Author Archive

Loma Langi, Loma Larnee: imported heaven

Owners have commonly bestowed a name on their property, whether it be a residence in town, a homestead, a boat. Since at least the late 19th century in Australia, a popular source for these names has been some of the vocabulary of Australian languages and other languages of the region. The demand has been met in the last century by various popular booklets of ‘Aboriginal names’ (referenced in previous posts on Orana and on Akuna). Before those booklets began to be published, newspapers and magazines published suggestions, sometimes drawn from the Collectors of Words notably the books of Brough Smyth (1878) and Curr (1886/7).

Particularly in the southeast of Australia, an influential source was the contribution of Alexander Cameron Macdonald (1828–1917), ‘accountant, surveyor and geographer’:

Continue reading ‘Loma Langi, Loma Larnee: imported heaven’ »

Every hill got a story oral history just out

Every hill got a story: we grew up in country w51TVk4uaX0L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_as launched this afternoon at Alice Springs Telegraph Station. A companion multimedia site is hosted by SBS Books. The substantial volume is sold by SBS Books and is also available on Kindle.

The volume by ‘men and women of central Australia and the Central Land Council’ is compiled and edited by Marg Bowman, carrying on from the late Jane Hodson, long term anchor of the CLC media section.

Continue reading ‘Every hill got a story oral history just out’ »

Orana : how did naming books welcome a Polynesian word as Australian?

Many of us who remember the 1960s in Australia know the chorus ‘Orana! Orana! Orana to Christmas Day’ (listen via iTunes, track 13) in one of the popular Australianised seasonal songs of the period. The lyricist, ABC staff writer John Wheeler (fl. 1940–70, with composer William Garnet ‘Billy’ James 1892–1977), likely found the word Orana in one of the notorious naming booklets: Orana ‘welcome’ has been listed in many of them as an Aboriginal word of NSW, beginning with Thorpe (1921:5) (and see table below). Update: ‘Carol of the birds’ was in the first set of Five Australian Christmas carols, released for Christmas 1948 (Catholic Weekly 23 Dec 1948, page 2, Magazine Section), which implies Wheeler’s source was one of the Thorpe or Tyrrell booklets published before WWII.

In the 1970s Orana got another boost in New South Wales, from official naming: Continue reading ‘Orana : how did naming books welcome a Polynesian word as Australian?’ »

What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word

Coining a new name from a word taken from an Australian language often has complex implications, even if the naming agency is oblivious to them. When the name is for a place, a suburb or a street or a park, the official approval involves the relevant local government body. Two writers went into some of the issues a few years ago:

  • Tony Birch (2010 [1992]) sees the application of indigenous names to ‘houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities’ as ‘an exercise in cultural appropriation’. He draws a distinction between the restoration of indigenous placenames (such as Gariwerd ~ Grampians in western Victoria), and the fresh application to the built environment of a word imported from some Australian language.
  • Sam Furphy (2002) earlier discussed the role of what he dubbed ‘naming books’: popular twentieth century booklets of lists of ‘Aboriginal words’ such as Endacott (1923), Thorpe (1927), Kenyon (1930), Cooper (1952), which, for all the expressed good intentions of their compilers, have contributed to a homogenised perception of Australian languages: ‘The earliest popular naming books … make virtually no reference to the variety of languages spoken by the indigenous people of Australia, such that an uninformed reader could be forgiven for believing that there was only one Aboriginal language.’ (Furphy 2002:62) ‘Naming books simplify and romanticise Aboriginal words and remove them from their cultural and linguistic context.’ (Furphy 2002:68)

I’ve recently come upon an example which illustrates a combination of both concerns: one where official placenaming has drawn on the notorious naming booklets. Continue reading ‘What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word’ »

Berigora: a word that clawed on — from where?

The challenge

Brown falcon drawing

Brown falcon  © J.N. Davies from Birdata

‘Australia’s Most Widespread’ bird, according to Birdata’s featured bird last week, is the Brown Falcon, Falco berigora. A few months ago, a ‘complete guide to the origin of Australian bird names’ (that is, English and Linnæan names), was published, and in it Fraser and Gray (2013:80) summarised the published information on this species name:

berigora [is] stated in many places to be the name for the bird in an indigenous language, though nobody appears willing to nominate a particular language. The original namers, Vigors and Horsfield (1827), simply said: ‘The native name of this bird, which we have adopted as its specific name, is Berigora’. Gould (1848) mentioned ‘Aborigines of New South Wales’ against the word, and Morris (1898), in his Dictionary of Austral English, claimed it is made up of beri, claw, and gora, long. The word does not appear in a glossary of the languages spoken by indigenous people of the Sydney region as the time of early white settlement (Troy 1994), though many other bird names do, and the bird was certainly to be found there. Are the claws longer than those of other falcons? Perhaps not, and indeed, the toes, according to Debus (2012:131), are shorter.

Actually Falco berigora Vigors and Horsfield 1827:184-5 is one of only three birds whose scientific (Linnæan) name draws on a word of an Australian language.1 The word berigora has managed to survive in this ornithological niche, and is now guaranteed as much as longevity as science can offer. But can we give due credit to the language which provided it? Continue reading ‘Berigora: a word that clawed on — from where?’ »


  1. The other two are Ninox boobook, Latham 1801:64, Southern Boobook owl, and Petroica (Muscicapa) boodang Lesson 1837:322, Scarlet Robin, each using the name that is well attested in the Sydney Language.

The NT Government gets animated

New animations with spoken audio in Anmatyerr (‘Anmatyere’), Kriol, Luritja, Warlpiri, and Yolŋu Matha were published on You Tube a couple of weeks ago. There are eight nicely done animations of a minute or two explaining aspects of the water supply in each of the five languages, all available through the NT Power and Water Corporation’s page ‘Use less’ campaign. (Thanks Carmel for the alert.)

There are no credits in the videos, or on the PowerWater web page that I could see, but I presume the translations were arranged through the NT Aboriginal Interpreter Service.

CALC (Central Australian Linguistic Circle) meeting

Central Australian Linguistic Circle (CALC) 2013 

Monday 9 September 2013, 8:30 am – 4:00 pm

Venue: Desert People’s Centre Function Room (next to the Irrarnte Café), Desert Knowledge Precinct, South Stuart Highway, Alice Springs



8:30 am          meet at Desert People’s Centre Function Room, set up, introductions

9:00-9:30      Cathy Bow, Charles Darwin University The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

9:30-10:00    Margit Bowler, UCLA Majority Rules effects in Warlpiri vowel harmony

10:00-10:30  a session on educational linguistics and language-learning resources:

Susan Moore and Megan Wood, Department of Education and Childrens Services, The Australian Curriculum and Aboriginal languages

Michael LaFlamme, Publisher, Institute for Aboriginal Development Press, The Potential role of apps and picture dictionaries in language development

10:30-11:00        morning tea

11:00-11:30   Gavan Breen, IAD Dictionaries, Kaytetye and Warumungu

11:30-12:00   Margaret Carew, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Iltyem-iltyem: a new resource for Central Australian Sign Languages

12:00-12:30   Samantha Disbray, Charles Darwin University, Bilingual education programs in central Australia: A broader evaluation

12:30- 1:30          lunch

1:30-2:00       Mary Laughren, University of Queensland, Polysemy or vagueness in some Warlpiri quantificational terms 

2:00-2:30       David Moore, University of Western Australia, Alyawarr Motion

2:30-3:00       David Nash, ANU and AIATSIS, Alternating generations again again

3:00-3:30         afternoon tea

3:30- 4:00      Myf Turpin, University of Queensland Verb-final word order in Alyawarr song-poetry

Morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea available from Irrarnte Café

Organiser: David Moore <moored03 AT>

Bursting through Dawes (2)

Further to my last post, I’ve read on, and my disappointment has only deepened at the treatment of the Sydney Language in Ross Gibson’s 26 views of the starburst world.

Think about the notes you made when you were getting into learning an undocumented language … Imagine they get archived and in a century or two someone looks through them and tries to work out what was going on when you made the notes.  With only shreds of metadata and general knowledge of the historical period to go on, the future reader makes inferences from the content. Could a cluster of words in one of your vocabulary lists point to a hunch you were checking? Or a sequence of illustrative sentences could be the skeletal narrative of a memorable experience shared with your teachers.
Continue reading ‘Bursting through Dawes (2)’ »

Bursting through Dawes

‘Aspects of the Sydney Language are a perennial fascination’, as I observed in a 2008 post, and the best record we have of the language is in the two notebooks of Lt William Dawes. Dawes himself has become a fascination and a new book pursues him to imaginary lengths. I have so far only read parts of Ross Gibson’s 26 views of the starburst world, and heard Maria Zijlstra interview him ten days ago on ABC RN’s Lingua Franca. For now I’d like to alert potential readers to what I think is a fundamental problem with Gibson’s approach: as I see it, Gibson misses the point of Dawes’ notebooks, that Dawes’ writing in the two extant notebooks records his developing understanding of the grammar and lexis of the language. It is a misreading to take Dawes’ notes as focussing on ethnography and world-view.

Gibson’s comments on the epigraph he (understandably) chose for his opening page (v) well illustrate how he has confused himself.
epigraph Gibson 2012:v

  1. Dawes here is not ‘musing’, rather he has recorded an apposite way to express a thought. It strikes me a particularly good illustration for a benefactive, as it is involves an action and object in the future.
  2. The sentence is not to illustrate ŋía, but rather ŋyıniwȧgolȧŋ: check the context in the image (of page 15 of Notebook B) on page 63 of Gibson’s book, or the annotated colour page image on the marvellous site from SOAS. Gibson may have misread the line break after Ŋía
  3. ngía is not the ‘utterance’ recorded, rather ngía is a word contained in the utterance Ngía büngabaoú buk ngyiniwågolå̊ ́ng. This might seem to be a pedantic point, but it is just one instance of Gibson’s straining to avoid the word ‘word’, such as in the excerpt in the Lingua Franca description:

    dara might also have been the noise for “tooth”. Memel is the sound for the place we call Goat Island

  4. ngía does not mean ‘for you’, it means ‘I’; ‘for you’ is ngyiniwågolå ́ng

Note that this same sentence had been used as an epigraph by Steele (2005:ii) for his MA, freely available online, and Steele (2005:172) provides an analysis of the sentence:
ngaya banga-ba-wu buk ngyini-wa-gulang
1sg make-FUT-1sg book 2sgO?-DAT?-appertaining to

Added 31 August 2012: My further post about Gibson’s book.


Birrguu Matya, or the game Tapatan

‘A new board game based on an ancient Aboriginal game has just been released by N S W Aboriginal artist Donna Hensen. Called Hunters Tactics,’ reported the Koori Mail 166 (17 December 1997), page 25. ‘Traditionally, the game was played on the ground using sticks, stones or kangaroo dung and was one of many used to teach children the skills of hunting and gathering.’

Aboriginal artist Donna Hensen’s initiative was cited as an example in a marketing guide from the Australia Council for the Arts in 20001

She has designed a new board game, based on a traditional Aboriginal game, to be distributed through duty-free stores.
The game won the Innovative Indigenous Product Design award at the Indigenous Art Expo held in Casino, NSW in 1997. Made of ceramic, fibre resins and shells, she describes it as a mix of noughts-and-crosses and chess, requiring lateral thinking and patience.
With the help of the Expo co-ordinator, Donna used her prize money to trademark the name Hunters Tactics, then to find an agent to approach toy companies for a children’s version and to test market her art product.

In 1997 the game also had the name Birrguu Matya, according to the date on one in the University of Ballarat Library, though this name wasn’t used in the official mentions. Birrguu Matya has since been marketed through various online stores such as Gecko Educational, or Dreamtime Kullilla-Art which describes the product this way:

Birrguu Matya (Bush Game) Similar to tic-tac-toe & chess and designed to develop skill, patience and lateral thinking. This game has been played by the Aboriginal people for centuries and can be played by all ages.

The game received a favourable mention from Leesa Watego in her blog post Birrguu Matya: A Wiradjuri Game by Donna Hensen, with a couple of comments added in 2009 by Donna Hensen herself.

How to play the game is described in its Wikipedia entry, and more clearly in a recent post on the blog of a Melbourne primary school, which also shows there’s no need to purchase the kit. The game is clearly identical to one known for centuries in Asia as Tapatan (and synonyms and near synonyms), as set out in the marvellous Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games.2 Under the name Tapatan the game is available free for iOS 3.0 or later3.

Now, at last, to the ELAC angle. The words birrguu and matya look like they’ve been taken from the widely available 1994 publication Macquarie Aboriginal words. In its English index there are a few entries under bush, and one points to Wiradjuri birrguu ‘scrub, the bush’. There is only one entry under game: matya, which points to the Paakantyi language chapter, and the entry under Non-physical qualities matya, matyitya ‘bold, game, daring, tame’.

So, what to think? Two words have been taken from separate NSW languages, one from a quite different sense (‘game’ as ‘bold, daring’), and used to market, especially to schools, a kit for a game with no recorded Australian antecedents (unless a reader can correct me?). The venture has not been in the context of language revitalization, and the instructions do not involve any Australian language vocabulary. Call the authenticity police, or let a thousand (plastic) flowers bloom?


  1. Online in p.134 in Section 3 of What’s my plan? A guide to developing arts marketing plans, citing an article ‘Hunters for Collectors’, p.25 in Smarts 12 (December 1997).
  2. A quite similar game with four (not three) pieces for each player is known in Ghana as Achi.
  3. Thanks to The Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa