GIANT BLACKS with LATIN WORDS
(By Bernard C. Ryder, F.R.G.S.)
GIGANTIC blacks standing almost seven foot, and armed with great sixteen foot spears! Australian blacks who speak a strange dialect, unlike their caveman prototypes on the Kimberley coast! A rich field awaits the anthropologist and philologist on an island in the far north-west of Australia, for there one will find natives who can draw the shape of old Dutch cannon on the sand, and whose language bears a striking similarity to Latin.
Living on Montgomery Island they are a dwindling race, for ten years ago they could be numbered in hundreds, while to-day there are but a scattered few dozen. They can be seen in their crude catamarans fishing for dugong, or
on the reef spearing fish left in pools by the fallen tide Far removed from civilisation, they have remained practically untouched by white influence,
beyond a visit from an occasional beachcomber in search of trocas, beche-de-mer, or turtle shell, and their only conception of a city is the tiny
mission station at Port George IV., some fifty miles away, visited in time of famine.
At the time of our visit we had anchored our12-ton lugger some six miles off the island, owing to it being surrounded by a reef of some 20,000 acres. This was necessary, as the tide rises and falls 35 feet, and low water would dam-
age the boat by bumping.
In the distance we could see a tiny speck put off from the shore, which turned out to be an old man paddling a catamaran, a crude craft composed of mangrove logs pegged together. He was carrying five or six great spears, and in addition to his lubra and a native dog, had a fire burning merrily on a flat stone.
As he came nearer he appeared apprehensive of our friendliness, but, his fears being allayed, he came alongside and made fast to the stern of the lugger, the woman hiding her face in her hands. The dog growled at the unusual sight of white men, and as the old man looked up at us he uttered the one word “aqua,” at the same time splashing some water to illustrate his requirements.
He was brought on board and given water, while a pannikin was passed over the side to his wife, who was reluctant to come on board. Water is scarce on Montgomery Island, and though the natives obtain it by digging, it is very unpalatable.
His thirst being appeased, he squatted down under the awning, and when we pointed to the water and said “aqua,” he repeated the word. We then pointed to the dog, and received the astonishing reply “caningo,” an apparent mixture of canine and dingo.
A pencil was produced, and his strange answers written down, as we pointed to various objects, though his vocabulary was limited, for he had no words for the unfamiliar buckets, hurricane lamps, or cinematograph camera, but,
to our astonishment, a rifle was no novelty to him, for he pointed to it several times.
For “head” he gave us “apita,” which is allied
to “capita.” ‘
One could literally converse with this wild man, for when ashore for crocodiles the next day he acted as guide, and gave a laconic “mat” when we bowled one over, signifying that the particular crocodile was in truth “morte.”
Their cars being sensitive to the sounds of the bush, they were alarmed at the rifles, and kept in the background with hands to ears when one was being fired, but we soon found that though rifles may have been a little novelty, they knew of cannon — cannon of the old Dutch type found on the boats of the early buccaneers — for this particular man drew the crude outline of one
on the sand.
We speculated as to the possible wreck of some early Spanish or Dutch navigator, and the cannon having been located by these natives in their travels amongst the hundreds of islands, for it was certainly a cannon he drew.
We left him and the remnants of a once numerous tribe, but it came as a shock for we white men to find a language distinctly like Latin spoken in this remote spot. Possibly it was also pleasant for that old native, who paddled across six miles of shark-infested water, to pay us his respects in a dialect we could slightly understand.
“Words have been found in the aboriginal dialects with a similarity to Latin roots, but they form a small proportion to the vocabulary,” said Professor Radcliffe Brown, commenting on this article.
He thought an anthropologist would have to
be very sceptical, for it was more likely to be a coincidence.