Aborigines of Tasmania: The Loss of a Language

Morning y’all! I just handed in a nice English essay and thought I’d share it woth you.



The Commonwealth of Australia lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans in the Southern hemisphere. Its capital is Canberra, a mainly political city located in the southeast, between Sydney and Melbourne (Lange, 2016). Most of Australia’s 22.9 million inhabitants live in the coastal areas, but the majority of these Australians are descended from the European people who settled on these islands many years ago, so much so that in 2011 only about 2.4% of Australia’s inhabitants had aboriginal ancestry (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Tasmania is an island state of the Commonwealth of Australia. The languages of its Indigenous peoples are believed to have become extinct in the late nineteenth century, due to the Black War. There are very few surviving testimonies on the subject as well, which makes research even more difficult (Blench, 2008). The aim of this essay is to shed some light on the topic through a brief account of Tasmanian history, followed by a short retelling of the life of the last fluent speaker of a Tasmanian language and, finally, a compilation of what little is known of the Tasmanian indigenous languages.

The history of Tasmania’s aboriginal population has been the subject of much speculation throughout the years. The most accepted theory about their origin is that they must have first crossed the Bass Strait from Australia to Tasmania about 40,000 years ago (Blench, 2008). By the time the Europeans came and claimed the land as their own, the aborigines had divided themselves into nine tribes, with less defined divisions inside each of them, and amounted altogether to somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 individuals. However, with the turn of the nineteenth century came the beginning of the Black War. The hostilities between the aborigines and the white resulted in the virtual extermination of the original aboriginal population of the island and, with them, their language and culture (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). The Black War was fought almost exclusively by independently acting parties using guerrilla tactics. A distinctive factor of this conflict was that aborigines’ raids on colonist settlements villages always took place by day, whereas colonists attacked aborigines at night. It is worth pointing out that, although the colonists were ultimately victorious, the aborigines’ guerrilla techniques were almost, if not just as effective as theirs. Alas, it is a historical fact that martial prowess does not guarantee victory (Clements, 2013).

What follows now is an account of the lives of the last aboriginal survivors and, specifically, of Fanny Cochrane Smith. In 1847, there were only 47 surviving full-blooded aborigines. They were removed to Oyster Cove, to the south of Hobart, where they set up a small village. Fanny was among them. She lived there with her sister and mother until she married, in 1854, to William Smith, an English ex-convict who had been sent to Australia for stealing a donkey. They had eleven children and obtained their income from the sale of timber. She became the last surviving Tasmanian aborigine in 1876, as well as the last fluent speaker of a Tasmanian Language, and remained so until her death in 1905 (Clark, 1988). However, some years before her death, she consented to being recorded singing aboriginal songs. These recordings were kept on five wax cylinders, which include translations of some of the songs. It is from these recordings that most recollections of Tasmanian terms have stemmed, as well as the few translations that have been attempted at the present time (Crowley, 1993).

We finally move on to the linguistic aspects of aboriginal Tasmanian culture. By the time it began to be studied in earnest, very few native speakers remained, and thus interpreting the language proved to be much more difficult than it was thought to be at first. Because of this, hypotheses concerning the classification of the languages have been the focus of a variety of theories linked to the peopling of Tasmania, some of which are best described as highly speculative. There were several languages spoken by different tribal groups in Trouwerner, as they called Tasmania. Studies suggest that there were between six and twelve spoken languages when the first European settlers arrived. Some of the words from these different languages have been recorded in N. J. B. Plomley’s 1976 book A Word List of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages (Baird, 2008). The first studies of the languages enabled those working on them to conclude that the Tasmanian languages were phonologically and typologically similar to those that originated on the Australian mainland. Later on, it was established that there were four mutually unintelligible although relatively similar Tasmanian dialects, which had affinities with not only Australian languages, but also those from New Caledonia (Blench, 2008). We have yet to determine the true origin of the Tasmanian languages, but thanks to these people’s work, they are now relatively easier to understand.

It is undeniable that pure-blood Tasmanian aborigines are no more, but thanks to the efforts of the last of them and of those who studied their case and their culture we still have some notions of the languages, as well as the recordings of Fanny Cochrane Smith. The different dialects have not yet been fully deciphered, but we are closer than we have ever been. The associations devoted to the preservation of these cultures and languages are working hard. There are also museums in the area with large collections of items that are aboriginal in origin. Many have created programs based on these items, and children of the area are often taken there to learn about their heritage. All this is periodically adjusted to include the new discoveries and relationships found between the Tasmanian languages and others with similar qualities. Even though no fluent native speakers remain alive, loan words of Tasmanian origin remain in the English language, such as ‘canagong’ and ‘boobialla’, which are names of plants. We carry our Tasmanian brethren with us, albeit unconsciously, and will not let them, or their memory, perish.



Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia revealed as 2011 Census data is released: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Baird, A. (2008). Voices of Aboriginal Tasmania: Ningenneh Tunapry Education Guide. Tasmania: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Blench, R. (2008). The Languages of the Tasmanians and their Relation to the People of Australia: Sensible and WIld Theories. Australian Archaeology(67), 13 – 18.

Clark, J. (1988). Biography – Fanny Cochrane Smith Australian Dictionary of Bibliography. Canberra: Australia National University.

Clements, N. P. (2013). Frontier Conflict in Van Diemen’s Land. Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Tasmania, Tasmania. Retrieved from http://eprints.utas.edu.au/17070/2/Whole-Clements-thesis.pdf

Crowley, T. (1993). Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2016). Black War | Australian history Encyclopaedia Britannica: @britannica.

Lange, R. T. (2016). Australia | history – geography Encyclopaedia Britannica. United Kingdom: @britannica.


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