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Diary of ten years eventful life of an early settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines/A descriptive vocabulary of the language in common use amongst the aborigines of Western Australia/Preface

< Diary of ten years eventful life of an early settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines‎ | A descriptive vocabulary of the language in common use amongst the aborigines of Western Australia


There are few situations more unpleasant than when two individuals are suddenly and unexpectedly brought into collision, neither of whom is acquainted with one word of the language of the other. Amongst civilised people so situated, there are certain conventional forms of gesture or expression which are generally understood and received as indications of amity. But when it happens that one of the individuals is in a state of mere savage nature, knowing nothing of the habits and usages of civilised life, and perhaps never having even heard of any other people than his own, the situation of both becomes critical and embarassing. It was in this predicament that the early settlers of Western Australia found themselves, on their first taking possession of their lands in that colony. The aborigines, suspicious of treachery even amongst themselves, and naturally jealous of the intrusion of strangers, viewed with astonishment and alarm the arrival of persons differing in colour and appearance from anything they had hitherto seen. Ignorant alike of the nature, the power, and the intentions of this new people, and possessed of some vague idea of their being spirits, or reappearances of the dead, the natives were restrained, probably by superstitious awe alone, from attempting to repel the colonists at once by direct and open hostility . On the part of the settlers generally, there existed the most friendly disposition toward the aborigines, which was evinced on every suitable opportunity, by the offer of bread, accompanied by the imitation of eating, with an assurance that it was "very good." And thus this term, "very good" was almost the first English phrase used, and became the name by which bread was, for a long time, generally known amongst the natives of Western Australia. In the course of time, curiosity, and a desire to establish and maintain a good understanding with them, induced many persons to endeavour to learn something of their language; and lists of such words as had been ascertained from time to time were formed by several individuals, but nothing on the subject was published till, in the year 1833, a person who assumed the name of Lyon gave in the newspapers of the day some account of the structure of the language, and a list of nearly five hundred words. His vocabulary, though containing many inaccuracies and much that was fanciful, yet was deserving of praise, as being the first attempt to reduce to writing a language that was still comparatively unknown. In the meantime, Mr. Francis Armstrong, who had bestowed much attention on the aborigines, and who spoke the language with a fluency nearly equal to their own, was appointed to the office of interpreter, and was thenceforth generally employed as a recognised medium of mutual communication in all public matters, whether of explanation, negotiation, examination, or prosecution. At length, in the year 1838, that able and talented officer, Lieutenant (now Sir George) Grey, Governor of South Australia, whilst resting from his labours of exploring the country, turned his attention to this subject, in compliance with the spirit of the instructions under which he was acting, and compiled a vocabulary, which was published in the colony in the shape of a pamphlet. This was subsequently republished in London, with the addition of some words, chiefly peculiar to the locality of King George's Sound. These will be found marked with the letters (K.G.S.), as those contributed by the Messrs. Bussel, of the Vasse River Settlement, have been marked with the word (Vasse). To him we are certainly indebted for the first publication of anything approaching to a correct list of the words of this Australian dialect; and any future attempts of the same nature can only be considered as a more expanded form of his original work. Without that vocabularly it is probable that the present would not have been undertaken. This vocabulary is founded upon that of Captain Grey, but is in a much enlarged form, and upon a more comprehensive plan; embracing, also, such additions and alterations as have been the natural result of longer time, greater experience, and a more familiar acquaintance with the language. In the first place, it contains several hundred additional words, inclusive of such tenses of the verbs as have been accurately ascertained (for although the three known tenses are tolerably regular, they are not invariably so). In the next place, the meanings are in general given in a more copious form, and whenever a word has required or admitted of it, the opportunity has been taken of giving an account of everything interesting in the habits, manners, and customs of the aborigines, and in the natural history of the country. In the third place, the English and Australian part has been added, which it was considered, would be of great assistance to such as desire to ascertain any word in the language.

This work owes much of its present form to the industry and attention of Mr. Symmons, one of the protectors of the aborigines, with some assistance from a friend, whose name I am not at liberty to mention ; but mainly through the means of the interpreter, Mr. Armstrong, with such aid as a long residence in the country, and constant communication with the natives, both in a public and private capacity, enabled me to impart, and such attention as the leisure of a sea voyage permitted me to bestow. I have been requested to undertake the task of editing and publishing it in England, in order to avoid the expense and difficulty which would have attended the printing of it in the colony.

The sounds of the letters are adopted from the orthography recommended in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. The consonants are to be sounded as in English, except that G is invariably hard; the vowels, for the most part, as in the following English words:–A, as in father, except when it has the short mark (ǎ) over it, or at the end of a word, when it is to be pronounced as in the first syllable of mamma; E, as in there, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of a word; I, as in fatigue; 0, as in old; Ow, as in cow, now; U, as in rude. With Y some liberty has been taken; it is used both as a consonant and a vowel. With its consonant form there is no difficulty; it is to be pronounced as in you, your, yoke. As a vowel it must invariably be sounded long, as in my, thy; and this sound in the middle of a word, after a consonant, is to be given to it unless separated from the preceding letter by a hyphen, when it becomes a consonant itself, as for example, Gyn, one. Y is here a long vowel; but in Gyn-yang (once) the y of the first syllable is a long vowel, and in the second is a consonant;–the same as in Byl-yi (a small leaf); By-yu (the Zamia fruit). The nasal sound, Ng, is of such frequent occurrence in the Australian language, as to have rendered its introduction necessary as a distinct and separate letter (if such an expression may be used) in every vocabulary which has been attempted of any of its dialects. It is placed at the end of words beginning with N ; its sound is that of Ng in ring, wing. In some few words h will be found interposed between two r's, as in Marh-ra (the hand), Warh-rang (three). When this is the case, the first r is to be aspirated. This is an attempt to explain in letters a sound which hearing and practice alone can enable any one to understand and acquire. This obscure indistinct sound, as well as the frequent occurrence of the Nasal Ng, and a faint similarity in some of the pronouns with those of the Malabar language, have been remarked as affording a slight clue by which a distant relationship might be traced between the Western Australians, and the natives of the south-east districts of the peninsula of India. It may be necessary to explain, that when any word is said to belong to the North, South, or other dialects, this is to be understood with reference to Perth as a centre. The words contained in this Vocabulary are those in most common use in the vicinity of the Swan River and the adjacent districts; some of which may be found to be localised, but most of them are used under some form or modification by all the aborigines residing within the limits of Moore River to the north, the Avon to the east, the sea to the west, and King George's Sound to the south. The characteristic peculiarity of the King George's Sound dialect is to shorten the words by cutting off the final syllable, especially where it ends in a vowel, as Kat, for Katta—Kal, for Kalla, which gives the language a short, abrupt sound. "An-ya twonga gwabba," in the Perth dialect (I hear well), is "An twonk gwap" at King George's Sound. Whilst, on the other hand, the tribes that have been met with two hundred miles north of Fremantle appear to lengthen out the words by adding a syllable to the end of them, which gives their language a more soft and musical sound; as, "Mallo nginnow," in the Perth dialect (sit in the shade), is with them, "Malloka nginnowka." To the eastward the sound of E is often used where O is used at Perth; as, Kot-ye, a bone, hecomes Kwetje to the East, and Kwetj at King George's Sound. So Kole becomes Kwele and Kwel. And very generally O is used for U; as Gort for Gurt, the heart; Goya for Guya, a frog. E is often substituted for OW in many districts; as, Yuke for Yugow (to be); Wanke for Wangow (to speak). About King George's Sound, also, the word Gur, according to Captain Grey, is used as an affix to many of the verbs. This appears analogous to the word Kolo (if, indeed, it be not an indistinct pronounciation of the same word, with the final syllable cut off), which is used in all the Swan River districts as an occasional or optional affix expressive of motion; as, Dtabbat (to fall down) is often sounded Dtabbat kolo (to move falling down); Darbow (to stoop); Darbow kolo (to move stooping); Murrijo (to walk); Murrijo kolo (to move walking); so that, probably, it may be found, on attentive examination, that Kolo, Gulut, Gulbang, Gulbat, all expressing motion, and Gur, also, are but various modifications of the same radical word.

There is another variety of pronunciation which occasions a difference in sound that is more apparent than real; namely, the sound of B for P, and P for B; the sound of D for T, and T for D; of G for K, and K for G. These letters, respectively, are in so many instances used indiscriminately, or interchangeably, that it is frequently difficult to distinguish which sound predominates; even in the same district; but the predominant sound varies in different districts; as Barduk, Parduk; Gatta, Katta; Tabba, or Dappa; which last word may be heard occasionally in all the different forms; Dappa, Dabba, Tabba, or Tappa. But, bearing in mind these differences of dialect, and varieties of pronunciation, which necessarily belong to any widely-spread unwritten language, and making due allowance for those local terms which must be introduced into different districts, as applicable to peculiarities of situation, soil, climate, occupation, food, and natural products, I have no hesitation in affirming, that as far as any tribes have been met and conversed with by the colonists, namely, from one hundred miles east of King George's Sound up to two hundred miles north of Fremantle, comprising a space of above six hundred miles of coast, the language is radically and essentially the same. And there is much reason to suppose that this remark would not be confined to those limits only, but might be applied, in a great degree, to the pure and uncorrupted language of the whole island. Many of the words and phrases of the language on the eastern and southern sides of Australia, as given in Collins's work, in Threlkeld's Grammar, and in several short vocabularies, are identical with those used on the western side. And in a list of words given in Flinders' Voyage, as used by the natives on the north-east coast at Endeavour River, the term for the eye is precisely the same as that at Swan River. Whilst this publication was in the press, the work of Captain Grey appeared; in the course of which he has treated of this subject at considerable length, and adduced several arguments confirmatory of the same opinion.

Nothing is said here about the grammar of the language, because it is doubtful if the rules by which it is governed are even yet sufficiently known to be laid down with confidence–if, indeed, there are any so far established amongst themselves as to be considered inflexible. None are likely to bestow much attention upon the language except those who have an interest in communicating personally with the natives, in which way any peculiarities of structure may be easily acquired. A sentence of the Western Australian dialect would run much in this way, if rendered with perfect literal accuracy.—"I to-day, at sunrise, in forest walking, male kangaroo far off saw; I stealthily creep, near, near; male kangaroo eats, head down low; I rapidly spear throw—heart strike—through and through penetrate. Male kangaroo dead falls; good—yes, it is true; I good throw—good very." The grammatical construction appears to be inartificial and elementary, as might naturally be expected amongst so rude a people, and wholly free from that startling complexity of form (especially as regards the verbs) which has been attributed to the Sydney language in Threlkeld's Grammar.

It seems, indeed, scarcely credible that the most artificial forms of speech should belong to the very rudest state of society; and that the least civilised people in the world should have refinements of phrase, and niceties of expression, which were wholly unknown to the most polished nations of classical antiquity.

A work of the nature of this Vocabulary may be of great service in a variety of ways. To those who have relatives in the colony, it will show something of the manners and language of the people, and the nature of the country where their friends reside. To the emigrant it will give such preparatory information as may smooth many of the difficulties in his way. It will enable the actual settler to communicate more freely with the natives, and thus to acquire and extend an influence amongst them, and frequently to gain important information regarding the localities and resources of the country. To the philologist, it affords an opportunity for the examination of a new form of speech, or a comparison with other dialects of the same tongue. To the philosopher, it offers the interesting study of a new and, as yet, unsophisticated people—and, perhaps, the only people now existing on the earth, in a completely uncivilised and savage state; whilst to the missionary, who devotes himself to the task of enlightening and converting this simple and primitive race, it will afford great facility in his labours, and place him at once upon a vantage-ground which he might otherwise lose much time in attaining. That it may be found conducive to each and all of these objects, is the ardent wish of