How do you say that in Aboriginal?

One of the “pleasures” that come with being known as a specialist in Australian Aboriginal languages is the string of requests one gets to translate various things into “Aboriginal”, especially names for pets, houses, boats or even children (one of my favourites happened when I was at La Trobe University and someone called wanting a translation for “Happy Anzac Day”). Sometimes the reverse holds and the “meaning” of a word “in Aboriginal” is asked for. Nowadays there are websites devoted to this task, such as this one which promises: “Thousands of ABORIGINAL NAMES for your DOG, CAT, HORSE, PET AND CHILD! From Chinaroad Lowchens of Australia”. This site at least mentions “these names/words are taken from several different Australian Aboriginal Languages”, though none is mentioned by name.
Recently, David Nash pointed out to me that an Aboriginal word, which he identified as coming from the Diyari language, had made its way onto a koala at the Planckendael Zoo in Belgium (located near Antwerp). The zoo established an “Australia” section in May 1998 where various Australian animals are exhibited, including koalas, each of which has been given an “Aboriginal” name. Information about the koala names can be found in both Dutch and French, Belgium being officially bilingual. Here is my translation of what they say:

About the Koalas
As you will have noticed, our koalas have rather distinctive names. They all have a nice Aboriginal name with a meaning:

* Coolongalook means “he who loves to climb”
* Alkina is Aboriginal for “moonlight”
* Caloundra is the name of an Australian town
* Ditji-Toda means “day”
* Ditchie-Doonkuna means “sunrise”
* Bengero is an Aboriginal word for “two”. He was so named because this is his second name. His first, unofficial, name BennyDu’by.

Along with David, I too was intrigued by this as I immediately recognised two of the names (Ditji-Toda and Ditchie-Doonkuna) as being from Diyari, the language traditionally spoken along Cooper Creek east of Lake Eyre; the others needed a bit more work.
Ditji-Toda also appears on the Planckendael website in photograph labels (go here and type ditji in the Zoeken search box) as “Ditji-Toda” “Ditji Toda” “ditji todo” and “Ditchie-Toda”. The source for these various forms seems to be J. G. Reuther’s massive 1901 Diyari-German dictionary; in Scherer’s English translation on page 109 we find “ditji toda = ‘a stationary sun’, (i.e. 12 o’clock midday)”. This appears to consist of the Diyari word which I write in practical orthography as diji meaning ‘sun, day’, plus another element which neither I nor my language consultants could recognise (volume IV of Reuther’s dictionary has an entry “toda” meaning ‘midday’; in Reuther’s spelling this could represent either thuta or thurda).
Ditchie-Doonkuna or Ditchie Doonkuna (who was born on 10th July 2002 and tragically died on 11th October 2003) is easier. This is clearly taken from the vocabulary list “Mt Freeling to Perigundi Lake” contributed to Volume 2 of Curr 1886 by Samuel Gason; on page 87 we find Ditchiedoonkuna – Sunrise” (there is an online copy [.pdf] here). The Diyari form diji durnkarna meaning ‘sunrise’ consists of the noun diji ‘sun, day’ plus the verb durnka ’emerge, come out’ inflected for its participial and citation form with the suffix -rna. In Diyari tradition, each night the sun goes into diji mingka ‘sun hole’ and emerges from it in the morning.
Coolongalook is a bit of an enigma to me. According to the caption to his charming photograph from Kansas City Zoo “his name means “a high place” in Aborigine” (sic.) There is a town called Coolongolook on the mid-north coast of New South Wales inland from Forster Tuncurry (for some historical background see here; there is a map here), and a Coolongalook River, which flows into Wallis Lake, and Coolongalook State Forest (whose climate statistics can be found here). I have not been able to track down the Aboriginal origin of the name.
Alkina appears on various baby name websites here, here, here and here as being “Aboriginal” and meaning “moon”. A google search shows it is a very popular girl’s name. I have not been able to identify the original source.
Finally, “Bengero” meaning “two” comes from William Thomas’ “Succinct sketch of the Australian language” in R. Brough Smythe’s The Aborigines of Victoria page 119 (available online [.pdf] here). This is the Melbourne language usually called Woiwurrung (Blake, BJ (1991) ‘Woiwurrung, the Melbourne Language’ in RMW Dixon and BJ Blake (eds) Handbook of Australian Language: Volume 4, The Aboriginal Language of Melbourne and other grammatical sketches, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, pp. 31-124).
So, the koalas have two names that come from Diyari, one from Woiwurrung, and two remain unidentified. Any suggestions about them from blog readers are welcome.
David Nash tells me that according to Jim Wafer -ook is a place name ending in the Coolongolook area; Amanda Lissarague has done work on the language from there called “Kattang” or “Kutthung” (located on this map) which is now also referred to as the “Lower North Coast Language”. No published information on forms resembling Coolongolook seems to be currently available. Perhaps the forthcoming Kattang Dictionary and Grammar from Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative will solve the mystery.


  1. Claire says:

    Alkina turns up in Reed’s “aboriginal” place names book (on google but unsearchable) and seems to be a site name in the Eromanga area, which I think is Kungkari country.

  2. Frank Baarda says:

    Robert Hoogenraad tells of an amusing request to translate something into Aboriginal languages: some years ago when he worked at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs. The Bushfires Council of the N.T. wanted their slogan “We like our lizards frilled not grilled” translated.

  3. Joe Blythe says:

    When I worked for the Kimberley Language Resource Centre in Halls Creek I got a request from some government department. I can’t remember why but they were looking for word that was the same in all Australian Aboriginal languages or that all Aboriginal people would understand, regardless of what their language background was. I believe what I suggested was “futbol”. Didn’t hear back from them though, so I don’t know whether the answer was a help.

  4. Wamut says:

    is the word ‘guna’ pretty universally understood?

  5. Claire says:

    It’s very widespread (mostly but not entirely Pama-Nyungan), along with mara ‘hand’, tyina ‘foot’ and a fair number of others. That raises the question of whether kuna ~ una ~ kudna ~ nwe are all ‘recognisable’ to speakers.

  6. Wamut says:

    I wonder though, even if someone’s own language didn’t have the form ‘guna’, would everyone still know the word because it’s so prevalent in aboriginal english and Kriol?

  7. David Nash says:

    Following Claire’s pointer, I now see in AW Reed’s Aboriginal place names 1967

    Alkina (Q): moon
    Cooloongoolook (N): towards the high places

    (Q=Queensland, N=NSW) which suggests pursuing the Eromanga area possibility for Alkina.
    There is also a locality Alkina in Calliope Shire (south of Rockhampton) with this comment in the Queensland gazetteer “Name derived from Railway Station name, reportedly an Aboriginal word (language and dialect unknown) indicating moon.” Of course, their comment may well have drawn on AW Reed!

  8. miochelle wise says:

    I would like the meaning for women,from all differant areas in aborigional country Australia.could you please pass this on to me in Aborigional.It would be much appreciated by us melbourne mob.Thanks michelle wise.

  9. Jane says:

    The best place to start is to go to the library and have a look at:
    Thieberger, Nick, and McGregor, William (ed.). 1994. Macquarie Aboriginal Words. Sydney: Macquarie Library. which contains wordlists from Aboriginal languages across Australia.

  10. Corey Smith says:

    Hello, I was doing some local research when I came across your entry. I live in Tuncurry (Lots of fish). Coolongalook is a small town nearby. It gets its name from the Worimi language (Kuttang dialect). I saw the entry “towards the high places” and I am interested in which tribe this translation comes from. The link has Coolongalook meaning Place of Bats – which is probably wrong as words ending in bah mean “place of”. Koala is the Wonaruah word for the same creature. Hope this helps. Corey

  11. Jenna says:

    Worimi is not a language, nor the correct name for the tribe. Kuttang is the tribe name, as well as the language.

  12. David Nash says:

    As foretold in the Footnote above, A grammar and dictionary of Gathang: the language of the Birrbay, Guringay and Warrimay was published by Muurrbay in 2010. This is the relevant entry:
    Gulanggulak. noun placename: Cooloongolook. … The form of the word implies a variant form for ‘bat’, i.e. ‘gulang-gulak’. Allan: Cooloongolook is, correctly Goolongolongithe having plenty of bats; Connors: Cooloongolook from the water towards the high places; HRLM: kulangkulang bat.

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