Gubbi Gubbi:

A Traditional Language Journey



James Crowe, born 1873, a Gubbi Gubbi man (Dr. Eve Fesl’s great-great-grandfather)

The aim of this project is to present and teach a brief introduction to the Gubbi Gubbi language; its complexities and its use in the culture of the Gubbi Gubbi people. Gubbi Gubbi country is located in South East Queensland (Sunshine Coast region), Australia.

Gubbi Gubbi is an ergative language with grammatical structures similar to Hungarian, Finnish and Basque, known as “language isolates” in Europe, which is dominated by Nominative Accusative grammatically structured languages.

Speakers of English who intend to teach or learn Australian Indigenous languages (in this case, Gubbi Gubbi) will find the text produced here, a useful beginning in coming to terms with Australian Aboriginal languages and their grammatical complexity and cultural use.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used in this project to represent the pronunciation of words.

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In 1788 when the British established their first penal colony in Sydney, it is estimated that 234 Australian languages with 800 dialects were being spoken throughout the country.

Very few of these languages are spoken today due to colonization of Australia by speakers of English. Those languages that remain intact are mainly in remote areas of the continent. The eastern and southern coastal peoples of Australia were the first to suffer loss of their languages, particularity due to English imposition by English speaking missionaries and government officials.

The Gubbi Gubbi people in Queensland began to suffer language loss when the first penal colony was established at Redcliffe in 1824. This was followed by activities from 1897 to 1930 under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897-1901) Section 9. Indigenous people throughout the State who had escaped being killed, were imprisoned at Barambah Settlement (now known as Cherboug). Whilst incarcerated, strict rules, followed by punishment such as having their mouths ‘washed’ with soap and withdrawal of food supply, as meagre as it was, was meted out to children who dared to speak their parental languages. For adults, it meant withdrawal of food or gaol for using their language where the ‘Superintendent’ could hear it. This resulted in Aboriginal languages not being spoken, shared or passed from one generation to the next.

The last speakers of the Gubbi Gubbi language (who had been imprisoned at Barambah) were the late Mr. Clifford Monkland and his sister, the late, Mrs. Evelyn Serico. Before she passed away Mrs. Serico, then aged 98, looked at the written work by John Mathew. John Mathew spent six years (1866-1872) living with the Gubbi Gubbi people, learnt much of their language, wrote it down and published the work in Mathew, J. (1910) Two Representative Tribes of Queensland. Mrs Serico said he was accurate in many things, although there were some mistakes and he did not delineate cases or state that Gubbi Gubbi is an ergative and suffixing language.

A map of the Gubbi Gubbi country can be found in Mathew’s book (Mathew, J. 1910 Two representative Tribes of Queensland, facing page 67), it has been reproduced here to indicate Gubbi Gubbi country on the Sunshine Coast.

Gubbi Gubbi Region (1910)

Gubbi Gubbi country (Mathew’s map 1910)

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Gubbi Gubbi Region (2009)

Gubbi Gubbi county (Map used in a land title claim, 2009)

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The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is used in this project to represent the way words are pronounced. The IPA is a well recognised system used throughout the world to learn a language, with instructions of how to correctly use IPA symbols and their pronunciation located at the beginning of dictionaries (for example, Using the IPA should enable people from many linguistic backgrounds to particulate in the lessons presented here.

Most languages in the Northern section of Australia became known as “prefixing” languages and those in the South as “suffixing” thus, a division was made. Gubbi Gubbi is therefore, a “suffixing” language.  Furthermore, as stated by Barry Blake (1987) “Approximately seven-eighths of Australia’s languages are in some sense ergative, a grammatical feature that is found in no more than 15 per cent of the world’s languages.” (p1).

Gubbi Gubbi is an ergative language with grammatical structures similar to Hungarian, Finnish and Basque – known as ‘language isolates’ in Europe which is dominated by ‘nominative accusative’ languages. English retains some of the nominative accusative language features but relies on word order to convey meanings in sentences. Speakers of non-ergative language, such as English, need to understand and learn the grammatical structures of ergative languages. Blake’s (1987) book on Australia Aboriginal Grammar, and Sands’ (1996) book on Ergativity in Proto-Australian are two very useful resources for understanding ergative languages.

It is important to emphasise, that you cannot teach or learn any language from a dictionary: Dictionaries are good to aid people who already speak or have learnt a considerable amount of the language, they are not a means of teaching. An aid to learning a language is through studying texts and conversing or listening to conversations with speakers of the language. This is the way that this project has been designed, that is, using lessons with stories spoken in Gubbi Gubbi and activities that require Gubbi Gubbi language and an understanding of the structure of the language.

Please note that some of the IPA characters have been reproduced here with emphasis (bold); this does not indicate anything of significance – a formatting complexity that the project team incurred. Therefore, please ignore the bolding of IPA characters.