Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Birrdhawal Language and Territory: A Reconsideration

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Birrdhawal Language and Territory: A Reconsideration

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper offers a fundamental critique and re-evaluation of the historical sources and more recent reconstructions which have been used to determine the language area of the Birrdhawal people of far eastern Victoria. In relation to Birrdhawal tribal territory, this paper addresses three critical issues: first, whether the Birrdhawal language is related to the Ganai language, is part of the Yuin language cluster or is a standalone distinct language; second, whether or not their country included any coastline or was landlocked; and, third, whether or not any of their country was subsumed into that of the Krauatungalung through land succession as argued by Wesson (1994, 2000, 2002). The paper offers a comparative and quantitative analysis of vocabulary from the study area and critiques previous research into constituent local group organisation.

Introduction

The Birrdhawal people are generally associated with the localities of Bendoc, Bondi, Mt Delegate and the head waters of Cann River. Their neighbours are Krauatungalung (Krauatangalung), a subgroup of Ganai, to the south; Thawa to the east; and Ngarigu to the west and north (Figure 1). According to Tindale (1974:91), a small number of Birrdhawal people were living at Wallaga Lake in 1939. Wallaga Lake was an Aboriginal reserve on the south coast region of New South Wales, where many people from Delegate, Bombala, Queanbeyan and Gippsland visited or resided during the twentieth century. Tindale (1974:203) also notes that in 1970 Birrdhawal descendents were living at Nowa Nowa in Gippsland. Descendents were resident at Delegate in the 1960s when Luise Hercus (1969, 1986) conducted her field research. Hercus (1969) was informed in the 1960s that the Brabrolung (or Mukthang) language became the lingua franca at the Delegate reserve. But as more people from broader, and non-Ganai, non-Gippsland origins began to move there, the English language gradually superseded Ganai. And while some of the people she recorded could remember some words of Ganai, they had adopted the English grammatical structure and phonologies (Hercus 1969). Hercus was unable to record any remnant vocabularies of a Birrdhawal language. Genealogical research undertaken by Young et al. (2000) has suggested a greater number of Birrdhawal descendents today. This study is focused on the primary sources of the nineteenth century and has not included work with any existing language programs in eastern Victoria (see Wafer and Lissarrague 2008:99 for information on neighbouring language programs).

Names of the Birrdhawal group and language

The earliest known recording for Birrdhawal is as 'Bid.doo.wul' by GA Robinson, which he interpreted as meaning 'wild black' and was attributed to 'Maneroo', i.e. Ngarigu (August 1844 in the papers of GA Robinson, see Clark 2000b:194). Birrdhawal has also been recorded and translated as follows: Bidooal or 'Wild Black', in the Thawa language (Robinson 1844 in Clark 2000a); Birtowall or 'scrub people' in the Ganai language (Bulmer in Curr 1886-7); Biduelli which Howitt interprets as 'derived from brida, "scrub", and uelli, "dweller"' in the Biduelli language (Howitt 1904:79); Birdhawal or 'scrub dwellers' in the Bidawal language (Mathews 1907:347); and 'B(r)ida = scrub welli = dweller' in the Bidawal language (Fesl 1985:54). Mathews (1907) suggests Birrdhawal is an endogenous term and this view has support from Fesl (1985:54). The form appears to be divisible as bida + wal. A suffix, -gal, meaning 'denizen of', is well attested in eastern Australia. The form -wal could be a lenited form of this suffix. If it is the denizenal suffix, then the form means 'scrub-dweller' (probably actually 'thick forest-dweller') and not 'wild black'. The 'wild black' meaning was given to Robinson by a Thawa speaker, and it is quite possible that this speaker said 'Bidawal wild black', meaning that the Bidawal people were 'wild blacks' (an ascriptive predication) rather than that the word Bidawal meant 'wild black' (an equational predication). …

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