Sydney Language –mb– ~ –m– and dingo

Update: The contents of this post have been incorporated in the paper ‘Dawes’ Law generalised: cluster simplification in the coastal dialect of the Sydney Language’, published in 2011 in Indigenous languages and social identity: Papers in honour of Michael Walsh. Pacific Linguistics 626, pp.159-178.

Aspects of the Sydney Language are a perennial fascination. Last month recent events prompted me to look into the etymology of boomerang. In recent weeks the gripping SBS documentary First Australians first episode (available as a 227MB MPEG4) took us to the early days of Sydney.  And now I’ve noticed what I think is an unreported sound correspondence, as I’ve become more familiar with sources on the Sydney Language.

We can start with the correspondence that Lt William Dawes noted between dialects we
can call coastal and inland, in the course of a 1791 expedition inland.  Dawes’ notebook has a comparative table of six pairs of roots clearly showing a correspondence between intervocalic –nd– in inland Burubirangal with –n- in coastal Iyura.
(The table is reproduced by Steele 2005:156, and Wilkins &
Nash 2008:489-91). Dawes (c1790b) had also explicitly noticed an assimilation rule in the coastal dialect (Iyura), which can be restated thus: across a morpheme boundary potential nasal+d
clusters do not surface but the d in this context is realised as n. Wilkins noticed that the observation could be generalised:

In the coastal dialect, there is a morphophonological rule
which changed the initial stop consonant of a suffix to the homorganic nasal
when that suffix was attached to a stem ending in a nasal. (Wilkins & Nash 2008:488)

Bilabial clusters

The rule changing the initial consonant of suffixes was also noted by Troy (1994) with respect to bilabials:

Analysis of the verbal morphology of the language provides further
evidence for the transformation of b to m following n.
(Troy 1994:27)

So I wondered about intervocalic bilabial nasal-stop clusters inside stems, not just ones that might arise from suffixation. The following table is an extract of all Sydney Language words written with an mb in Troy’s (1994) ‘reference spelling’, together with each source form
annotated with source abbreviation. The table columns are in two groups: words with mb in the left half, and any corresponding words with a corresponding m in the right half.

# gloss Troy 1994 source Troy 1994 source
1 sacred kingfisher djirramba jirramba (M) dyaramak dere-a-mak (HSB)
2 bat wirambi weeramby (C), werrimbi ‘flying fox’ (WR) [wirami] weeream-my (An)
fox rat–large fox rat wiriyambi wee-ree-am-by (C) wiriyamin wee-ree-a-min (C)
3 wombat wumbat wom-bat (C), wombat (Fl), womback (Fl), wombat (R)  [wumat] womat (Fl)
4 brother-in-law djambi jambi (R)
sister-in-law djambing jambiŋ (R)
5 cattle–horned cattle gambaguluk kumbakuluk (R)
6 stars gimbawali kimperwali (M), kimberwalli (R)
7 shout gumba kumba (R)
8 sprat gumbara kumbara (M)
9 deaf gumbarubalung kumbarobalong (M)
10 geebung (plant) mambara mambara (M)
11 quail muwambi moumbi (M)

Sources: (An) Anon. c1790, (C) Collins 1798, (Fl) Flinders 1814, (HSB) Hunter 1988, (M) Mathews 1903, (R) Rowley in Ridley, (WR) Russell 1914.

The records in the middle column, showing –mb-, are all from
inland varieties as recorded by (M), (R) and (WR), whereas the examples
with corresponding –m– in the right columns are from Sydney Cove
and the coastal variety (allowing for Collins having recorded words
from both varieties).  The blanks in the right columns show there
is no recorded –m– equivalent of the –mb– words in those
rows, and all those –mb– words are from the definitely inland
sources (M) and (R).

Steele (2005:157) has also noted that “-mb is a
non-permissible BB combination” (where BB is Biyal-Biyal, Steele’s preferred name for the
coastal variety), but did not state what happens to etymological mb.
Note that in row 2 Collins’ ‘fox rat’ should probably be read as
‘fox bat’, a suggestion that has also been made by Steele (2005).

David Wilkins has noticed a possible instance of the correspondence –mb– ~ –m-, but between the Lake Macquarie Language (Awabakal) and Iyura. Lissarrague’s (2006:113) reconstitution kampal ‘brother (younger)’, based on Kum-bul (Threlkeld 1834:87), Kumbȧl (Threlkeld 1892:54) and kambal (Horatio Hale), may well correspond with Dawes’ (c1790b) gómůl ‘A degree of relationship’. Troy (1994:39) reconstitutes this word as gumul but there is only one attestation and phonetically gamal is also possible.

All in all, it appears that intervocalic –mb– in inland varieties of the Sydney Language corresponds with intervocalic –m– in the coastal variety (Iyura) of the Sydney Language.

A Pama-Nyungan retention?

If the above evidence has established the –mb– ~ –m
correspondence, then we can see Dawes’ (c1790b) unique record of kāma
‘to dig’ as a potential reflex of proto-Pama-Nyungan *ka:mpa-
‘cook in earth oven’ vtr (Alpher 2004:431).  This is known to descend as
‘cover, bury’ in some languages of Cape York Peninsula and central
Queensland, but Alpher (2004) has no reflexes in southeast
Australia.  Without another reflex of *ka:mpa- in the subgroup, there’s a likelihood
that kāma is a chance correspondence — so I would naturally
like to hear of a potential southeast Australian reflex of
*ka:mpa- (with suitable meaning). [Note: The other sound
equivalences needed in this comparison are supported by pPN *kuna ‘excrement’ (Alpher 2004:439-40) descending as Sydney kuni (M), gonin (guni ‘excrement’ –in ‘from’) (Tench) ‘excrement’.]

Velar clusters

Now, having covered alveolar and bilabial, what about other places of
articulation, you ask.  Well, David Wilkins (p.c.) has made the
generalisation that Iyura (the coastal variety) probably lacked any
homorganic consonant clusters. On any potential correspondence between palatals –ñdj– and –ñ
there is a dearth of evidence; suffice to say there is no evidence of
palatal nasal-stop clusters in Iyura.  For velars the data present
a messy picture, given the ambiguity of early spellings with intervocalic ‘ng‘.  The scraps of data include the form of the ‘dingo’ word, and a couple of others which I consider first.

The early source Anon. (c1790) (Troy’s (1994) source (c)), which can
usually be taken to represent the coastal variety, has at least two
words with a fairly definite indication of a nasal-stop cluster:

‘banksia Banksia ericifoliawadanggari wa-tang-gre (c)

‘cabbage tree Livistona australisdaranggara ta-rang-ge-ra
(c) (from Troy 1994)

These words would suggest that intervocalic ŋg is allowed in
the coastal variety — but these could actually be representations of
heterorganic ng, or could be inland words.  Furthermore, as David Wilkins has kindly pointed out to me, Dawes (c1790b) listed wadangal wȧtaŋál among ‘names of flowers bearing honey …’ (Troy 1994:61-2) which clearly has a simple nasal not a cluster, and may well be the coastal equivalent of this banksia word.

For completeness: there is just one possible set showing a related but different variation: the
correspondence –ŋg– ~ –g– (not –ŋg– ~ –ŋ-):

‘swamp wallaby, Wallabia bicolor‘  banggaray
bag-ga-ray (c), bag-gar-ray (C), baggaray (P),
ban-ga-ray (A), bag-ga-ree (W), guraya gorea
(R) (from Troy 1994)

but again the one variant with nasal, ban-ga-ray, might be a representation of heterorganic ng, that is, the reference spelling perhaps should be bangaray not baŋgaray.


The original phonetics of the word ‘dingo’ (the Australian dog) has long been somewhat of
a puzzle; unfortunately it does not occur in the best source, Dawes’ notebooks.  The source variation (based on Troy 1994) can be set out according to what the spelling implies about
the medial consonant(s):

ŋg– or –ng– or –ñg indeterminate: –ŋg– or –ŋ

or –ng– or –ñg

tein-go (C) dingo (T), tingo (A) (F) tung-o (An)
din-go (C) jungo (Pa) tung-oro ‘dogs’ (An)
jūnghō or dingo (R) jung-o (C)

† This entry is an interpolation in the manuscript; it includes wuragal wor-re-gal (C), waregal ‘large dog’ (A), and is inserted above Tung-o ‘a dog’

Sources: (A) Collins, Phillip and Hunter (King 1968:270-274), (An) Anon. c1790, (C)
Collins 1798, (F) Fowell (1988:93), (Pa) Paine (1983:41-42), (R) Rowley
in Ridley, (T) Tench (1979:49[83]).
Coastal: (F), (T), (A), (Pa) and usually (An); Inland (R); both: (C).

The simplest account of the variation in the above records is that
there were two pronunciations diŋu (coastal) and diŋgu
(inland), fitting the earlier discussion of correspondences implying parallel variation in homorganic nasal-stop clusters at the other places of articulation.  The possibility of
a heterorganic cluster ng or ñg cannot be ruled out, but it is not able to account for the spellings implying simple ŋ (the right hand column above).  [Note: I propose the reconstituted
forms diŋu and diŋgu just with respect to the medial consonant(s): the initial consonant may well be a laminal stop and the first vowel might be u, but these are matters for
another discussion.]

As far as I know a corresponding form is found outside the Sydney region only to the north, in Awabakal, the Lake Macquarie Language, for which Threlkeld’s 1834 An Australian Grammar lists

Tin-ku, a she dog. (p.10)
Ting-ko, A bitch (p.92)

Both these spellings represent a nasal-stop cluster, but according to Amanda Lissarrague’s (2006) analysis it appears that from the available Awabakal data we cannot distinguish heterorganic nk or ñk from homorganic ŋk.

Here is what others have postulated as to the form of the origin of dingo.  The 1988 Australian National Dictionary (AND) [a. Dharuk diŋgu] and the 1991 Macquarie Dictionary (2nd ed.) [Dharuk dinggu] proposed a homorganic cluster. Then Dixon in Australian Aboriginal words in English proposed the possible heterorganic clusters:

[Dharuk, Sydney region din-gu or dayn-gu …] (1st edition, 1990 page

[Dharuk, Sydney region probably din-gu (or possibly dayn-gu) …] (2nd edition, 2006
page 54)

and more recently has settled on just din-gu (Dixon 2008:134). Troy (1994:51) proposed dingu, repeated in her chapter in Macquarie Aboriginal Words (1994:69); this could mean heterorganic dingu or simple diŋu; it is not to be read as diŋgu otherwise her spelling would be ‘dinggu’.

My current best proposal is this: (1) the First Fleeters encountered coastal diŋu in the first months of the colony and some did their best to represent the intervocalic nasal in what they wrote down; (2) a few years later the colonists encountered inland diŋgu; (3) English phonotactics and English spelling conventions favoured what happened to be the inland pronunciation, the variant with ŋg, and this became the universal English pronunciation.

I am grateful to David Wilkins for ongoing helpful discussion about the Sydney Language.


Alpher, Barry. 2004. Proto-Pama-Nyungan etyma.
Appendix 5.1, pp.387-570 on CD-ROM
accompanying Australian languages: classification and the
comparative method
, ed. by C. Bowern and H. Koch.
Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

Anonymous. c1790.  Vocabulary of the language
of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney. (Native and English, but not alphabetical).
Marsden 41645(c), SOAS Library.

Collins, David. 1798. Appendix XII — Language, in An account of the English colony in New South Wales : with remarks on the dispositions, customs, manners &c. of the native inhabitants. London : Cadell and Davies. e-text

Dawes, William. c1790b. Vocabulary of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney, Native and English, by — Dawes. Marsden 41645(b), SOAS Library.

Flinders, Matthew. 1814. A Voyage to Terra Australis. London: G. and W.
Nicol. Facsimile reprint

Fowell, Newton. 1988 [1788]. The Sirius letters. The complete
letters of Newton Fowell, Midshipman and Lieutenant aboard the Sirius
flagship of the First Fleet on its voyage to New South Wales
edited by Nance Irvine. Sydney: The Fairfax Library.

Hunter, John. 1989. The Hunter sketchbook. General editor, John Calaby. Canberra:
National Library of Australia.

King, Philip Gidley. 1968 [1793]. Lieutenant King’s journal, pp.196-298 in An historical journal of events at Sydney and at sea 1787-1792, by Captain
John Hunter, Commander H.M.S Sirius; with further accounts by Governor
Arthur Philip, Lieutenant P.G. King and Lieutenant H.L. Ball. New
edition edited by John Bach. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Lissarrague, Amanda. 2006. A salvage grammar and wordlist of the language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie. Nambucca Heads, NSW: Muurrbay Language and Culture Centre.

Mathews, Robert H., 1901, ‘The Dharruk language and
vocabulary’, [a section in] The Thurrawal Language. Journal
of the Royal Society of NSW

Paine, Daniel. 1983. The journal of Daniel Paine
1794-1797, together with documents illustrating the beginnings of government
boat-building and timber-gathering in New South Wales, 1795-1805
edited by R.J.B. Knight and Alan Frost. Sydney: Library of
Australian History.

Ridley, William, transmitting John Rowley. Language
of the Aborigines of Georges River, Cowpasture and Appin. The Journal of the
Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
7 (1878)

Russell, William “Werriberrie”. 1991 [1914]. My
Camden, NSW: The Oaks Historical Society for the Wollondilly Heritage

Steele, Jeremy Macdonald. 2005. The Aboriginal
language of Sydney : a partial reconstruction of the indigenous language of Sydney based on
the note books of William Dawes of 1790-91, informed by other records
of the Sydney and surrounding languages to c.1905.
Thesis (Master
of Arts (Research), Division of Society, Culture, Media &
Philosophy, Warawara – Department of Indigenous Studies, Macquarie
University, Sydney. Available from Macquarie University ResearchOnline. With CD-ROM ‘Bayala Databases’.

Tench, Watkin, L. F. Fitzhardinge, et al. 1979
[1961] [1793]. Sydney’s first four years : being a reprint of A narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay and A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, in association with the Royal Australian Historical Society.
Electronic book, eBooks@Adelaide.

Troy, Jakelin. 1994. The Sydney Language.
Produced with the assistance of the Australian
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‘discovery’ of a multilingual Australia: the linguistic and
ethnographic successes of a failed expedition, pp.485–507, Chapter 18,
in The history of research on Australian Aboriginal languages, edited by William McGregor. Pacific Linguistics 591

3 thoughts on “Sydney Language –<i>mb</i>– ~ –<i>m</i>– and <i>dingo</i>”

  1. David Nash’s findings on the Sydney language, and his mention of David Wilkins’ observations, reminds me of the nasal-cluster dissimilation rule in Koko-Bera whereby in nasal-stop clusters in successive syllables the first one loses the stop. Hence kampvli ‘to cook in earth oven’, Past kamvnt. Sort of the opposite to what you find in (is it?) some Ngumpin, where the stop is lost. Anyway, it had occurred to me that something like this (losing either the stop or the nasal) could be a source for the complete simplification you find in YYoront & some Warluwaric or in Yolngu or in, apparently, coastal Sydney: the classic generativist rule-simplification, producing analogical regularization of paradigms.

  2. Nice data on Sydney area. There seems to be a lot of this kind of alternation around NC and N eg mb and m. Barry mentions alternations motivated by following nasal clusters – what I called Nasal Cluster Dissimilation (later renamed Nasal Coda Dissimilation)in a 1988 article, later reprinted. Most of the emphasis whas on the form of NCD which deletes or denasalises a nasal following a nasal-oral cluster but the regressive form with deletion of the oral stop was also mentioned.
    But these forms and others do not necessarily have that kind of environment.
    For instance the ‘sibling-in-law’ term in the Sydney data jambi(ng) does not (as far as we know) have a jami- form even though though the apparent feminine form provides an NCD environment.
    This root has apparent cognates in terms for mother’s father, cross-cousin, spouse and sibling-in-law in many areas of Australia both in Pama-Nyungan and non-Pama-Nyungan. These kin types are commonly equated in Australian systems.
    In various places across this range there is correspondence between a jampV- form and and a jamV- form in closely related languages.
    A number of the NPN forms do have a nasal coda coupled with the m variant eg Kija thamany ‘mother’s father’. But in many there is no sign synchronically or in recent history of a following nasal coda.
    So I am suggesting that perhaps this Sydney phenomenon is part of a larger NC-N alternation pattern in many areas. What this pattern is is rather mysterious to me. It could be connected to NCD but that is not the whole story.

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