Spelling conventions in 19thC Australian wordlists

I’m getting together the documentation for my research students to start work next week. I thought it might be useful to post my compilation of common features in non-phonemically spelled Australian wordlists. It’s not comprehensive and there is more or less internal consistency within the wordlists.

Checklist for common tendencies in old sources.

  • British/Australian English, not American English.
    • therefore syllable-final r usually (although not always) marks length
    • a is further back
    • vowel length might be meaningful
  • Voicing not usually marked – usually in free variation at the start of words, voiceless at the end
  • English spelling conventions very strong, e.g.
    • <ck> for /k/ at the ends of words,
    • <bate> likely to be /bayit/ rather than /bati/
    • <biggle> likely to be /bigal/, not /bigli/
    • <y> at ends of words is usually /i/
    • <-ine>, <-ane>, etc for /-ayin/
  • “Random” letters added under influence of English orthography:
    • Wriggle /rigal/
  • /a:/ is often signaled by <ar> (remember, Australian/British English!)
  • You cannot assume internal consistency within wordlists, although this varies a great deal.
  • They almost never make a difference between /r/ and /ɻ/ – if you see <r> versus <rr> you can’t assume it’s marking a rhotic difference
  • They often use consonant doubling to mark a short vowel, especially after the initial stress
  • Hyphenation is usually meaningless
  • Substitutions:
    • sh, s for tj
    • c/k alternations
    • gn, g, w, m, n, or nothing for ŋ initially
    • They are better at ŋ intervocalically but <ng> could be either /ŋ/ or /ŋg/
    • nk could be /nk/ or /ŋk/
    • e for i, or for schwa in second vowel of word (English etymological spellings)
    • u as schwa: <butcha> probably /patja/ or /patha/
    • u in initial syllable often /a/
    • th can mean /t/, /th/ or an actual fricative
    • ee for /i/
    • oo for /u/ [check within the list whether they seem to use <u> and <a> or <oo> and <u/a>
    • y for /ay(i)/ in initial syllables, for /i/ finally
    • random capitalisation
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3 responses to “Spelling conventions in 19thC Australian wordlists

  1. also ‘gn-‘ ‘n-‘ etc for word-initial /nj-/. I’ve also seen this rendered as ñ but this was in an early 20th-century text.
    I assume you’ve seen Peter Austin and Terry Crowley’s chapter on this topic in Paper and Talk: a manual for reconstituting materials in Australian indigenous languages from historical sources (1995)

  2. oh yes, it’s assigned reading for my class in about 3 weeks :) True, I forgot that gn could be both ŋ and ny.

  3. In the wordlists for Ngarluma collected by various local personages and collated by Daisy Bates, the palatal stop (‘j’) is the most inconsistently recorded. Variations include: ‘jj’, ‘tch’, ‘teh’, ‘gg’, ‘j’, ‘tj’, ‘dg’, ‘ch’, ‘g’, ‘d’. Also there is one collector who uses ‘kn’ for the velar nasal. The lateral dental is missed by most (as is the nasal dental) but inventively rendered as ‘lth’ by one smarty pants.

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