The hy-phen at Port Jackson

Mark Liberman’s post at Language Log ‘On
the origins of ‘American Indian hyphens’
(with updates) locates
“the practice of writing American Indian words — especially proper
names — with multiple internal hyphens” in the 19th century.  The
earliest usage Mark has found so far is in an 1823 publication about an
1819-20 expedition across the USA.

Here in Australia, by about 1791 hyphens between
syllables were common when the Sydney Language was being
written down by the English colonists (who had arrived in 1788).

A good example is David Collins’ list near the end of his 1798 An account of the
English colony in New
South Wales
(pp.407-413 in 1975 edition; at “What
follows is
offered only as a specimen, not as a perfect vocabulary of their

Co-ing The sun
Yen-na-dah The moon
Bir-rong A star
Mo-loo-mo-long The Pleiades
War-re-wull The Milky Way
Ca-ra-go-ro A cloud

Collins regularly uses intersyllabic hyphens also in his ‘A short
vocabulary of the New Zealand language’ (sc. Māori) in the same
The practice might be more common where vernacular
words are used in English running text, such as:

That they have ideas of a distinction between good and bad
is evident
from their having terms in their language significant of these
qualities. Thus, the sting-ray was (wee-re) bad; it was a fish of which
they never ate. The patta-go-rang or kangaroo was (bood-yer-re) good,
and they ate it whenever they were fortunate enough to kill one of
these animals. (Collins
Appendix I

Note that the Sydney Language words they were
recording are generally monomorphemic and I think it is safe to say
that the writers realised this by the time they made up their
lists.  John Hunter’s vocabulary, partly copied from Collins, uses
intersyllabic hyphens in only some of the words, and in others seems to
use a hyphen to separate morphemes (1793, An historical
journal of the
transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island
, Chapter
15).  A third possible pattern in Collin’s practice is that a
hyphen precedes a syllable
with secondary stress.

Another First Fleeter, Watkin Tench, uses hyphens when
focussing on the syllables, such as in

June, 1791. On the second instant, the name of the
settlement, at the
head of the harbour, Rose Hill, was changed, by order of the governor,
to that of Par-ra-màt-ta, the native name of it. (Watkin
Tench 1793 A complete account of the settlement
at Port Jackson
, Chapter 15

Tench has an interesting phonetics remark, in which he uses a
hyphen to separate units which would help an English reader better
approximate the target phonetics:

Not only their combinations, but some of their simple
sounds, were
difficult of pronunciation to mouths purely English. Diphthongs often
occur. One of the most common is that of a e, or perhaps, a i,
not unlike those letters in the French verb haïr, to hate.
The letter y
frequently follows d in the same syllable. Thus the word which
signifies a woman is Dyin;
although the structure of our language requires us to spell it Dee-in.
Tench 1793 A complete account of the
settlement at Port Jackson
, Chapter 17

I infer that Tench means here (by “the structure of our language”) that
English orthography would suggest the wrong pronunciation were the
word written Dyin, namely as a disyllable like dying,
and he can avoid that by writing Dee-in.  Perhaps Tench
also wanted to represent a disyllable, or bimoraic
syllable: Dawes wrote this word as “Deeyin ‘Woman or
wife'”.  Note that this Sydney
word was borrowed into NSW English as gin,
assimilated as a
monosyllable with short vowel (rather than, say, jean with long

William Dawes
, the best recorder, did not use hyphenation this way,
as can be seen in the facsimile
sample from his notebook illustrating HRELP’s Dawes online.

The first vocabularies recorded in Australia were Cook’s
and Banks’
lists taken down at Endeavour River in 1770.  Those did not use
hyphens.  They are similarly absent from the 1777 vocabulary
recorded for Cook by his surgeon Mr Anderson at Adventure Bay
(Tasmania), at least as
published in 1821

So, we are hardly any
closer to understanding “the
origins and spread of this orthographic practice”
, but it seems to
have arisen in the late 18th century and continued through the 19th

* Note: I quote from the 1961
Angus & Robertson edition Sydney’s
first four years
“With an
introduction and annotations by L.F. Fitzhardinge”. The online version
of Tench drops the intersyllable hyphens (and simplifies in other
ways); it might be truer to the 1793 edition which I haven’t checked,
but for now I trust Fitzhardinge.

7 thoughts on “The hy-phen at Port Jackson”

  1. Certainly very common in early Noongar vocabs. The earliest I can find is Flinders 1801 list which is a comparision of Sydney and KGS(Albany)languages and he uses(copies?) Collins’ in his Sydney list and, for instance, spells Du-ong (for ears) at KGS which Grey and others later spelt as twonk. Symmons uses heaps of hyphens in his 1840 grammar to demonstrate the inflected syllables of words. By way of contrast, Nind who recorded a significant word list at KGS in 1828(published in 1831) used no hyphens – but he was definitely an outsider wrt to the gentleman scientists of the colony at the time.

  2. In the transcription system used in pronunciation guides produced by
    SCOSE (Standing Committee on Spoken English) at the ABC (Australian
    Broadcasting Corporation) hyphens are used to break words up into
    syllables. For example, Sydney would be written ‘SID-nee’. This is
    done to make the transcriptions more readable. In this form the
    transcriptions can be sounded out syllable by syllable.
    Hyphens are also used in the Wade-Giles system of romanisation for
    Mandarin Chinese to mark syllable breaks within words. This system
    has its origins in the 19th century and is still used today by some
    crustier sinologists who see the more recent Hanyu pinyin
    romanisation as a Communist plot. has some examples of an early transcription from an
    1872 phrasebook by the relevant Prof Giles. As the brief introduction
    on the page suggests, the romanisation shown does not appear to be
    very consistent and may be aimed more at getting English speakers to
    approximate the Mandarin sounds from their knowledge of English
    orthography than at being a systematic romanisation for Mandarin.
    Having said that, there are some features of the transcription, such
    as the use of apostrophes to indicate voiceless aspirated stops, that
    are a part of standard Wade-Giles romanisation and which make no
    sense in the context of English orthography. The use of hyphens in
    this transcription also doesn’t follow any simple system. Hyphens are
    often used between syllables in polysyllabic words (ch’wong-hoo
    [chuanghu]), but they’re also sometimes not (mayo [meiyou]) and
    sometimes they’re used within a syllable (lay-enn [lian])! Note that
    hyphens are not used in the modern Hanyu pinyin.

  3. Nice stuff David – this needs proper research but I seem to recall seeing hyphens in Major Mitchell’s vocabs from northern NSW and other records from early in the 1800’s (Mitchell’s journal was published in 1839). I wonder if publications like “Science of Man” had any effect – perhaps the publishers eliminated hyphens from MS versions when they printed them, as you note for the online version of Tench? Worth a look I guess.

  4. I think you could be onto something here Peter. The vocabularies published in Brough Smyth 1878 or Curr 1888 or later in Science of Man (1896-1913) generally do not use hyphens, showing the general decline in the practice in the latter part of the 19th century. A lot of Science of Man vocabularies derive from a questionnaire completed by a local official such as police or mining warden, and returned to the (Royal) Anthropological Society of Australasia. The form sent around, in about 1899, has two example words (placenames), with no hyphens used. This would have influenced someone providing information on the form against using hyphens; and generally the manuscript replies do not use hyphens. By the way, the manuscript replies are among RASA papers microfilmed in 1991, and can be viewed in ‘RASA Manuscripts – Dated 1900’, a CD-ROM produced in 2004 by the New South Wales Geographical Names Board.

  5. It’s worth comparing Grey’s Nyungar vocabulary from 1842 with Moore’s published in 1870. Moore directly quotes Grey but drops his hyphens e.g. yu-ly ‘lazy idle'(Grey, 1842), yuly KGS ‘lazy’ (Moore 1870) [where KGS is Moore’s reference to Grey].

  6. Does anyone know if anyone has ever looked into hyphen use and its effect on literacy acquisition for Aboriginal language speakers? At Ngukurr, I’ve been teaching people to read and write languages that vary from virtually no hyphenating (Wagilak/Ritharrngu) to languages that can have a verb complex with several hyphenated parts (e.g. Rembarrnga and Ngandi). I’ve always felt a bit sorry for AG who I’ve taught Rembarrnga literacy to, because he’s had to deal with where to put all the stinkin hyphens! (and also learn where the hyphen key is on the computer!) haha… poor bugger. But then, he’s done pretty okay with picking it up.
    I don’t know… hyphenation in current orthographies still seems a bit arbitrary to me. Has anyone actually ever looked into the benefits/negative effects for native speakers of how their languages use hyphenation?

  7. Robert Hoogenraad has probably put the most thought into hyphens and writing in Indigenous Australian languages.
    With Warumungu, we started using hyphens, but then people mostly stopped using them. looking at what they do, I’d say they’re roughly adopting the principle that two syllable suffixes are treated as separated words and one syllable suffixes are either adjoined to the preceding word or separated with a hyphen.

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