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Palawa (Aboriginal) languages

Humans first reached Tasmania c40,000 BCE. They arrived over a sand dune desert known as the Bassian Plains during an interglacial which lasted from c60,000 BCE to c30,000 BCE. By far the greater part of the Plains now forms the sea bed of Bass Strait.

The immigrants spoke a language which in semantic content, phonology and morphology was similar too, and ancestral to the languages spoken at the beginning of the nineteenth century in central and eastern Victoria, coastal New South Wales and central and eastern Tasmania. In common with the languages of south-eastern Australia, the Palawa languages did not contrast the stops, ie [p] with [b], [t] with [d], nor [k] with [g]; [s], [z] and [f] were not articulated; diphthongs were not fully fused; and consonant clusters were rare: inflections and other affixes took the place of pronouns and prepositions, indicated the dual and the plural, and defined the role of nouns in sentences. Archaic features included verbs in the present tense only, the preservation of replicated word elements, and the formal structuring of words in two parts, viz a classifier which placed the word in a general category, followed by an item which provided more specific information. Very few Palawa sentences and songs were recorded, which means that very little is known with respect to grammatical structure.

The Palawa languages of central and eastern Tasmania will be collectively referred to as 'Mara speech'. During the early Holocene the Mara speakers were confined to a region probably comprised the northern and southern Midlands, the Fingal Valley, the north-eastern highlands, and the eastern ranges. A language referred to as 'North Eastern speech', was spoken by the clans who in the nineteenth century occupied the Fingal Valley and north-eastern highlands, the northern Midlands, the Tamar Valley west to the Liffey River and Port Sorell, and east of the Tamar Valley to include the Cape Portland peninsula. 'Eastern speech' (sometimes referred to as the 'Oyster Bay' language) was spoken over the remainder of eastern and south-eastern Tasmania through to the eastern shores of the Derwent Estuary, the southern Midlands, and the catchment of the Ouse River up to the Central Plateau. Apart from an input principally to 'North Eastern speech' by Aborigines from Victoria at the end of the Pleistocene, Mara speech was a direct descendant of the language spoken by the first Tasmanians. Its connection with the Mainland Australian languages is evidenced by most of the 700 recorded Palawa place names, by place names in south eastern Australia, and by similarities in the Palawa and Mainland lexicons.

'(South) Eastern speech' refers to the dialects spoken by clans which occupied the western shores of the Derwent Estuary from somewhere near Bridgewater south to Recherche Bay, and which included Bruny Island and the valley of the Huon River upstream almost as far as Lake Pedder. It was a fused language formed as a result of the merger of a Mara speech dialect with Nara speech dialects.

The last ice age lasted from c30,000 BCE to c11,000 BCE. It peaked c18,000 BCE, and retreated rapidly thereafter. For most of the period the Bassian Plains again became the barrier they had been earlier. From c10,500 BCE Bass Strait itself became a permanent barrier. The waning of the ice age provided an increased rainfall, and for one or two millennia before 14,000 BCE this permitted Aborigines from Victoria to follow rivers downstream to a large lake known as the Bassian Lake, and thence up the Tasmanian rivers. Until they were displaced and/or absorbed by others early in the Holocene, they occupied much of the northern Tasmania, and its eastern coastline. The Lake spawned a river which flowed west out of the Bassian Lake north of King Island into the Indian Ocean. The river and the improving climate enabled a population from the Mt Gambier-Warrnambool regions to penetrate the western end of the Plains. Their language was an amalgam of the Pleistocene languages of south-eastern Australia, and a language from northern Australia which arrived between 30,000 BCE, and 15,000 BCE.

Sea levels rose rapidly. By c14,000 BCE a marine gulf had cut off both the mainland populations from their cousins. By 9,000 BCE the western population had been forced onto the Tasmanian land mass where it merged with local Pleistocene populations. The Nara speech languages spoken in the western third of Tasmania at the beginning of the nineteenth century resulted. At one time it was spoken around the whole Tasmanian coastline, throughout north-western and northern Tasmania, and in the valleys of the Derwent and Huon Rivers. Nara speech is better understood as a continuum of dialects rather than as a group of different languages.

Further reading: John A Taylor, ‘The Aboriginal Discovery and Settlement of Tasmania', THRAPP 50/4: John A Taylor; ‘A Description of the Palawa Languages', unpublished thesis, University of Tasmania, 2004.

John A Taylor