Edward John Eyre - Aborigines Ch 7

Language, Dialects, Customs, etc. — General Similarity Throughout the Continent — Causes of Differences — Route by which The Natives have Overspread the Country, etc.

During the last few years much has been done towards an examination and comparison of the dialects spoken by the aboriginal tribes of Australia in different portions of the continent. The labours of Mr. Threlkeld, of Captain Grey, of Messrs. Teichelman and Schurmann, of Mr. Meyer, of Mr. Schurman, with the occasional notes of visitors and travellers, have done much to elucidate this subject, and have presented to the world vocabularies of the Hunter’s River and Lake Macquarie districts in New South Wales; of Swan River and King George’s Sound in Western Australia; of Adelaide, of Encounter Bay, and of Port Lincoln, in South Australia; besides occasional phrases or scanty manuals of various other dialects spoken in different districts. From these varied contributions it would appear that a striking coincidence exists in the personal appearance, character, customs, traditions, dialects, etc. among the many and remotely separated tribes scattered over the surface of New Holland. Each of these, no doubt, varies in many particulars from the others, and so much so some times, as to lead to the impression that they are essentially different and distinct. [Note 95 at end of para.] Upon close examination, however, a sufficient general resemblance is usually found to indicate that all the tribes have originally sprung from the same race, that they have gradually spread themselves over the whole continent from some one given point; which appears, as far as we can infer from circumstantial evidence, to have been somewhere upon the northern coast. There are some points of resemblance which, as far as is yet known, appear to be common to most of the different dialects with which we are acquainted. Such are, there being no generic terms as tree, fish, bird, etc., but only specific ones as applied to each particular variety of tree, fish, bird, etc. The cardinal numbers, being only carried up to three, there being no degrees of comparison except by a repetition to indicate intensity, or by a combination of opposite adjectives, to point out the proportion intended, and no distinction of genders, if we except an attempt to mark one among those tribes who give numerical names to their children, according to the order of their birth, as before mentioned. [Note 96: Chap. IV. nomenclature.] All parts of speech appear to be subject to inflections, if we except adverbs, post-fixes, and post-positions. Nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs have all three numbers, singular, dual and plural. The nominative agent always precedes an active verb. When any new object is presented to the native, a name is given to it, from some fancied similarity to some object they already know, or from some peculiar quality or attribute it may possess; thus, rice is in the Moorunde dialect called “yeelilee” or “maggots,” from an imagined resemblance between the two objects.

[Note 95: Catlin remarks the existence of a similar number and variety in the dialects of the American Indians, but appears to think them radically different from one another.]

The most singular and remarkable fact, connected with the coincidence of customs or dialect, amongst the Aborigines, is that it exists frequently to a less degree among tribes living close to one another, than between those who are more remotely separated. The reason of this apparent anomaly would seem to be, that those tribes now living near to one another, and among whom the greatest dissimilarity of language and customs is found to exist, have originally found their way to the same neighbourhood by different lines of route, and consequently the greatest resemblances in language and custom, might naturally be expected to be met with, (as is in reality the case), not between tribes at present the nearest to each other, but between those, who although now so far removed, occupy respectively the opposite extremes of the lines of route by which one of them had in the first instance crossed over the continent.

Without entering into an elaborate analysis, of either the structure or radical derivation of the various dialects we are acquainted with, I shall adduce a few instances in each, of words taken from the vocabularies I have mentioned before, for King George’s Sound, Adelaide, Encounter Bay, and Port Lincoln, and supply them myself from other dialects, including those meeting on the Murray or at the Darling, to shew the degree of similarity that exists in language.

In selecting the examples for comparison, I have taken first the personal pronouns and numerals, as being the words which usually assimilate more closely in the different dialects, than any other. Secondly, those words representing objects which would be common to all tribes, and which from their continual recurrence, and daily use, might naturally be supposed to vary the least from each other, if the original language of all were the same, but which, if radically different in any, render the subject still more difficult and embarrassing.

DIALECTS ========

[Note: At this point in the book a table appears, which lists common English words and the equivalent word as taken from the vocabularies of aborigines from various locations. This table has not been reproduced in full, however, a few entries are given below.]

English   Western   Adelaide   Encounter   Parnkalla       Aiawong
Australia            Bay         (Port Lincoln) (Moorundie)
I        Nganya     Ngaii      Ngaape       Ngai, ngatto   Ngappo
Thou     Nginnee    Ninna      Nginte       Ninna          Ngurru
She      Bal        Pa         Kitye        Panna          Nin
We (Ye)  Nganneel   Ngadlu     Ngane        Ngarrinyalbo   Ngenno
They     Balgoon    Parna      Kar          Yardna         Ngau-o
We two   Ngal-li    Ngadli     Ngele        Ngadli         Ngel-lo
You two  Newball    Niwa       Ngurle       Nuwalla        Ngupal
They two Boala      Purla      Kengk        Pudlanbi       Dlau-o
One      Gyne       Kumande    Yammalaitye  Kuma           Meiter
Two      Kardura    Purlaitye  Ning Kaiengg Kuttara        Tang kul
Many     Partanna   Towata     Ruwar        Kulbarri       Neil
Few      Warrang    Kutyonde   —           —             Baupalata

Upon comparison of the different dialects given in the two foregoing tables, and which comprise an extent of country, embracing fully one half of the continent of Australia, it will be apparent that a sufficient degree of resemblance exists to justify the conclusion, that they were derived from one and the same original. It is true, that in many respects, there are sometimes even radical differences in some of the words of various dialects; but as Captain Grey judiciously remarks, if the comparison in such cases be extended, and the vocabulary of each enlarged, there will always be found points of resemblance, either in the dialects compared, or in some intermediate dialect, which will bear out the conclusion assumed. [Note 97 at end of para.] This view is still further strengthened, by including in the comparison the weapons, habits, customs, and traditions, of the various tribes.

[Note 97. I may here refer to a curious mathematical calculation, by Dr. Thomas Young, to the effect, that if three words coincide in two different languages, it is ten to one they must be derived in both cases from some parent language, or introduced in some other manner. “Six words would give more,” he says, “than seventeen hundred to one, and eight near 100,000; so that in these cases, the evidence would be little short of absolute certainty.”— Vestiges of the Creation, p. 302.]

It must be admitted, however, that where the languages spoken by two tribes, appear to differ greatly, there is no key common to both, or by which a person understanding one of them thoroughly, could in the least degree make out the other, although an intimate acquaintance with one dialect and its construction, would undoubtedly tend to facilitate the learning of another. A strong illustration of this occurs at Moorunde, where three dialects meet, varying so much from each other, that no native of any one of the three tribes, can understand a single word spoken by the other two, except he has learnt their languages as those of a foreign people.

The dialects I allude to, are first that of the Murray river, called the “Aiawong” and which is spoken with slight variations from the Lake Alexandrina, up to the Darling. Secondly, the “Boraipar,” or language of the natives to the east of the Murray, and which appears in its variations to branch into that of the south-eastern tribes; and thirdly, the “Yak-kumban,” or dialect spoken by the natives, inhabiting the country to the north-west and north of the Murray, and which extends along the range of hills from Mount Bryant to the Darling near Laidley’s Ponds, and forms in its variations the language of the Darling itself; these tribes meet upon the Murray at Moorunde, and can only communicate to each other by the intervention of the Aiawong dialect, which the north-western or south-eastern tribes are compelled to learn, before they can either communicate with each other, or with the natives of the Murray, at their common point of rendezvous.

To the tables already given, it is thought desirable to add two of the dialects, spoken in the country to the eastward of South Australia, and which were published for the House of Commons, with other papers on the Aborigines, in August 1844.

[Note: At this point in the book two table appear, with the following headings. These tables have not been reproduces in this eBook.]



Captain Flinders observed the same difference to exist in various parts of New Holland, which he visited, and yet that judicious navigator inclined to the opinion that all the various tribes had originally one common origin. Vol. ii. p. 213–14, he says,

“I do not know that the language of any two parts of Terra Australis, however near, has been found to be entirely the same; for even at Botany Bay, Port Jackson, and Broken Bay, not only the dialect, but many words are radically different; and this confirms one part of an observation, the truth of which seems to be generally admitted, that although similarity of language in two nations proves their origin to be the same, yet dissimilarity of languages is no proof of the contrary position.

“The language of Caledon Bay (north-west coast) may therefore be totally different to what is spoken on the east and south coasts, and yet the inhabitants have one common origin; but I do not think that the language is absolutely and wholly different, though it certainly was no better understood by Bongarrco (a Sydney native) than by ourselves. In three instances I found a similarity. The personal pronoun of Port Jackson, ‘Ngia’ (I), was used here, and apparently in the same sense. When inquiry was made after the axe, the natives replied ‘yehangeree-py,’ making signs of beating, and py signifies to beat in the Port Jackson language. The third instance was that of the lad Woga calling to Bongarree in the boat, which after he had done several times without being answered, he became angry, and exclaimed Bongarree-gah in a vehement manner, as Bongarree himself would have done in a similar case.”

Captain Grey, in speaking of the Aborigines of New Holland, says (vol. ii. p. 209),

“One singularity in the dialects spoken by the Aborigines in different portions of Australia is, that those of districts widely removed from one another, sometimes assimilate very closely, whilst the dialects spoken in the intermediate ones differ considerably from either of them. The same circumstances take place with regard to their rights and customs.”

And again, after comparing some of the dialects of South Australia and New South Wales with those of Western Australia, Captain Grey says (vol. ii. p. 216),

“Having thus traced the entire coast line of the continent of Australia, it appears that a language the same in root is spoken throughout this vast extent of country, and from the general agreement in this, as well as in personal appearance, rites and ceremonies, we may fairly infer a community of origin for the Aborigines.”

Had we a collected and an authentic account of the dialects, weapons, habits, customs, and traditions of all the tribes of Australia with whom Europeans have already been in close or friendly contact, and which, with very few exceptions, would embrace the circuit of the whole continent, we should have a mass of valuable and interesting information, that would enable us, not only to form a probable opinion as to the community of origin of the various tribes, and the point from which they first overspread the continent, but also to guide us in conjecturing the routes which the various offsets have taken from the parent tribe, the places of contact where they have met from opposite extremities of the continent, and the gradual change which has taken place in the habits, customs, and dialects of each.

In the absence of many links necessary to form a connection, we can at present only surmise conclusions, which otherwise might have been almost certainly deduced.

Connecting, however, and comparing all the facts with which we are acquainted, respecting the Aborigines, it appears that there are still grounds sufficient to hazard the opinion, that it is not improbable that Australia was first peopled on its north-western coast, between the parallels of 12 degrees and 16 degrees S. latitude. From whence we might surmise that three grand divisions had branched out from the parent tribe, and that from the offsets of these the whole continent had been overspread.

The first division appears to have proceeded round the north-western, western, and south-western coast, as far as the commencement of the Great Australian Bight. The second, or central one, appears to have crossed the continent inland, to the southern coast, striking it about the parallel of 134 degrees E. longitude. The third division seems to have followed along the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria to its most south-easterly bight, and then to have turned off by the first practicable line in a direction towards Fort Bourke, upon the Darling. From these three divisions various offsets and ramifications would have been made from time to time as they advanced, so as to overspread and people by degrees the whole country round their respective lines of march. Each offset appearing to retain fewer or more of the original habits, customs, etc. of the parent tribe in proportion to the distance traversed, or its isolated position, with regard to communication with the tribes occupying the main line of route of its original division; modified also, perhaps, in some degree, by the local circumstances of the country through which it may have spread.

Commencing with the parent tribe, located as I have supposed, first upon the north-west coast, we find, from the testimony of Captain Flinders and Dampier, that the male natives of that part of the country, have two front teeth of the upper jaw knocked out at the age of puberty, and that they also undergo the rite of circumcision; but it does not appear that any examination was made with sufficient closeness to ascertain, whether [Note 98: Vide Note 78.] any other ceremony was conjoined with that of circumcision. How far these ceremonies extend along the north-western or western coasts we have no direct evidence, but at Swan River, King George’s Sound, and Cape Arid, both customs are completely lost, and for the whole of the distance intervening between these places, and extending fully six hundred miles in straight line along the coast, the same language is so far spoken, that a native of King George’s Sound, who accompanied me when travelling from one point to the other, could easily understand, and speak to any natives we met with. This is, however, an unusual case, nor indeed am I aware that there is any other part of Australia where the same dialect continues to be spoken by the Aborigines, with so little variation, for so great a distance, as in the colony of Western Australia.

Following round the southern coast easterly, the head of the Great Bight is the first point at which any great change appears to occur, and even here it is less in the character, language, and weapons of the natives, than in their ceremonial observances. For the first time the rite of circumcision is observed, and conjoined with it the still more extraordinary practice to which I have before alluded. The ceremony of knocking out the two upper front teeth of boys arrived at the age of puberty, is not, however, adopted. We have already noticed, that for six hundred miles to the west and north-west from the Great Bight, circumcision is unknown. The tribes, therefore, who practise it, cannot have come from that direction, neither are they likely to have come from the eastward, for after crossing the head of the Port Lincoln peninsula, and descending towards Adelaide, we find the rite of circumcision alone is practised, without any other ceremony in connection with it. Now, in a change of habits or customs, originating in the wandering, unsettled life of savages, it is very likely, that many of their original customs may gradually be dropped or forgotten; but it is scarcely probable, that they should be again revived by their descendants, after a long period of oblivion, and when those tribes from whom they more immediately proceeded, no longer remembered or recognised such ceremonials. By extending the inquiry still further to the east, the position I have assumed is more forcibly borne out, for the rite of circumcision itself then becomes unknown. It is evident, therefore, that the Adelaide or Port Lincoln natives could not have come along either the eastern or western coasts, and retained customs that are there quite unknown, neither could they have come across the country inland, in the direction of the Darling, for the ceremonies alluded to are equally unknown there. They must then have crossed almost directly from the north-western coast, towards the south-eastern extremity of the great Australian Bight. And from them the Adelaide natives would appear to be a branch or offset.

Returning to the north-west coast, and tracing down the route of the third division of the parent family, from the south-east Bight of Carpentaria, towards Fort Bourke upon the Darling, we shall find, that by far the greatest and most fertile portion of New Holland appears to have been peopled by it. In its progress, offsets and ramifications would have branched off in every direction along the various ranges or watercourses contiguous to the line of route. All the rivers running towards the eastern coast, together with the Nammoy, the Gwyder, the Castlereagh, Macquarie, Bogan, Lochlan, Darling, Hume, Goulburn, etc. with their many branches and tributaries, would each afford so many routes for the different sub-divisions of the main body, to spread over the varied and fertile regions of Eastern, South-eastern, and part of Southern Australia. As tribe separated from tribe, each would retain, in a greater or less degree, some of the language, habits, or customs of the original division; but such points of resemblance would naturally again undergo many changes or modifications, in proportion to the time, distance, or isolated character of the separation. If we look at the progress of any two parties of natives, branching off upon different rivers, and trace them, either upwards or downwards, we shall find, that the further they went, the more isolated they would become, and the less likely to come again in contact with each other, or with the original division from which they separated. We may, therefore, naturally expect a much greater variety of dialects or customs in a country that is much intersected by rivers, or ranges, or by any features that tend to produce the isolating effect that I have described, than in one whose character has no such tendency; and this in reality we find to be the case. In Western and South-western Australia, as far as the commencement of the Great Bight, the features and character of the country appear to be but little diversified, and here, accordingly, we find the language of the natives radically the same, and their weapons, customs, and ceremonies very similar throughout its whole extent; but if, on the other hand, we turn to Eastern, South-eastern, and part of Southern Australia, we find the dialects, customs, and weapons of the inhabitants, almost as different as the country itself is varied by the intersection of ranges and rivers.

The division I have supposed as taking a south-easterly course from the Gulf of Carpentaria, would appear early to have lost the rite of circumcision; but to have retained among some of its branches, the practice of knocking out the front teeth of the upper jaw. Thus, those who made their way to Port Jackson and to Hunter’s River, and to some of the southern parts of New South Wales, still retained the practice of knocking out one of the front teeth at the age of puberty; but at Keppel’s, Harvey’s, and Glass–House bays, on the north-east coast, at Twofold bay on the south-east, at Port Phillip on the south, and upon the rivers Darling and Murray, of the interior, no such rite is practised. It is clear, therefore, that when the continent was first peopled, the natives of Sydney or Hunter’s River could not have come round the north-east coast by Keppel’s or Harvey’s bays, and retained a ceremony that is there lost; neither could the Murrumbidgee or southern districts of New South Wales, have been peopled from Port Phillip, or from South Australia, or by tribes passing up the Murray for the same reason. It is not demanding too much, therefore, to suppose that the general lines of route taken by the Aborigines in spreading over the continent of Australia, have been somewhat analogous to those I have imagined, or that we can fairly account for any material differences there may be in the dialects, customs, or weapons of the different tribes, by referring them to the effect of local circumstances, the length of time that may have elapsed since separation, or to the isolated position in which they may have been placed, with regard to that division of the parent tribe from which they had seceded.

At present our information respecting the customs, habits, weapons and dialects of the various tribes is too limited and too scattered to enable us to trace with accuracy the division to which each may have originally belonged, or the precise route by which it had arrived at its present location; but I feel quite confident that this may be done with tolerable certainty, when the particulars I have referred to shall be more abundantly and correctly recorded.

It is at least a subject of much interest, and one that is well worthy the attention of the traveller or the philanthropist. No one individual can hope personally to collect the whole material required; but if each recorded with fidelity the facts connected with those tribes, with whom he personally came in contact, a mass of evidence would soon be brought together that would more than suffice for the purpose required.