Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

History revisited - family's role in a language

My last column introduced you to Australia’s 250 or so Aboriginal languages and more  than 700 dialects. There I noted that all the languages spoken across the broader New England could be classified as Pama-Nyungan, the dominant language grouping over much of Australia.

In this column, I want to start digging down, focusing on the languages spoken across the broader New England. To do this, I need to tell you a little about Aboriginal life in New England before the disruptions that came with the First Fleet.

The family was the basic Aboriginal social unit. The family group might be quite small - 10 or less - but could also be a larger group or band of up to 50 or more people linked by kinship. In turn, the bands were linked to other groups in a variety of sometimes complex ways through kinship, language, ceremonies and cooperative activities.

Each family group occupied a defined territory or run.

In desert areas, family groups might be small and the runs large, in some cases up to 25,000 square kilometres. In more fertile areas, the bands could be much larger and the territories smaller. In some fertile places such as the North Coast, there were effectively villages occupied for more extended periods by some groups.

Each band had its own language and its own way of speaking. Groups could understand the language spoken by those around - the Aborigines were multilingual - but language differences increased with distance as interaction diminished.

This created a language hierarchy in which local languages with common features formed dialects and the dialects in turn formed broader language groups.

This is actually no different from the position in Europe, before the rise of the nation state and the process of language standardisation.

If we now look at the broader New England, on the west, the Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) language group occupied a vast sweep of territory from the Upper Hunter through the western slopes and plains into what is now Queensland and had at least five major dialects or up to seven if the related languages of Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaaliyaay are included.

To the east, the Bundjalung language group occupied the Northern Rivers north from the Clarence extending into Queensland.

In geographic terms, the Gamilaraay territory was larger, but the richness of Bundjalung territory made it the largest language group in New England measured by population. There may have been as many as twenty separate Bundjalung dialects!

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. Even here, there were several dialects with language differences shading from north to south.

You can see why the early recorders of Aboriginal language might have struggled to understand the pattern! You can also see why there might be so many inconsistencies in our records.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 May 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

Previous post, next post


Anonymous said...

As I was reading the post I was starting to understand how it all worked in Europe long time ago. And then Jim made the point on similarities between origins of European languages and the Aboriginal ones. I wonder how it happened that Hungarian and Finish have same similarities. The distance between the countries is considerable and they are divided by many countries speaking very different sounding languages to Finish or Hungarian. An European run?
This is my first connection with the subject of Aboriginal languages, I find it very interesting and wonder if there is something like universal Aboriginal language to communicate across the language groups. Like English and French in EU.

Jim Belshaw said...

No, AC. The Australian languages are broken into two groups, but they vary as did the European ones. Europe was more exposed to new invaders; that helps explain the variations.