions learned some Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Robinson wrote down over 4,500 Tasmanian Aboriginal words. His white servant, James Gravenor, later spoke some words in Truganini’s Aboriginal language at her burial.
Many Tasmanian Aboriginal words continued to be used by those living on the Bass Strait islands. Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Ronnie Summers grew up on Cape Barren Island. He has written, for example, about how “yolla” is an Aboriginal word for short-tailed shearwaters.
South of Hobart, Fanny Cochrane Smith continued to use some of her Tasmanian Aboriginal language. Famously, in 1899 and 1903, she was recorded singing several songs and speaking in this language.
Since the 1990s, Tasmanian Aboriginal people including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe have worked to restore language to their community. palawa kani has been built from words and songs passed down Aboriginal families as well as phrases and words recorded in colonial documents. It is a composite language that has been embraced by some, but not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Today, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are using palawa kani in different contexts. These include educational settings, during ceremonies and at official functions. Digital materials, posters and flash cards have been produced. People are encouraged to use palawa kani in their homes. Language learning is also supported by palawa kani being used in the award-winning animated television series Little J and Big Cuz.
Gradually people living in and beyond the wider Tasmanian community are becoming used to hearing or seeing palawa kani. In 2014, Tasmanian Aboriginal musician Dewayne Everettsmith’s debut album Surrender included melaythina, the first song released in palawa kani. More recently, in April 2018, the oratorio A Tasmanian Requiem premiered in Hobart. It included palawa kani, English and Latin. On approaching the ningina tunipri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, visitors hear palawa kani.
Around Tasmania, some national parks and other significant landmarks now have dual names. Examples include Mt Wellington, near Hobart, which is also known by its Aboriginal name kunanyi and Asbestos Range National Park in the north of the state. The latter was renamed Narawntapu National Park in 2000, prior to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre discontinuing the use of upper case letters in palawa kani.
The word nipaluna, for Hobart, came from a word recorded by Robinson on 16 January 1830. The Conciliator wrote in his journal that his Aboriginal informant Woorrady (Wooreddy) told him Hobart was called nib.ber.loon.ne. On 11 July, Robinson recorded the name for Hobart as niberlooner. Different spellings were common in the 19th century for Aboriginal and English words. Those working on palawa kani have had to take these variations into account.
Present day use of palawa kani goes beyond dual place naming. It is also being used as a language of protest. Earlier this year, in February 2018, a television advertisement spoken in palawa kani went to air to protest against the Tasmanian Government’s plans to reopen some four-wheel drive tracks in the remote Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in Tasmania’s north west.
Despite not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people embracing palawa kani, the reemergence of an Aboriginal language in Tasmania is providing the island’s first peoples with a culturally distinctive, unique voice.
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.
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.
The link below is to an article that looks at some early theories relating to the origin of language.