Under construction…

Daisy Bates’ language records

Summary by David Nash

NLA's listing of Papers of Daisy Bates

Biographies of Daisy Bates

Hill, Ernestine. 1973. Kabbarli. Sydney.
Reece, Bob. 2007. Daisy Bates : a life. / Daisy Bates: grand dame of the desert. Canberra : National Library of Australia.
Salter, Elizabeth. 1971. Daisy Bates. Sydney.
Specht, Joachim. 1993. Die Lady im Busch. Berlin.
Wright, RVS. 1979. Bates, Daisy May (1863-1951). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, pp.208-209. Melbourne University Press.
Wikipedia entry

Bates’ European language background

Lessons were given the children by a governess, her “dear Fräulein Reischauer” … She developed a taste for Latin verse, became fluent in French, read the German philosophers and quoted from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. … Her education appears to have been completed in a finishing school in Belgium …
To learn a language was easy because of the stimulus of new places and new people … (Salter 1971:8)

She was a woman of classical and cosmopolitan education, an omnivorous reader, with a nodding acquaintance with French, German, Latin, Greek, with ancient and modern literatures, theologies, mythologies.  She had a receptive and perceptive mind, … a musical ear for phonetics, inflections and multi-lingual sounds, an insatiable zest for knowledge of all kinds. (Hill 1973:9-10)
She shared English, French and German governesses with the [Outram] girls as they travelled all over Europe … (Hill 1973:19)

She also had at least some knowledge of Latin, French and German. (Reece 2007:15)

Bates’ language expertise

She was a keen observer, a woman with scientific knowledge and a gift for languages,
She knows them as they know themselves. She knows their languages, their rituals, their traditions, their capacities and their incapacities, as no white man or woman on the earth knows them. She can talk to them in 188 dialects. (Mee 1938)

Im Laufe von vier Jahrzehnten erwarb sie Kenntnisse von 188 Ureinwohnerdialekten, konnte die Stämme selbst am Geruch unterscheiden. (Specht 1994:9)
(~ In the course of four decades she acquired knowledge of 188 indigenous dialects, could even distinguish the tribes by smell. [DGN translation]

In May 1926 Daisy Bates hosted Olive Pink at Ooldea, when Miss Pink was planning her first fieldwork.  The account of the meeting indicates an attention to language by both of them. (Thanks to David Wilkins for alerting me to this passage:)
At the end of her first day in camp she sat in her tent making a first attempt to record the Aboriginal words she had heard, and recorded one of the basic principles of classificatory kinship: that 'all Paternal uncles are Fathers and Paternal aunts, aunts.  All maternal aunts are mothers and maternal uncles, uncle.' (Marcus 2002:34)

With Malcolm Fraser (WA Registrar-General), Bates designed a questionnaire form booklet which was printed by the WA government in 1904.
in regular correspondence with Andrew Lang, noted English [sic] anthropologist …
RH Mathews … urged her to ‘get out among the blacks herself’. (Salter 1971:113)

Assessment of Bates’ language records

In 1931 Bates was in correspondence with Prof JA FitzHerbert (1892-1970), Classics, Univ. Adelaide, who provided an assessment of her records to the University:
… while [‘Vocabulary of C A Tribes’ and other MSS] contained ‘information of scientific interest’, it was ‘disjointed, very incomplete and in its present form apt to be misleading’. (JAF to LKW 2/5/31 quoted in Reece 2007:102-3)

Among the other folios there is much valuable factual material, particularly the vocabularies of Western Australian languages.  Of some of these languages there are now no native speakers left alive and these are the only records.  I hope that some of this mass of material will be published one day. (White 1985:23)
Her spelling of Aboriginal words … is reasonably clear and shows she had a goood ear for the difficult Aboriginal phonetics. … In general, her transliterations and translations of Aboriginal words support her claim to fluency in a number of languages. (White 1985:28-9)

no one has yet undertaken a carefully calibrated analysis of the way in which Bates's field notes reflect the people she was studying or her own circumstances. (Jones 2008:10)

RMW Dixon does not refer to Bates vocabularies explicitly; he notes her work under “other linguistic work between 1920 and 1955” (1980:477) (whereas her language work was almost entirely 1900–20); he notes that Bates was among the MSS sources unavailable to Schmidt (1980:261) (along with those of GA Robinson, RH Mathews, AW Howitt, A Meston); and makes no evaluative remark.

McGregor (2008a:5 in McGregor ed.) notes that Capell’s survey does not mention Bates’ language work.  Her work on specific languages is mentioned in several chapters in McGregor (ed.) 2008


Jones, Philip. 2008. Native entitlement. Australian Literary Review 3.2(5 March),3,10.
Marcus, Julie. 2002. The Indomitable Miss Pink: A Life in Anthropology. New South Wales University Press (March 2002) ISBN-10: 0868405477
McGregor, William. 2008a. Introduction, in Encountering Aboriginal languages: Studies in the history of Australian linguistics, edited by William B. McGregor. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
McGregor, William. 2008b. Daisy Bates’ documentation of Kimberley languages. Unpublished presentation to the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific (SHLP) Inaugural Conference, ANU, 1st August 2008.
Mee, Arthur. Introduction to The Passing of the Aborigines by Daisy Bates (1938).
Nash, David. 2008. Deriving Mrs Daisy: the Bates records of Australian languages. Unpublished presentation to the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific (SHLP) Inaugural Conference, ANU, 1st August 2008.
White, Isobel. 1985. Introduction, pp.1-35 to: Daisy Bates. The Native tribes of Western Australia, ed. by Isobel White. Canberra: National Library of Australia.

NLA Special Collection of Daisy Bates’ maps of Aboriginal countries

Australian languages page

© 2008 David Nash
Created: 9 August 2008
Modified: 11 August 2008

URL http://www.anu.edu.au/linguistics/nash/aust/dmb/index.html