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

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The man who cracked the Anaiwan code

Terry Crowley: A brilliant linguist who shed light on the mystery of Anaiwan. This is the first in a series discussing the deciphering of the mysteries of New England's Anaiwan or Nganjaywana Aboriginal language
Next part in this series; Terry Crowley's hunt for traditional languages 
It took the brilliant linguist Terry Crowley to crack the mystery attached to the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language of the southern New England Tablelands. He did so as a third year student at the Australian National University.

Terrence Michael Crowley was born on 1 April 1953 in Billericay just east of London. The family emigrated to Australia when Crowley was about seven years old, taking up a dairy farm outside Shepparton.

Crowley was dux at Shepparton High School in 1970, enrolling the following year in a Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at ANU. There he came under the influence of R M W Dixon who interested him in Aboriginal languages. In 1974, he gained first class honours with a University Medal in linguistics and then worked as a research assistant in Bob Dixon’s department, again concentrating on Australian Aboriginal languages.

At this point, Terry Crowley’s interest moved to the languages of the Pacific and especially Vanuatu. His sudden and unexpected death from heart attack on 15 January 2005 came as a shock to friends and colleagues alike.

Crowley made his contribution to our understanding of the Aboriginal languages of the broader New England during the early part of his career.

In 1976 came his pioneering study of the Nganjaywana language. This was followed in 1978 by two publications on Bundjalung, the language spoke north of the Clarence. Then in 1979 came a piece on Yaygir, the language spoken at the mouth of the Clarence.

Prior to Crowley’s work, the Nganjaywana or Anaiwan language was a mystery. It seemed so different from other Aboriginal languages, a language on its own. Was it in fact a remnant of an earlier language, the sign of remnant group from an migration?

There has been dispute about the pattern of early human settlement of the Australian continent, disputes that have formed part of the so-called history wars. Are modern Aborigines direct descendants of a first founder group or have there been several waves of migration, with later arrivals mixing with and ultimately supplanting earlier arrivals?

The model extended and popularised by American anthropologist Joseph Birdsell suggested that settlement had come in three distinct waves involving different peoples. This model was supported by theoretical arguments, as well as skeletal, cultural, ethnographic and linguistic studies.

One thread in the discussion was that the Tasmanians, the pigmies of North East Queensland and perhaps the Anaiwan were remnants of an earlier migration pattern later supplanted by modern Aboriginal groups.

We now know, I think, that modern Australian Aboriginals are direct descendants of first settler groups. This does not rule out settlement by earlier hominids, we have no evidence here at all, nor does it rule out later admixtures. However, the basic pattern seems clear.

While modern DNA analysis is central to our new understanding, it was the work of linguists such as Crowley who filled in part of the pattern. In particular, Crowley showed that Anaiwan was related to surrounding languages.

I will continue this story next week.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 31 May 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.    


Johnb said...

Many years ago I had one of life's happenstance moments Jim that relates to the study of aboriginal language. I was visiting the Chinese porcelain collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum and struck up a conversation with another visitor. Turned out it was Mary Laughren on her way from Yuendumu settlement in the Northern Territory to MIT in Boston USA. Mary was studying the development of language at the time so for a good hour I had a privelaged conversation with an Acedemic on the structure of language brought to Australia by First Australians. The detail has gone with the passage of time but not the memory and interest of the meeting. Mary has written a eulogy to Ken Hale another natural born linguist as Terry Crowley was.

Jim Belshaw said...

That would have been very interesting, Johnb. I stand in awe of the linguists because they have skills that are beyond me! Hale is an interesting man.