Munanga, ‘white person’ is widespread among the languages of the Arnhem Land region
as Jay Arthur (1996:161) notes in her compilation of written Aboriginal English, supported by citations from the northern NT 1977-1995.1 This extends to the present, as Wamut that munanga linguist can testify.
I was intrigued to learn recently that scholars don’t have much of an idea of the origin of the word. The AND (Australian National Dictionary 1988), now available online, has the earliest written citation
1912 Bulletin (Sydney) 15 Feb. 13/2 There is the much less widely known aboriginal term ‘myrnonga’. The myrnonga is a person of more promiscuous habits [than the combo] who – prowls with furtiveness when the moon is young.
but this is under the obscure headword murlonga ‘A white man who sexually exploits Aboriginal women’, with etymology
[Poss. a. Yolŋu sub-group munaŋa a white person.]2
Now Bob Dixon (2008:143) has recently classed this suggested origin as a “howler”:
But murloŋa could not have come from Yolngu sine [sc. since] this tribe did not have contact with Europeans until the 1930s. (It is unclear what the origin of murlonga is; if it does come from an Australian language, we have not been able to pinpoint the source.)
Still, munanga ‘white person’ is certainly widespread among the languages of the Arnhem Land region, as Jay Arthur says, and further south, I would add, through the Roper district, and I learnt the word at Elliott in the centre of the NT. The word has been borrowed into northern NT English from this linguistic milieu. It may not make sense to inquire which particular language donated the word to English, as it is spread through a range of Australian languages and as a “regional word” was then adopted by English speakers from speakers of whatever language of their locality. True, Yolngu Matha is unlikely to have been an early proximate source; rather, the languages where the early pidgin developed in the Roper valley from the time of the OTL construction (from 1870), though it is curious if there is indeed no written record of the word prior to 1912.
So, what might be the origin of munanga within Australian languages of the northeast NT? Now, munaŋa is one of several words for ‘white person’ listed in the 1986 Yolŋu-matha Dictionary. The others include balanda, gaywaraŋu, ŋäpaki, and wurrapanda. The first is famously derived from Malay etc bəlanda ‘Dutch, Holland’; gaywaraŋu is an extension of ‘white; ashes’; and wurrapanda is
Probably via Anindilyakwa urubanda, urabaranda White Man; cf. Mal oraŋ person + bəlanda Dutch (Zorc 1986:271)
So could munanga also originate from Macassan contact? It is not listed in Nick Evans’ 1992 compilation ‘Macassan loanwords in top end languages’, but through the modern wonder of Amazon (via A9) I’ve come upon an enticing citation in the Berndts’ The speaking land (a book on our shelves but this word isn’t indexed). Recorded “in Gunwinggu, at Oenpelli in 1950”, myth 181 begins
Yirawadbad, Poison snake, a yariburig man, came from Munanga, Macassar. (1989:346) AmazonOnlineReader link
I don’t find a placename like this in the gazetteers I’ve consulted. Could it however derive from Muna, a language, ethnic group, and island name, on the other southern extremity of Sulawesi east of Makasar (see the Ethnologue map of Southern Sulawesi)? Whatever its more distant source, this name of the origin of the hero of “one of the great myths of western Arnhem Land” (Berndts 1989:346) may well have taken on a new life as a ‘foreigner’ word in Arnhem Land.
- Arthur glosses munanga as ‘A white man, a boss’ but I don’t think the evidence supports maleness being part of the meaning.
- The online AND doesn’t allow link to an individual entry.