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

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Forming the unique Anaiwan language

Separation: Squeezed between larger language groups, the Anaiwan language evolved different because of their need to preserve culture, territory and separate identity.This is the eight and last in a series discussing the deciphering of the mysteries of New England's Anaiwan or Nganjaywana Aboriginal language.

Last week I suggested that as the Last Glacial Maximum eased, the Tablelands were reoccupied by two main groups.

From the south came Dainggatti speakers from the Macleay Valley. We don’t have dates, but from the pattern of the dates that we do have this probably took place about 5,000 years ago.

As the Dainggatti speakers spread north following the watershed , they coincided with settlers from the Northern Rivers and especially the Clarence/Nymboida river system, the Gumbaingirr speakers, who had followed the rivers upstream and effectively occupied significant parts of the Tablelands. Further north, there was Bandjalung expansion, but this appears to have been less pronounced.

But why did the Anaiwan language then diverge so much from its coastal origins? To understand why this might have happened, we need to return to Terry Crowley’s language map. I note that the language boundaries on the map are indicative only and do not indicate exact boundaries.

Crowley suggested that the language north of Armidale described by McPherson as Enneewin was not the same as that further south because it included lexical items borrowed from Gumbaingirr, whereas the language further south did not.

I think that’s incorrect. Although Anaiwan varied greatly from north to south, we can reasonably think of it as a single language, in part because of geography, in part because Crowley himself concluded that the northern and southern languages had a 65 per cent common lexicon. It makes perfect sense that Enneewin or Northern Anaiwan should be a distinct dialect with Gumbaingirr inclusions given the two language groups were side by side.

If we now look at Southern Anaiwan, Crowley’s Nganjaywana with its dialects of Inuwon and Himberrong, you can see a very distinct pattern. In the far south, Himberrong adjoined Gamilaraay in the south and west, Birbay in the south east plus Dainggatti in the east.

Inuwon, by contrast, adjoined Himberrong in the south, Ennewin in the north, both Dainggatti and Gumbaingirr in the east and Gamilaraay in the west. That’s a lot of languages in both cases.

Part of the reason that Crowley put forward for the evolution of Anaiwan as such a distinct language lay in the existence of the secret Anaiwan language identified by Mathews. This, Crowley suggested, reduced the need to borrow from other languages when words fell out of use as a consequence of things such as deaths.

This is possible. However, a simpler explanation lies in the geography described above.

Occupying relatively small territories squeezed between other bigger language groups, the Southern Anaiwan in particular became isolated because of the need to preserve their land and culture.

There is at least some fragmentary evidence to support this view in the archeological and ethnographic record as well as Aboriginal memories. However, that will have to wait to a later series.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 July 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. 

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