View Full Version : Australian Aboriginal Writing System "The Yabberstick"

Thursday, May 26th, 2005, 10:26 PM
Here's an interesting snippet from a book called "The Little Black Princess" written by Aeneas Gunn
In it, Mrs. Gunn talks with an Aborigine about their written language, which they carve into sticks. I had never heard of this at all until I read this small section about it in this obscure book.

(Background on "The Little Black Princess" by Aeneas Gunn here

I've typed out the section of the book in question (p.54 to p.57) so you can read it yourself in context..

....As I sat watching them, and expecting a shower-bath every minute or two, Jimmy came along, whittling a bit of stick.
"What name, Jimmy?" I asked. "Yabber stick" he answered shortly, and squatting down near me, cut busily on.
"What name him talk?" I said, for that was the way to ask him what message he was cutting. Jim spat thoughtfully on the ground and looked wise, but said nothing; and I saw I would have to flatter him a little before he would tell me much. He dearly loved to be important, and generally had to be coaxed and flattered a good deal.
"My word, Jimmy!" I said; "you plenty savvy. Me no more savvy Yabber stick." This pleased him immensely, so I added, "I think you close up savvy white-fellow paper-yabber, Jimmy."
He grinned from ear to ear with delight, and then taking the letter stick in one hand, and pointing at it with his pipe, began to instruct the poor ignorant Missus.
Jimmy looked very gay to-day. He had a small Union Jack flag hanging from his belt liker a little apron. His dilly-bag was decorated with strips of red turkey twill and bunches of white feathers, and he had tied a little mussel shell on to the end of every bobbing curl of his head, and they danced and jingled as he talked.
"This one stick Yabber boomerang," he began, pointing to a little mark like a V drawn sideways, so "<".
I looked carefully at it, and then Jimmy spat once or twice before explaining that when that mark "sat down" on a "yabber stick" it meant you were being asked for the loan of a boomerang. Then he spat again, and took a few pulls at his pipe, and looked very wise indeed.
"My word, Jimmy!" I murmured.
Jimmy grinned, and then showed me all sorts of marks which he drew in the dirt with his finger. Signs for spears, food, wet season, people's names, white men, names of places, and many other things. He was very particular that I should remember "chewbac." Then he showed me a letter he had just received from Terrible Billy at Daly Waters. Jimmy's lubra (girl) Nellie was his mother-in-law, and this letter was to say that he was quite out of, and would Nellie kindly cut her hair and send him some. All this was told in a winding line, twisting round and round the stick, and a short stroke to end with, then Nellie's name, which read, "String - long - hair - Nellie." Then came some gossip - one thick ring which said "walk-about", and a mark which was Monkey's name. Now "Monkey" was a Willeroo (the Willeroos were the the aborginal enemies of "Jimmy's" tribe) and always up to mischief; so it was very kindly of Billy to warn Jimmy that he was having a walkabout. Perhaps he was afraid that Monkey might run off with his Mother-in-law, hair and all.

Does anyone else know anything about this "stick language"? Did any other aboriginal peoples in other countries write in this way?

The whole book is very factual, and Mrs. Gunn herself seems quite alert, inquisitive and very intelligent, so she clearly observed something in the way of a writing system that sparked her interest.

I scanned a picture from the book so you could see it as well (attached)

I just find this fascinating that they might have had their own writing system that is barely recorded, and more than likely now lost.

If Mrs.Gunn's observations were wrong or mistaken, please feel free to shoot this post down in flames!


Dr. Solar Wolff
Saturday, May 28th, 2005, 04:08 AM
Aboriginal written language on sticks? I'm not trying to be rude but this needs quite a bit of documentation (proof) for me to accept it.

Saturday, May 28th, 2005, 08:30 AM
Aboriginal written language on sticks? I'm not trying to be rude but this needs quite a bit of documentation (proof) for me to accept it.
:shrug I know exactly what you mean, I was amazed and incredulous as yourself when I first read it, that's why I went to the effort of typing the chapter out, to see what folks such as yourself would think...

I'd never heard of anything even remotely LIKE it, but this book was written around the previous turn of the century, when the Aboriginals up north were still untouched basically, and living the same way they have been since forever, it would've been like stepping back in time. Alot of bizarre facts about them, oral traditions and so forth, would have been lost since then. Even most of their languages are extinct now..

And the book itself isn't a fiction or fairytale, it is the biographical account story of this aboriginal girl's life, and every place/fact/event is documentable for the most part. I mean, I just can't see Mrs Gunn having made it up, it makes no sense, so either she misunderstood whatever it was she saw (unlikely)
The Northern Territory aboriginal really had a written language (which is absolutely incredible to me)
Or the Aboriginals were pulling her leg in what would be an amazingly insightful and well thought-out practical joke on their part.

I'll ask some more around here though, and see what I can dig up. My jaw hit the floor when I read it myself. Are other stone-age type peoples documented as using a written language like this at all anywhere?

Thursday, December 14th, 2006, 08:50 PM
Aboriginal languages may be much older than people think, argues a linguistic anthropologist who says they originated as far back as the end of the last ice age around 13,000 years ago.

This challenges existing thinking, which suggests Aboriginal languages developed from a proto-language that spread through Australia 5000 to 6000 years ago.

The key to the new hypothesis is prehistoric Australia's single land mass 13,000 to 28,000 years ago, when New Guinea and Tasmania were still attached, says Dr Mark Clendon in the journal Current Anthropology.

Clendon says the continent, known as Sahul, was relatively densely populated on the land bridge connecting northern Australia to New Guinea, now separated by the Arafura Sea.

The other populated area was along what is now Australia's eastern seaboard.

The two population groups were separated by a vast, cold, windswept, arid stretch of land that covered most of the continent, says Clendon, who was with the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education when he published the research.

The eastern group spoke a tongue that became what is known today as Pama Nyugen and includes languages like Pitjantjatjara, Yolngu and Warlpiri.

And the Arafuran group spoke another language used today in northern Australia today.

"What I'm suggesting is that Pama Nyugen and non-Pama Nyugen languages go back about 13,000 years to when there was a land bridge between New Guinea and Australia," he says.

Until now, the reason why these two Aboriginal language groups are so different, each with a distinct grammar and vocabulary, has been a mystery.

Climate change

Around 11,000 years ago what was the Arafura plain was flooded by rising seas as the ice age ended.

This caused the northern people to migrate into either New Guinea or to northern parts of Australia.

Meanwhile, increased rainfall and warmer temperatures made inland parts of the continent more habitable and sparked a westward migration of eastern dwellers.

This introduced their language group to more central areas of Australia.

Both groups maintained their distinct languages, Clendon says.

His hypothesis provides an alternative picture to the traditional view that 6000 years ago a single proto-language spread from the Gulf of Carpentaria around Australia, eventually giving rise to existing Aboriginal languages.

"We know about changes in climate and sea levels at the end of the Pleistocene era," Clendon says.

"I'm suggesting the way languages are configured in Australia today are a result of those changes that happened at the end of the ice age."

Provocative but unconvincing

Writing in a reply to Clendon's article, Professor Nicholas Evans, an expert in Aboriginal languages from the University of Melbourne, describes Clendon's hypothesis as "fresh and provocative".

However, he says there are flaws in the argument, including that there is only weak evidence of similarities between southern New Guinea and northern Aboriginal languages.

Evans says he remains to be convinced about Clendon's proposal.

"[But] it adds a welcome alternative to a field in which we are still a long way from having any clear picture of the unimaginably long human occupation of Sahul," he says.

Source (http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/2006/1809514.htm)