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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

History revisited - geography contributes to language diversity

Last week I spoke of the way that Aboriginal society centred on family groups with their own way of speaking, of the way that that these local languages could be grouped in various ways from the local though dialects into broader language groups.

I mentioned, too, the confusion this could create in the minds of observers.Aboriginal language map

This point helps interpret the map of New England Aboriginal languages drawn from the 1994 Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, to understand why there is dispute among Aboriginal groups, that boundaries were not precise lines on a map.

In general terms, language boundaries were linked in to river catchments because the boundaries between catchments often created a natural divide. Thus the Moonbi Range marked a clear divide between the Gamilaraay speakers of the Western Slopes and Plains and the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana speakers of the Southern Tablelands.

Why two names for the Anaiwan? There were many, but Anaiwan was the most commonly accepted spelling, But then linguist Terry Crowley coined the name Nganjaywana (ng+anaywana+a) as a more accurate language description. So we can think of Anaiwan as the people, Nganjaywana as the language.

The linkage between catchments and language was not exact. Major geographic regions were also important, since areas with similar environments were more likely to have commonalities in life and culture. This is true of New England.

On the west, Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) was the largest language group by area. It merged with Wiradjuri to the south, Bigambul to the north. These languages occupied the river valleys flowing west from the Great Dividing Range. Expansion was facilitated by geography.

There is a dense distribution of languages along the coast and adjoining ranges. North-south, most language groups are directly related to catchments. One partial exception is the Clarence, the big river. Its size made it the divide between two very different language groups, Gumbainggir and Bandjalung. A third Gumbainggir related language, Yaygirr, occupied the areas around the mouth of the Clarence.

East-west, languages shade inland, with coastal and linked upper river languages. For example, Bainbaa, the language spoken in the headwaters of the Nymboida River, appears to be a version of Gumbainggir.

The two Tablelands’ language groups shown, Nganjaywana and Ngrarabal, are longer north-south than east-west, squeezed between Gamilaraay and multiple coastal languages; both show some general similarities to the coastal languages.

Nganjaywana is especially interesting, because the north- south shifts in dialect mirror to some degree the shifts in the coastal languages. Northern Anaiwan contains Gumbainggir elements, while southern Anaiwan displays Dianggati (Macleay Valley) influences.

Nganjaywana’s geographic position among so many language groups explains something that often puzzles people, the number of different Aboriginal groups in Armidale that have some historic connection to the Tablelands.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 15 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

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