[Updated 15 Feb, 2013]
On the AustKin 2 project we’ve been taking an interest in generic Aboriginal words for ‘skin’ in the sense of ‘section’ or ‘subsection’. As readers have pointed out, the notion of a ‘skin name’ is by no means universal across Aborginal Australia. But what we’d really like to know are generic terms for ‘skin’ in any Australian languages that include this concept. We’re also keen to know if these terms are polysemous. For example, in some languages, the generic word for ‘skin’ (‘section’) has the additional meaning of ‘body’ or ‘smell’. In Mawng, the word ngiri means both ‘subsection’ and ‘shell; bark’. In Tiwi, the word pukwi means both ‘matriclan; totem’ and ‘sun’. These meanings draw attention to the consistent metaphors used to invoke kinship relationships and may also shed light on the origin of the word ‘skin’ in Aboriginal English.
In addition, we would love to know if there is any Australian language wherein the word for ‘skin’ (section/subsection) is also the word for a literal ‘skin’ (the dermis). Tom Honeyman has pointed out that the Tok Pisin word skin means ‘body’. Given the that NSW pidgin is known to have been a core lexifier of Melanesian pidgins, this is an intriguing lead.
The earliest printed sources we have found for ‘skin’ in English are from Baldwin Spencer’s 1912 An introduction to the study of certain native tribes of the Northern Territory:
Amongst the Melville Island natives the word for totem is Mupira. Inter marri mupira means “What name your totem (or skin)”. Descent is counted in the female line.
Amongst the Port Essington natives the word for totem is Angnolye. Marunuqua gnoii agnyole means “What (is) your totem (skin)?”.
[Update: off-blog comments; 15 Feb, 2013]:
In WDL at Kintore NT people use ‘yara’ (= story). Eg to ask another’s skin name
Nyaa yara nyuntu?
what story 2sg
‘Whats your skin name?’
The areas where I have been working don’t use skin in that sort of meaning.
Paakantyi says ‘meat’- and Arabana-Wangkangurru ‘flavour’!
Please share any words you know, or relevant remarks, in the comments field.