The man who cracked the Anaiwan code

Terry Crowley: A brilliant linguist who shed light on the mystery of local languages.

Terry Crowley: A brilliant linguist who shed light on the mystery of local languages.

It took the brilliant linguist Terry Crowley to crack the mystery attached to the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language of the southern New England Tablelands. He did so as a third year student at the Australian National University.

Terrence Michael Crowley was born on April 1, 1953 in Billericay east of London. The family emigrated to Australia when Crowley was about seven, taking up a dairy farm outside Shepparton.

Prior to Crowley’s work, the Nganjaywana or Anaiwan language was a mystery.

Crowley was dux at Shepparton High School in 1970, enrolling the following year in a Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at ANU. There he came under the influence of R. M. W. Dixon who interested him in Aboriginal languages. In 1974, he gained first class honours with a university medal in linguistics and worked as a research assistant in Bob Dixon’s department, again concentrating on Australian Aboriginal languages.

At this point, Terry Crowley’s interest moved to the languages of the Pacific and especially Vanuatu. His death from heart attack on January 15, 2005 came as a shock to friends and colleagues.

Crowley made his contribution to our understanding of the Aboriginal languages of the broader New England in the early part of his career. In 1976 came his pioneering study of the Nganjaywana language. This was followed by two publications on Bundjalung, the language spoken north of the Clarence. Then in 1979 came a piece on Yaygir, the language spoken at the mouth of the Clarence.

Prior to Crowley’s work, the Nganjaywana or Anaiwan language was a mystery. It seemed so different from other Aboriginal languages. Was it in fact a remnant of an earlier language?

There has been dispute about the pattern of early human settlement of the Australian continent. Are modern Aborigines direct descendants of a first founder group or have there been several waves of migration?

The model extended and popularised by American anthropologist Joseph Birdsell suggested that settlement had come in three distinct waves involving different peoples. This model was supported by theoretical arguments, as well as skeletal, cultural, ethnographic and linguistic studies.

One thread in the discussion was that the Tasmanians, the pigmies of North East Queensland and perhaps the Anaiwan were remnants of an earlier migration pattern later supplanted by modern Aboriginal groups.

We now know, I think, that modern Australian Aboriginals are direct descendants of first settler groups. This does not rule out settlement by earlier hominids, or rule out later admixtures.

While modern DNA analysis is central to our new understanding, it was the work of linguists such as Crowley who filled in the pattern. In particular, Crowley showed that Anaiwan was related to surrounding languages.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au and newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au

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