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Tasmanian language

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Tasmanian language

Fanny Cochrane Smith, last speaker of a Tasmanian Aboriginal language.
Region Tasmania
Ethnicity Tasmanian
Extinct 1905 with Fanny Cochrane Smith
at least three language families:
Oyster Bay – Southeastern
Flinders Island / Oyster Bay lingua franca
(cf. also Palawa kani)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xtz
Linguist list
Glottolog tasm1247[1]
Approximate ethnic divisions in pre-European Tasmania

The Tasmanian or Palawa languages were the languages indigenous to the island of Tasmania. The languages were last used for daily communication in the 1830s. The last full-blooded Tasmanian died on Flinders Island in 1888, but a Tasmanian lingua franca continued to be used until 1905, with the death of the last known speaker, Fanny Cochrane Smith. Tasmanian Aborigines today speak English.

Tasmanian languages are attested by three dozen word lists, the most extensive being those of Joseph Milligan[2] and George Augustus Robinson. All these show a poor grasp of the sounds of Tasmanian, which appear to have been fairly typical of Australian languages in this parameter. Plomley (1976) presents all the lexical data available to him in 1976. Crowley and Dixon (1981) summarise what little is known of Tasmanian phonology and grammar. Bowern (2012) teases apart the mixture of languages in many of the lists and attempts to classify them into language families.

Little is known of the languages and no relationship to other languages is demonstrable. It appears that there were several language families on Tasmania, which would be in keeping with the long period of human habitation on the island. Joseph Greenberg proposed an Indo-Pacific superfamily which includes Tasmanian along with Andamanese and Papuan (but not Australian). This is not accepted by historical linguists.[3]

Fanny Cochrane Smith recorded a series of wax cylinder recordings of Aboriginal songs, the only existing audio recording of a Tasmanian language, though they are of extremely poor quality, and the lingua franca Smith spoke was likely not pure Tasmanian. In 1972, a woman in Hobart shared with Terry Crowley one sentence and a few words that had been handed down for generations.[4] From these sources, Tasmanian people are seeking to recover their lost languages and traditions.[4] The largest language revival project to date is the Palawa kani project.

Languages and language families

Based on short wordlists, it appears that there were anywhere from five to sixteen languages on Tasmania,[5] related to each other in perhaps four language families.[6] There are historical records as well that indicate the languages were not mutually intelligible, and that a lingua franca was necessary for communication after resettlement on Flinders' Island. J.B. Walker, who visited the island in 1832 and 1834, reported that,

Robert Clark, the catechist, states that on his arrival at the Flinders' Settlement in 1834, eight or ten different languages or dialects were spoken amongst the 200 natives then at the establishment, and that the blacks were 'instructing each other to speak their respective tongues'.
—JB Walker (1898:179)[7]

Reports from the subsequent settlement at Oyster Cove were similar:

The Aboriginal dialects made it difficult for the members of one family to understand that of another; "now however they all seem to have merged into one"
—Lennox (1984:60)[8]

Schmidt (1952)[9] distinguished five languages in the word lists:

  • Eastern Tasmanian languages
    • North-East
    • East: East Central (Oyster Bay), South-East
  • Western Tasmanian languages
    • North Coast
    • West Coast

The Eastern languages seem to share a common vocabulary, and use the nominal particle na. The Western languages use leā instead of na.

Dixon & Crowley (1981)

Tasmanian languages according to Dixon & Crowley (1981). Grey was uninhabited at time of contact.

Dixon and Crowley (1981) reviewed the data. They evaluate 13 local varieties, and find 6 to 8 languages, with no conclusion on two additional varieties (those of the west coast) due to lack of data. Listed here (clockwise from the northwest) with their Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) codes,[10] they are:

  • North-western (T3) and Robbins Island (T11*) [northern NW region on the map displayed in the box above at right]
    North-western and Robbins Island are probably dialects of a single language; Circular Head may be a dialect as well.
    Although Circular Head (T12*) [NE strip of NW region on map] shares only half its vocabulary with Northwestern & Robbins Island, it cannot be ruled out as a dialect of the NW language due to the poor state of the data.
  • Northern (T1) [N region on map]
    Probably a separate language, though it shares 50% of vocabulary with Piper River and cannot be ruled out as a dialect of the NE language.
  • Port Sorell (T13*) [N coast of N Midlands region on map]
    It is "unlikely" there is a close genetic connection with any other Tasmanian language.
  • Piper River (T14*), Cape Portland (T9*), and Ben Lomond (T7) [NE and Ben Lomond regions on map]
    These appear to form an interrelated group. Either the first two or all three could be dialects of a single language. May form a language with Northern, which is separated geographically by Port Sorell.
  • North Midlands (T4) [central N Midlands region on map]
    "Must" be a distinct language.
  • Oyster Bay (T2), Big River (T8*), and Little Swanport (T15*) [Oyster Bay and Big River on map]
    Oyster Bay and Big River share 85% of vocabulary and are very likely to be dialects. Little Swanport could be a dialect as well.
  • South-eastern (T5) [SE region on map]
    Appears to be a distinct language from Oyster Bay / Big River.

The two western varieties are South-western (T10*) and Macquarie Harbour (T6) [southern and northern ends of SW region on map]

Bowern (2012)

Tasmanian language families per Bowern (2012). Oyster Bay and SE are clearly related. Northern and Western may be as well.

One of the difficulties in interpreting Tasmanian data is the fact that some of the 35 word lists mix data from various locations, and even for the rest, in some cases the location is not recorded. Bowern (2012) used a clustering algorithm to identify language admixture, and further techniques to conclude that the 26 unmixed lists with more than 100 words record twelve Tasmanian varieties (at p < 0.15) that may be assumed to be distinct languages.[11] Due to the poor attestation, these varieties have no names apart from the names of the wordlists they are recorded in. They fall into five clusters; Bayesian phylogenetic methods demonstrate that two of these are clearly related, but that the others cannot to related to each other (that is, they are separate language families) based on existing evidence. Given the length of human habitation on Tasmania, it should not be expected for the languages to be related to each other. The families, and the number of attested languages, are:[6]

  • Western Tasmanian (2–3) [T3, T6, T10, T11, T12]: Northwestern and Southwestern tribes
  • Northern Tasmanian (2) [T1, T13]: Northern tribe
  • Northeastern Tasmanian (3) [T4, T7, T9, T14]: Northeastern, Ben Lomond, and North Midland tribes
  • Eastern Tasmanian (5)
    • Oyster Bay (2) [T2, T8, T15]: Oyster Bay and Big River tribes
    • Bruny (Southeastern Tasmanian) (3) [T5]: Bruny tribe

Bowern identifies several of the wordlists of unknown providence: The Norman list is northeastern, for example, while the Lhotsky and Blackhouse lists attest to an additional language in the northeastern family; the Fisher list is western, as are the Plomley lists, though with admixture. Two of the lists reported to be from Oyster Bay contain substantial northeastern admixture, which Bowern believes to be responsible for classifications linking the languages of the east coast.[6]

Only 24 words, out of 3,412, are found in all five branches, and most of these are words for recently introduced items, such as guns and cattle, or cultural or mythological terms which could easily be borrowed. Thus there is no good evidence for a Tasmanian language family. There is, however, slight evidence that the northern and western families may be distantly related (the western varieties are especially poorly attested). The only words found in all regions that are not obvious candidates for borrowing and which do not have serious problems with attestation are *pene- 'laugh', *taway 'go', *liya 'water', *wii 'wood', and perhaps *tina 'belly'. However, there are other local words for 'laugh', 'water', and 'belly', and the reflexes of *taway are so similar as to be suspicious. *Wii is therefore the most promising; it is found as wiya, wina, wikina (-na is a common ending) and wii, glossed as wood, tree, brush, or timber. Although there is no evidence that the Tasmanian languages were related to the languages of mainland Australia (and if they were, they would presumably be related to languages which had been lost to the wave of Pama–Nyungan expansion), the fact that there is no established Tasmanian family should be kept in mind when attempting to establish such connections.[6][12]

Lingua franca

1903 recording

It is unknown if the Tasmanian lingua franca was a koine, creole, pidgin, or a mixed language (Wurm, Mühlhäusler, & Tryon, 1996). However, the vocabulary was evidently predominantly that of the eastern and northeastern languages, due to the dominance of those tribes on the settlements.[13]

Bass Strait Pidgin may have had some connection to this lingua franca: it consisted primarily of English vocabulary, but has a mixture of words from eastern Tasmanian languages.


Palawa kani is a language-revival project. It must be considered a constructed language, however, as it is a mixture of words from various language families from Tasmania and mainland Australia with an invented grammar.


The phonology is uncertain, due to the poor nature of the transcriptions. Schmidt (1952) reconstructed the following for East-central and South-east Tasmanian:

Labial Coronal Velar
plain palatalized plain palatalized palatalized plain
Stop p/b t/d kʲ/ɡʲ k/ɡ
Fricative x
Nasal m n ŋ
Sonorant central w r
lateral l

There may have also been a glottal stop.

Vowels included five "open", five "closed", and nasal vowels such as [ʌ̃]. Stress appears to have been on the penultimate syllable.

Tasmanian languages differ from most of those on the mainland in having words that begin with l or r, as well as with consonant clusters such as br and gr. However, many of the languages of Victoria, across the Bass Strait, also allow initial l, and the language of Gippsland nearest Tasmania, Gunai, also had words beginning with trilled r and the clusters br and gr.[14]


East-central Tasmanian is used for illustration, unless otherwise indicated.

There is no evidence of plurality or gender. The nominal particle may have marked the end of a noun phrase.
Eastern Tas. Western Tas.
woman lowa-na nowa-leā
hand rī-na ri-leā
kangaroo tara-na tara-leā

Possession was indicated by dropping the nominal particle:

wurrawa lowa-na 'the wife of the deceased'

Postpositions, or perhaps case endings, include le/li 'behind', ra 'without', to/ta (change in direction):

There is also an adverbial suffix -re in lene-re 'backwards'.

lunamea ta 'to my house', nee-to [nito] 'to you'

Adjectives follow the noun, and some end in -ne (pāwine 'small') or -ak (mawbak 'black', tunak 'cold').


Only singular personal pronouns are known: mī-na 'I', nī-na 'you', nara 's/he'. (In Northeast Tas, these are mi-na, ni-na, nara.) These form possessive suffixes: loa-mi 'my woman'. Pronouns might be incorporated in the verb: tiena-mia-pe 'give me!'.

Demonstrative pronouns are wa/we 'this' and ni/ne 'that': Riena narra wa 'this is my hand'.


marra(wa) 'one', pʲa(wa) 'two'.


The negative particle is noia

noia meahteang meena neeto linah
'I won't give you any water'
(not give I to-you water)

In Southeast Tas., suffixes -gara/-gera and -gana/-gena appear on verbs. Their meaning is unknown:

nunug(e)ra 'to wash', tiagarra 'to keep', nugara 'to drink'
longana 'to sleep', poenghana 'to laugh', winganah 'to touch'


Some basic words:[15]

nanga 'father'
poa 'mother' (Northeast)
pögöli-na 'sun'
wīta 'moon'
romtö-na 'star'
pö ön'e-na 'bird'
wī-na 'tree'
poime-na 'mountain'
waltomo-na 'river' (Northeast)
nani 'stone'

The difficulty in analyzing the records is apparent in the conflicting recorded forms for the words for "two" ("Fr" means a French transcription):[12]

Tasmanian words for "two"
Region Transcription Possible
pooalih [puwali]
bõw.lȳ [pawuli]
boula (Fr) [pula]
boulla (Fr) [pula]
bura [pura]
bourai (Fr) [pure] [kalapawa]
calabawa [kalapawa] [katapiwa]
kateboueve (Fr) [katapuwe(?)] [nanamina]
nar.ner.pee [nanapi] [palatamina]
pay'ãnĕrbĕrwãr [peyanapawa]
may [me]
nue.won.ner [nyuwana] [nyuwana] [payatale] [paynerape] [payatay]
Oyster Bay py.wer [paywa] [payawa] [payawa]
pia-wah [payawa]

Given the possibility that suffixes are responsible for some of the differences, there are still clearly several distinct words, though it is difficult to say how many or what their forms were.


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tasmanian". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ J. Milligan, 1859. Vocabulary of the Aboriginal Tribes of Tasmania, vol. III of the Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Van Dieman's Land. Hobart.
  3. ^ Blench: Classifications of the Tasmanian languages in relation to the peopling of Australia: sensible and wild theories [1]
  4. ^ a b Bernard Comrie, Stephen Matthews, and Maria Polinsky. The Atlas of Languages. New York: Facts on File. Page 116.
  5. ^ Crowley, Field Linguistics, 2007:3
  6. ^ a b c d Claire Bowern, September 2012, "The riddle of Tasmanian languages", Proc. R. Soc. B, 279, 4590–4595, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1842
  7. ^ JB Walker, 1898. "Notes on the Aborigines of Tasmania", extracted from the Manuscript Journals by George Washington Walker, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania for 1897. pp 145–175. Quoted in Wurm, Mühlhäusler, & Tryon, 1996.
  8. ^ Geoff Lennox, 1984. Oyster Cove historic site. A resource document. Hobart.
  9. ^ W. Schmidt, 1952. Die Tasmanischen Sprachen. Utrecht and Antwerp.
  10. ^ Australian Indigenous Languages Database
  11. ^ The choice of p < 0.15 is rather arbitrary. A more exacting criterion of p < 0.10 results in twenty varieties; relaxing it to < 0.20, on the other hand, makes little difference, reducing the number to eleven (with two rather than three Bruny/SE varieties).
  12. ^ a b Bowern (2012), supplement
  13. ^ NJB Plomley, 1976b. Friendly mission: the Tasmanian journals of George Augustus Robinson 1829–34. Kingsgrove. pp. xiv–xv.
  14. ^ Barry Blake, 1991. Australian aboriginal languages: a general introduction
  15. ^ "Tasmanian". In George Campbell, 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, vol. II.


  • Schmidt, Wilhelm (1952). Die Tasmanischen Sprachen: Quellen, Gruppierungen, Grammatik, Wörterbücher (The Tasmanian languages: Sources, Groupings, Grammar, Dictionaries), Spectrum Publishers, Utrecht-Anvers
  • Crowley, T; Dixon, R. M. W. (1981). "Tasmanian". In Dixon, R. M. W. and Blake, B. J. Handbook of Australian languages. Vol 2. Canberra: Australian National University Press. pp. 394–421. 
  • Plomley, N. J. B. (1976a). A Word-list of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages. Launceston. 
  • Wurm, Mühlhäusler, & Tryon (1996). Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas

External links

  • An overview of the Tasmanian languages
  • Aboriginal Australia WallmapAIATSIS: (for sale)
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