Australian Aboriginal gifts to English.


Tangiora’s Introduction - Last time we heard how the Celtic language failed to survive in England once the Anglo-Saxons invaded. However, Paquita, you did say that some Celtic words were taken in to the English language, in the same way that some Aboriginal words have been taken in to Australian English and then spread across the English speaking world. Can you tell us which Aboriginal words have spread in this way? Which English words are actually Aboriginal words? I’d love for you, the Spelling Queen, to explore the work KANGAROO …

Paquita - The most widely used is the word kangaroo. When Captain Cook anchored in Sydney Cove, Joseph Banks went ashore and noted everything he saw but he did not see a kangaroo until later on when the ship had to beach for repairs, way up north where Cooktown is now. It took seven weeks to repair the ship. During this time the local Aborigines gave Banks their names for the all their plants and animals, greetings etc. Back in England Banks gave this list to Governor Phillip not realizing that there are many Aboriginal languages in Australia. Kangaroo is a [Guugu Yimidhirr] word from Cooktown.

Tangiora - I believe the Dharuk people from Sydney Cove had a different name for Kangaroo.

Paquita - Yes they did. It was patagaram, but Governor Phillip used the list Banks had made for him. Besides, Banks had also given his list to Dr Samuel Johnson who put lots of Australian plants and animals in his dictionary. Since then many more have been added to dictionaries. So we have quoll and kangaroo from Cooktown, wallaby and cooee! from Sydney Cove. The early white settlers marvelled at the [Dharuk] Aborigines of Sydney calling to each other in this way. While few of us cooee each other anymore, the phrase within cooee of has the official meaning ‘not far from’, in Aust. and N.Z. English.

Tangiora - I’m just looking at Wikipedia now for a list of English words of Australian Aboriginal origin. I didn’t realise ‘barrumundi’ was an aboriginal word …

Paquita - Yes, lots of Aboriginal words have come into English. They are listed under plants and animals, like barrumundi and bilby, brigalow, brolga and budgerigar; the environment, like billabong, bombora, and boondie; cultural words, like boomerang, bunyip and coroboree; and describing words like yabber, yakka and yarndi.

Another way that Aboriginal words have entered English is through their use in science. The Genus Potorous covers all kangaroo rats but gets its name from one species, the Potoroo, which is the Ab’l name for the Port Jackson species.

Scientists also use the very specific words Aborigines use to describe soil types. English just adds an adjective, like river sand, white sand and yellow sand. These are all separate words in our local languages here in the Gascoyne: garru, wirriya and wanderrie. Pastoralists and Ag Scientists have adopted some of this very specific Aboriginal vocab when mapping and describing soils, for instance, wanderrie for yellow sandy soil and pindan for red clay soil.

Tangiora - What about place names? I know that Canberra is an Aboriginal word and that it means meeting place.

Paquita - You are right. Aboriginal languages have been preserved in place names all over Australia. The same thing happened in England. The people no longer speak Celt but when they say the River Avon they are saying ‘river’ in Celt, and when we say Yardie Creek we are using the Thalanyji word for creek or river, yardie. [Rivers in Perth, S.A., Melbourne and NSW are called Yarra, a nation-wide Ab’l word for River, and very similar to Yardie.]

Tangiora - You wrote a book called What’s in Name, Place Names of the Gascoyne Paquita. Is that when you got interested in Aboriginal languages?

Paquita: Yes it was, and I had a lot of fun finding things out. Many of our northwest stations have names which describe them, like Bidgemia, the home of the Bidgie bug. This bug makes itself little hammocks in the trees, so Bidgemia also translates as ‘comfortable resting place’. That’s here in the Gascoyne. In the Pilbara you have Mundabullangana Station which someone told me means hard soil with little white stones in it – maybe someone can ring in on that name. Since I wrote that book, without the internet, State Records Office of WA website lists alternative names for many pastoral leases, like the Aboriginal word Andabiddy for Ashburton Downs. The next step is to find out the meaning of Andabiddy.

Tangiora - Now for the challenge ..what is the word for the day?

Paquita - My word for you is “honorific”. This sounds horrible and horrendous but, if one is used on you, you will actually feel terrific. It is what we call any title of respect, like Your Majesty or Your Honour. I have chosen it because it is one of the few English words which start with a Silent H, along with honest, honour, hour and heir to the throne.

French words and Aboriginal words never start with the ‘huh’ sound. Settlers and convicts learnt the word umpy from Aborigines but the official who wrote it down added the letter H because he thought the people were dropping their H’s. So we should say ‘umpy’, not ‘humpy’ when speaking of a humble umpy home.

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