A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang: The Language of the Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay

By Crowther, Melissa | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang: The Language of the Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay


Crowther, Melissa, Australian Aboriginal Studies


A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang: The language of the Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay

Amanda Lissarrague 2010

Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative,

Nambucca Heads, NSW, 348pp, ill., ports., 26cm,

ISBN 9780977535170 (hbk)

Amanda Lissarrague's A Grammar and Dictionary of Gathang is a work of more than 300 pages of grammar, glossed texts, dictionary and finderlists, historical photographs and a map showing traditional place names of Gathang Country. It has been produced at the request of the Gathang community, the descendants of whom traditionally occupied a stretch of land in northern New South Wales from the Wilson River (between Port Macquarie and Kempsey) in the north to Gloucester in the west and Port Stephens in the south. Lissarrague gives a summary of the various names by which the language and people have been referred to, concluding with a definition of her use of the term Gathang as 'the common language spoken by Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay peoples' (p.11). Note that this definition suggests a single, unified language, in contrast to that reported in Wafer and Lissarrague's 2008 A Handbook of Aboriginal Languages of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, in which these groups are treated as distinct dialects.

As there are no remaining speakers, the data on which this grammar and dictionary are based come exclusively from historical records dating from the 1880s to the 1980s. The work synthesises all the historical data available on the language, presenting the historical data in parallel with original analysis, and highlighting problems and discrepancies as necessary. Lissarrague presents the data 'in a way that is both useful and transparent enough for further study' (p.27).

This work's primary audience is the descendants of the speakers of Gathang, with no assumed knowledge of linguistics. Accordingly, technical language has been avoided as much as possible. Phonemes are explained as 'building blocks of sound' (p.17) and morphemes as 'word-building blocks' (p.2), and where technical terms are used, clarification in plain language is given, as in 'reflexive (self)' and 'reciprocal (each other)' (p.4). Lissarrague is mindful of the main purpose of this work, which is to function as 'the first step in the process of language revitalisation' (p.1) and as a resource for producing teaching and learning materials. This avoidance of jargon is variable, however, with terms such as 'stops', 'laminals' and 'nasals' used without clarification (p.22) (though other terms such as inflectional and derivational suffixes are explained) (p.29).

Throughout the grammar and dictionary, an asterisk in used to indicate forms or sentences that have been constructed by the author by analogy with data from the historical sources, rather than having been actually attested. This is the historical linguistics use of the asterisk and makes sense here in that it represents reconstructed forms. Confusingly, though, within the context of a grammar it indicates a non-grammatical form or sentence. Although this convention is explained in the list of abbreviations, it is easy to jump straight into the data without thoroughly examining the abbreviations.

Lissarrague discusses the need to decode the various spellings of different words filtered through the English spelling system when sifting through historical written records, and argues for the principle of looking to related languages for clues 'on the premise that the Gathang form is more likely to resemble a cognate from another NSW Aboriginal language than an Englishbased interpretation' (p.24). The proposed orthography is based on a phonology inferred from these written records of Gathang combined with a comparison of related languages' phonologies, acknowledging that this is a best guess rather than a definitive analysis.

The grammar (100 pages) is limited in scope due to the shortage of data. …

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