Bursting through Dawes (2)

Further to my last post, I’ve read on, and my disappointment has only deepened at the treatment of the Sydney Language in Ross Gibson’s 26 views of the starburst world.

Think about the notes you made when you were getting into learning an undocumented language … Imagine they get archived and in a century or two someone looks through them and tries to work out what was going on when you made the notes.  With only shreds of metadata and general knowledge of the historical period to go on, the future reader makes inferences from the content. Could a cluster of words in one of your vocabulary lists point to a hunch you were checking? Or a sequence of illustrative sentences could be the skeletal narrative of a memorable experience shared with your teachers.

Well, some pitfalls for this line of thinking are evident from what Gibson has fantasised from Dawes’ two notebooks.

First, lexical analysis. Gibson (2012:125-7) has a short chapter (‘Erotics’) based on his contemplation of nine words:

… we find these expressions that have been empowered by the suffix [sic] ‘kara’:

Karaga to pronounce1, to utter, to urge meaningful breath
out from oneself and into the world
Karadigan a doctor, a healer, one who works with the
fertile and beneficial forces burgeoning in the world
Karamung2 a swell of the watering, an upwelling
Karangan3 fingernails, growing out from the body, reaching
into the larger world
Karabul the cutting edge or back of a sword or a tool that pushes into the
world’s matter and changes beneficially4
Karal a snood or covering that receives and
protects the incisive, penetrating end of
to a hook
Karabi the screeching cockatoo bird, the one whose flight and
amplifying call can take over the sky5
Karama to profit by stealing
Karau testicles6

Dawes recorded many expressions like these, which witnessed a force for growth and benefit in the country.

This force seemed to work into everything, including the language itself, which was the means the Eora literally pronounced the vitality all around them.

Furthermore, it seems the force moved through every aspect of the Eora world — through people, tools, plants, animals, actions, ideas and emotions. Not an abstract noun, not a thing, this force must have been a suffusing influence, a potentiality always moving and changing. [etc]

The text I’ve marked purple above is what Gibson has added to the original gloss of the source (usually Dawes); the minor omissions are struck out like this. His additions are intended to clarify for us the “transformational work afforded by the derivational suffix [sic] ‘kara'” (Gibson 2012:119):

There is a sense in the suffix [sic], something that seems characteristic of Eora metaphysics: the sense of increase. When the suffix ‘kara’ insinuates a phrase, the world it represents seems to reconfigure and rouse through language. Any utterance that gets reorganised by ‘kara’ seems to carry the world’s force. Here is a linguistic energy that shadows physical and metaphysical energy. [etc]

But kara here is not sustainable as a morpheme in the Sydney Language; words beginning kara occur together on pages 1112 of Dawes’ Notebook B because that Notebook is basically a vocabulary arranged alphabetically.

Second, illustrative sentences. Gibson (2012:191-2) presents a ‘scenario-construction’ based on his contemplation of five consecutive examples on page 21 of Notebook B. Here are Dawes’ English translations (I’ve added the numbers):

1: Just now or some little time back
2: Mr. Dawes spoke just now to C. Campbell
3: Capt. Ball will return from Parramatta bye & bye (some little time hence)
4: Stop stop! Hear me pray
5: Putuwá To warm ones hand by the fire & then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person

‘Musing on a scenario such as this, you imagine a welter of potential events lurking in backstories as well as future outcomes’; but I’ll spare you Gibson’s (2012:192) speculations and theorising about them. My point is that the first three quoted expressions pertain to the vocabulary item Wu̇ra wu̇rá and its complement ŋí̇rigal, respectively meaning ‘a short time ago’ and ‘some little time hence’. Wu̇ra wu̇rá is on this page because pages 21 and 22 list words beginning with w (and page 20 lists words beginning with t). The 4th and 5th quoted sentences appear to be interpolations, before the vocabulary resumes with Wiaŋa (‘mother’). The  example sentence for Wiaŋa (‘My mother scorch’d my fingers (that I shou’d not steal)’) seems to have prompted the contrasting expression ‘gently warm fingers’ which Dawes inserted immediately above (the 5th quoted). I don’t have an explanation for why the 4th expression occurs here, but the reasons for the others do seem to be traceable to this page 21 being part of the w‘s in the Vocabulary.

So, Gibson has not just fallen into two pits, he has leapt into them and revels in there! To cap it off, this fantasy by a (Group of 8) professor has been published by a (Group of 8) university press, with support from the Australia Council. It’s a kind of fictocriticism, a reviewer tells us.7 So perhaps the best reaction is to have a bit of a laugh, and move on.


  1. ‘(as Mr D. pronounces well)’
  2. Written in pencil in another hand, on the last page (B46) in a list of Harbour features.
  3. Dawes actually spells this Karúngan
  4. Dawes has ‘The edge of a sword (lit. Back)’, and Kurrabul ‘The Back’ B3
  5. Rowley 1877 in Ridley; cf Gar-ra-way ‘White cockatoo’, Ga-rati ‘Black cockatoo’, C24
  6. Gibson 2012:283n65[sc.64]: ‘The references for ‘stealing’ and ‘testicle’ are derived not from Dawes, but from R.H. Mathews’ later word-list, circa 1901. Acknowledgements to the database in [Steele 2005]’
  7. ‘Gibson’s writing is always clear, though readers expecting a standard history might find its debt to an academic fictocritical tradition confronting, at least at first.’ Delia Falconer, Australian 11 August 2012

5 thoughts on “Bursting through Dawes (2)”

  1. I second Wamut, and as an aside, I love that in the wikipedia entry for Fictocriticism, it says “See also: Linguistics”.

  2. “I love that in the wikipedia entry for Fictocriticism, it says “See also: Linguistics”.” Oh no, oh god.

  3. In terms of angling, a snood is a short line that attaches a hook to a main line, often made of a different material to the main line and in pre-industrial terms may protect the line attachment area – that is the proximal end of the hook – not the incisive (?) penetrative distal end. [See Wikipedia here for further explanation — the homophony of the form is made clear here — Peter Austin]

  4. Gibson (2015:207) has now repeated his contemplation of the kara- words (as above) in an academic journal.
    At least now he has adopted the notion of word: “Dawes recorded many words like these, words and phrases that witnessed a force for growth and benefaction in the country.”
    Gibson however is oblivious to my critique (above), and has added a bit to his discussion: “There is a sense in kara of something that seems characteristic of Sydney: the sense of increase or burgeon. When the suffix [sic] kara insinuates a phrase, the world the phrase represents seems to reconfigure and rouse through the language. [etc]”.
    Gibson, Ross. 2015. Cast against type. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 17.2,196–210. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2014.993327

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