is an extinct Australian Aboriginal language
of north Queensland
. It was the traditional language of the Mbabaram tribe
The last native speaker of Mbabaram was Albert Bennett who died in 1972. Other known speakers were Jimmy Taylor and Mick Burns.
R. M. W. Dixon described his hunt for a native speaker of Mbabaram in his book Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. Most of what is known of the language is from Dixon's field research with Bennett.
Until R. M. W. Dixon
's work on the language, "Barbaram" (as it was then known) was thought to be too different from other Australian languages to be part of the Australian phylum. Dixon revealed it to have descended from a more typical form, that was obscured by subsequent changes. Dixon (2002) himself, however, still regards genetic relationships
between Mbabaram and other languages as unproven.
Bennett, the last native speaker, identified Agwamin as the language most similar subjectively to Mbabaram.
Mbabaram was spoken by the Mbabaram tribe
, southwest of Cairns
Nearby tribal dialects were Agwamin, Djangun (Kuku-Yalanji), Muluridji (Kuku-Yalanji), Djabugay, Yidiny, Ngadjan (Dyirbal), Mamu (Dyirbal), Jirrbal (Dyirbal), Girramay (Dyirbal), and Warungu. While these were often mutually intelligible, to varying degrees, with the speech of the adjacent tribes, none were even partially intelligible with Mbabaram. The Mbabaram would often learn the languages of other tribes rather than vice versa, because Mbabaram was found difficult.
Mbabaram would have originally had simply three vowels, , like most Australian languages, but several changes occurred to add to the system:
- [ɔ] developed from original */a/ in the second syllable of a word if the first syllable began with */ɡ/, */ŋ/, or */wu/.
- [ɛ] developed from original */a/ in the second syllable of a word if the first syllable began with */ɟ/. (It may have also occurred with /ɲ/ or /ji/, but no examples are known.)
- [ɨ] developed from original */i/ in the second syllable of a word if the first syllable began with */ɡ/, */ŋ/, or */w/.
- [ɨ] also developed from original */u/ in the second syllable of a word if the first syllable began with */ɟ/, */ɲ/, or */j/.
The first consonant of each word was then dropped, leaving the distribution of unpredictable.
Word for "dog"
Mbabaram is famous in linguistic circles for a striking coincidence in its vocabulary. When Dixon finally managed to meet Bennett, he began his study of the language by eliciting a few basic nouns; among the first of these was the word for "dog". Bennett supplied the Mbabaram translation, dog
. Dixon suspected that Bennett hadn't understood the question, or that Bennett's knowledge of Mbabaram had been tainted by decades of using English. But it turned out that the Mbabaram word for "dog" really is dog
, pronounced almost identically to the English word. The similarity is a complete coincidence: there is no discernible relationship between English and Mbabaram. This and other false cognates
are often cited as a caution against deciding that languages are related based on a small number of comparisons.