Contemporary Aboriginal naming practices

As I reported in this recent blog post, at least one family in South Australia is still speaking the Dieri (Diyari) Aboriginal language. During our discussions last week I took down a genealogy for seven generations of the family, and noticed something interesting about the names given to children of each generation.
The first generation for which I have information were children born around 1880 (such as Frieda Merrick, born in 1885). Many Dieri at that time were associated with Killalpaninna mission run by German Lutheran missionaries. The English language names given to children of this generation have Biblical and Germanic sources, eg. Frieda, Gottlieb, Timotheus, Katerina, Selma, Alfred and Walter.
Children of the next generation, born around 1900, typically have ‘Anglo’ names that were also common among the non-Aboriginal population at the time, eg. Ben, Ernest, Shirley, Myra, George, Martha, Albert, Suzie. This practice continued for the next three generations, born in the 1920s to 1960s, who had names like Arthur, Rosa, Eileen, Nora, Robert, Joan, Jeffrey, Reg and Ian. By the 1970s other names (also used among the wider population) make an appearance, such as Donica, Trevan, Kyle, Liam, Kristen, Brenton and Michele.
A change seems to have happened in the last 10 years for children born around 2000 and later. The names given to them are all ‘unusual’ in not being ‘typically Anglo’ but rather based on African-American names, especially those of popular black singers and rap artists (with a number of girl’s names ending in -esha). Additionally, names of the current youngest generation are spelled in many unusual ways, with lots of unexpected consonant clusters, and even the use of punctuation in the case of De’Ron. The following are the names I collected:

BillyLee Damelia De’Ron
Iesha Jaima Jaran
Jenola Kaiha Kanolan
Katasha Kyrahn Lailani
Lamiah Latesha Mikayla
Nikkiesha Quandelia Quanesha
Quintella Ronice Shareena
Shekogan Shonesha Sianne
Talesha Trayton Trevan
Tyrelle Vaniah Virion
Zander Zysdonehia

Colleagues living in New South Wales have noticed a similar phenomenon and reported the presence of highly distinctive and unusually spelled names among young Aboriginal children there too. There is clearly a distinctive naming system evolving for some Aboriginal groups, a system with its own dynamics though influenced by exposure to popular US black music culture.


Note 1: Zysdonehia may be related to Sydonia the name of a heavy and melodic four piece alterna-metal band and/or Cydonia, the name of a region on Mars and a goddess of heroic endeavour in Greek mythology. Apparently her parents were watching a programme on television about planets when they were choosing a name for their newborn.
Note 2: For comparison, here are the names from The Canberra Times birth notices 12/06/2010.

Amelie Sophia Archer Kevin Benjamin James
Blake Alex Lawler Cohen John Elijah Raymond
Elijah William Otto Sharrad Elliot Ossie Jessica Violet
John William Lachlan Geoffrey Lucas Samuel
Luke Emerson Maddison Jade Maeve Ellen
Max Millie Christine Oliver
Rohan Rory Pervez Sheikh Ruby Rose
two sets of twins Lachlan and Mitchell Ashton and Chace (aka – Lenny and Karl)

Thanks for comments and feedback to John Giacon, Jane Simpson, SueEllen Tyghe and Michael Walsh.

3 thoughts on “Contemporary Aboriginal naming practices”

  1. Thanks Peter, a really interesting read. I would say this trend is also true for the bit of South-East Arnhem Land where I worked in the early 00s and here in the Pilbara as well. Some examples from around the Pilbara include:
    Trevena
    Khysom (pronounced keesem)
    Khylon (pronouncd kailen) Sheneequa
    It’s interesting too, when amongst kids from the same biological mother and father, the older kids (born in the early 90s or earlier) have the more Anglo names (Gavin, Aiden etc) and then their younger siblings (same biological mum and dad) have the newer African-American style names (e.g Gavin’s baby brother might be Khylon).
    Amongst the occasional exceptions though, I remember a 6-year old child at Minyerri School (circa 2000), called Methusalla (I can’t remember the exact spelling but the pronunciation included primary stress on the 1st and 3rd syllables.)

  2. At Kalkaringi the -isha suffix is quite productive. There is a fashion for the first born girl to receive her father’s name with -isha attached e.g. nickeisha, jameisha, johnisha.

  3. The rhebus principle is also used in naming – akin to texting and personalised number plates (eg gr8, exult8)- notably this girl’s name: SE-A (pronounced /sedasha/).

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