Emu-callers, the didjeridu, and bamboo

The published grammar of the Kalkatungu language of western Queensland has this entry in the ‘Weapons, tools, etc.’ section of the glossary:

‘pump’ (decoy device for attracting birds) kuɭumpu1 (Blake 1979:179)

‘What on earth is that?’ I said to myself, and wondered also why whatever it is would attract the English word for a fluid pumping device (let alone a type of footwear!).

Barry Blake kindly elaborated by email (1-4 April 2011) that it is a noise-making device. He tells me that ‘In my revised transcript the form is kurrumpu’, and that Mrs Lardie Moonlight was asked to translate, ‘You plant so the emu won’t see you.’ to which she responded:

They dig a hole, put bough around it, sit in it with pump, call im, yurru tjaa ini utingarrkua, kurrumpuyan ini ‘pump’. It was made from olive hollow tree. kurrumpu pump.

The morphological analysis of the Kalkatungu is:

yurru tjaa ini utingarr-ku-a, kurrumpu-yan ini
man this sit/remain emu-dative-ligature pump-having sit/remain

Update 3 (4 May 2011 22:30)

I’ve now learnt that the above interview with Mrs Lardie Moonlight was conducted by Gavan Breen at Boulia on 24 May 1972 (Field Tape 283, AIATSIS AV tape A2459b – thanks Grace!).  Gavan has kindly provided his more detailed transcript from that time, slightly amended when he re-listened to the recording today.

GB (<BB2): You plant so the emu won’t see you.
LM: Yes, dig a hole and put the little bough around it, sit in it with a pump, call him // yu:ridja(y) yini / wùdingálkuwa // wudingalkuwa ///
he sitting down there in the hole for that emu to come; he blowing that pump, pumping his kúrumbu // kúrlúmbuyan i.ni
GB: What was the pump like? How did they make it?
LM: Out of the little hollow [oller] tree, they knock the hollow tree down and they put a haxe round it, you know, make it small, they blow it then.
GB: Oh, yes, it makes a noise and the emu comes up to see what the noise is.
LM: Oh yeah, they make a lovely noise too.

Blake (1979:4) noted that his fieldwork was carried out during 1966–76, and Mrs Lardie Moonlight was interviewed in Boulia. ‘All the informants spoke English in most situations, some of them using a fair admixture of Pidgin features.’

The ethnographer Roth (1897:97) was familiar with that district, and described how men imitated the ‘call’ of an emu using ‘a hollow log some 2½ feet to 3 feet long …’, adding that ‘These “call-tubes” are met with throughout North-West-Central Queensland’. And I came upon Anell’s (1960:19) map, which shows reports of ‘emu-callers’ from seven locations from the south Gulf country in Queensland across to Charters Towers (and another two locations in northern NSW). The emu-caller has been likened to a cut-off didjeridu, and indeed there is a market nowadays for ones of recent manufacture, witness a Google search.

So that explains what the thing is: the Kalkatungu were indeed describing a traditional device of theirs. But what of the glossing word ‘pump’?

The English word pump is hard to relate here semantically. But as well as the emu-caller there is one other tubular aerophone long used and made by Aboriginal people in northern Australia: the didjeridu. And in western Cape York Peninsula it is called pamp, phonetically matching the English word spelled pump. The key is this entry in Barry Alpher’s Yir-Yoront lexicon:

PAMP (N) Etymology: < English bamboo, probably via one or more other Aboriginal languages.
Didgeridoo. Olo pamp palarrng. He’s blowing a didgeridoo. Note: A recent cultural introduction to the area and not played at Kowanyama.

YO-PAMP (N) SCI: plant.
Castor bean, Palma Christi, Ricinus communis. Note: Not a bamboo. L.E.3 ‘kerosene bush’.

The same word is recorded in Kuuk Thaayorre, the neighbouring language to the north:

yuk pamp –a nn bamboo flute pipe (Foote & Hall 1992:101)

Barry Alpher comments that loss of an earlier final V2 (i.e. the vowel at the end of a disyllabic word) is common to all these western Cape York Peninsula languages, and points out the Kuuk Thaayorre oblique form is pampa, with echo-vowel /a/ instead of /u/; this implies that Kuuk Thaayorre heard pamp (rather than pampu) when the word was borrowed into that language. I join Barry in proposing that pamp in these languages is a loan adaptation of pampu.

So how did pampu get to western Cape York Peninsula, given that pamp doesn’t refer to the bamboo plant?
Well, the likely explanation that it came as the name of the didjeridu, when this instrument arrived from the west, from Arnhem Land. I haven’t seen an account of how this happened, but a parallel arrival in the southern Gulf has been explained this way:

The didgeridoo first entered Mornington Island in the 1930s as a result of visits to other Aboriginal settlements by the mission boat the Morning Star. This vessel was crewed by local tribesmen and paid occasional visits to Arnhem Land’s Yirrkala mission. Items of material culture, including the didgeridoo, were brought back to Mornington Island from these visits. http://www.ididj.com.au/exhibitions/morningtonIsland.html

(Further, ‘This interactive map shows the major areas in the ‘Top End’ of Australia where the didgeridoo is traditionally found’, in Exhibition of Didgeridoos)

This same mission vessel’s circuit also included Aurukun, home of the Wik languages north of Kuuk Thaayorre, but the Wik Mungkan dictionary doesn’t record any pamp or didjeridu word.

In any case, in the Northern Territory the didjeridu has long been called pampu in Aboriginal English and the word is fairly widespread epecially in in the northern half of the NT, and in the languages of people who adopted the didjeridu in historical times. Jay Arthur‘s 1996 Aboriginal English has an entry for it, labelled ‘[northern Aust.]’ and noting ‘Also bamboo pipe’. (Somewhat surprisingly her earliest citation is as late as 1969; along with a Bill Harney 1957 reference to bamboo puller ‘a didgeridoo player’.)

The ethnomusicologist Alice Moyle remarked thirty years ago:

The fact that bamboo didjeridus were quite common among northerly groups in the Northern Territory during the last century is confirmed by the word ‘bamboo’ which is still used in the lingua franca by some Aborigines when referring to the instrument, though ‘didjeridu’ may be gaining ground.
The suggestion here is that the first didjeridus were of bamboo; and that because of the availability of bamboo in the north-western region of the Northern Territory, the first didjeridu players may well have belonged to that region. (Moyle 1981:322)

Bambusa arnhemica is the only one of the three endemic species of bamboo in Australia which is suitable for making a didjeridu. Botanists including Donald Franklin (2008) have shown that the species is confined to Western Arnhem Land and the Daly River districts, as shown by the black dots on the accompanying map.

map of spread of bamboo word


Hypothesised spread of the bamboo word, drawing on Anell 1960, Moyle 1981, and Franklin 2008
Shading shows 19th century range of the didjeridu.

The earliest records of the didjeridu are from this part of northern Australia, and observers noted they were made from bamboo, as seen in these quotations from the Australian National Dictionary (AND)‘s eboro entry

1845 L. Leichhardt Jrnl. Overland Exped. Aust. 16 Dec. (1847) 534 They tried to cheer us up with their corrobori songs, which they accompanied on the Eboro, a long tube of bamboo, by means of which they variously modulated their voices.

1846 J.L. Stokes Discoveries in Aust. I. 394, I here saw the only musical instrument I ever remarked among the natives of Australia. It is a piece of bamboo thinned from the inside, through which they blow with their noses. It is from two to three feet long, is called ebroo, and produces a kind of droning noise.

So, while didjeridu has long been made from a variety of timbers, the association of didjeridu and the bamboo plant is well established and derives from the northwestern part of the Northern Territory. That region is the plausible origin of the term pampu among Aboriginal people, and the word spread from there, whether to people who already had the didjeridu (and their own term for it), such as to the east in Arnhem Land, or with the didjeridu itself to other people to the south who had no term of their own. I have indicated the southerly spread with the solid arrow on the accompanying map; as far south as for instance paampu ‘didgeridoo; from English ‘bamboo’; not used in Central Australia’ in the Pintupi / Luritja Dictionary.

In sum, it seems that people familiar with the emu-caller adopted the ‘bamboo’ word for that somewhat similar aerophone. We can deduce that it reached the Kalkatungu via western Cape York Peninsula, because they adopted the truncated form pamp (while their language usually preserves the final vowel of a loan word). I have indicated this hypothesis by the hollow arrows on the above map.

There is another link between the two aerophones:

A suggestion that the ‘emu decoy’, reported in several parts of Australia, may have been a precursor of the didjeridu in some areas is to be found in an extract from Roth (1902) (Moyle 1981:327) 4

So, curiously, by spreading from the didjeridu to the emu-caller, the word may have reversed the course of an earlier adaptation deriving the didjeridu from the emu-caller.


For the Kalkatungu word kuɭumpu ~ kurrumpu where I began, there are some intriguing possible cognates in Pama-Nyungan languages. Here are two. The most straightforward is over 1000km to the northwest, Gurindji kulumpung ‘didjeridu’ (Patrick McConvell p.c.). About 1000km to the east is Wulguru kulumpuru ‘tree with honey in it’ (Donohue 2007 per Claire Bowern); the meaning connection would be through ‘hollow tree’.

[See later post for more on corresponding words.]


I am grateful to Kim Akerman, Claire Bowern, Barry Blake, Barry Alpher, and Patrick McConvell for assistance; and thanks to Nic Peterson for the question which started me on this.


Alpher, Barry. Yir-Yoront lexicon : sketch and dictionary of an Australian language. Trends in linguistics. Documentation 6. Berlin ; New York : Mouton de Gruyter.
Anell, Bengt. 1960. Hunting and trapping methods in Australia and Oceania. Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia 18. Uppsala.

Arthur, Jay. 1996. Aboriginal English: a cultural study. OUP.

Blake, Barry J. 1979. A Kalkatungu grammar. Pacific Linguistics B-57. Canberra.

Donohue, Mark. 2007. Wulguru : a salvage study of a north-eastern Australian language from Townsville. Languages of the world. Materials. 463. München: Lincom.

Foote, Tom and Allen Hall. Kuuk Thaayorre dictionary. Thaayorre / English. Brisbane: Jollen Press, 1992-1995.

Franklin, Donald C. 2008. Taxonomic interpretations of Australian native bamboos (Poaceae: Bambuseae) and their biogeographic implications. Telopea 12.2, 179-191. PDF

Moyle, Alice M. 1981. The Australian didjeridu: A late musical intrusion. World Archaeology 12.3, 321-331. Archaeology and musical instruments.

Roth, Walter Edmund. 1897. Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane, Queensland: Edmund Gregory, Government Printer.

Roth, W.E. 1902. Games, sports and amusements. North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin, 4. Brisbane: Government Printer.

Update (27 April 2011 20:40)

Any uncertainty as to whether the didjeridu was made from bamboo when English speakers encountered the instrument is reduced further in the light of a couple of earlier references kindly sent to me by Kim Akerman, an exceptional expert on Australian material culture.

1. The naval surgeon Thomas Braidwood Wilson5 published in 1835 a book (available online) including his observations from a visit to the short-lived settlement 1828-29 at Fort Wellington in Raffles Bay on the Cobourg Peninsula.

Wilson provided an illustration entitled ‘Dance of the Aborigines of Raffles Bay’ (p.88), which Kim Akerman believes is ‘the earliest depiction of the didjeridu or eboro in use’, and described the dance ‘to the music, produced by one of their part from a long hollow tube’ (p.87). On this, Kim says:

I think it is a bamboo one for two reasons
1. The diameter – which is much more in proportion to the early bamboo didjeridus that I have seen, when compared with wooden ones; and
2. The lightness of the material is demonstrated by the fact that it is being held in one hand off the ground.
These points do not prove it is bamboo but I think greatly raise the possibility.

Wilson’s (1835:319) vocabulary from Raffles Bay includes

Ebero. . . . Their musical instrument

which is the earliest known record of this term, predating the 1845 use by Leichhardt as quoted above from the Australian National Dictionary (AND)‘s eboro entry.

2. Captain Collet Barker was Commandant of Fort Wellington (where Wilson’s vessel Governor Ready called). In his journal Barker described what we recognise as the didjeridu:

Mago had brought a kind of musical instrument, a large hollow cane about 3 feet long bent at one end. From [this] he produced two or three low & tolerably clear & loud notes, answering to the tune of didoggerry whoan, & he accompanied Alobo with this while he sang his treble (Mulvaney and Green 1992:113)

Barker’s word ‘cane’ here would not apply to a hollow limb from a tree. Note by the way his expression didoggerry whoan: this prefigures the word didjeridu for which AND‘s earliest citation is as late as 1919.

Update 2 (2 May 2011 20:20)

The ethnographer Erhard Eylmann travelled along the Overland Telegraph Line in 1897.  He describes a ‘Warumungu trumpet’, presumably from the Tennant Creek region (though I have not found a reference in his journal).  The presence in Warumungu country of this instrument made from bamboo indicates how the word bamboo word would have come along with it from the north.

The bamboo trumpet is made from the bottom part of older bamboo canes and is thicker on one end. Averaging 1.25 m long and in the middle fairly thick, it is not possible to grab it fully with the thumb and index finger. The inner membranes in the knots of the bamboo are pushed out. Sometimes it has got a special mouth piece (Table XXIV, Fig. 5)

Trompete der Waramunga (Eylmann 1908 Table XXIV Fig. 5)

where a smaller piece is inserted into the smaller end of the main cane.  The connection is covered with wax and sealed. It is decorated with paintings and carvings the important facts about which I will mention in a subsequent chapter. The trumpet is only made in the north where the bamboo grows. (Hubel 1994:29 translating Eylmann 1908:3766)


  1. ɭ represents l-with-dot-under, apico-domal lateral
  2. Breen was working through a set of elicitation sentences that Blake had drawn up
  3. Local English
  4. Roth’s (1902:23-4) report was from further east, from north-east Queensland.
  5. In 1843 Wilson died aged 51 and ‘was buried on a hill-top overlooking the town of Braidwood’, a town east of Canberra to which he had given his middle name; the grave is shown in his Wikipedia entry.
  6. original: Das Bambusrohr besteht aus dem unteren Teile älterer Halme und pflegt an dem einen Ende bedeutend dicker zu sein als an dem anderen. Im Durchschnitt ist es 1,25 m lang und in der Mitte so dick, daß es nicht ganz mit dem Daumen und dem Zeigefinger umspannt werden kann. Die Scheidewände in den Knoten sind natürlich durchgestoßen. Zuweilen hat es ein besonderes Mundstück (Taf. XXIV, Fig, 5), ein kurzes Bambusröhrchen, das in dem dünneren Ende des Hauptrohres steckt. Die Verbindungsstelle wird mit einem Wachs¨berzug gedichtet. Die Verzierungen bestehen in Malereien und Einritzungen; das Bemerkenswerteste über sie teile ich in einem der nachfolgenden Kapitel mit. Diese Trompete wird selbstverständlich nur im Norden angefertigt, wo das Bambusrohr wächst.

11 thoughts on “Emu-callers, the didjeridu, and bamboo”

  1. Gun-nartpa speakers use ngorla for didjeridu, -ngorla for hollow (eg. gun-ngorla, hollow tree, an-ngorla hollow metal pipe). Also bambu for didjeridu.

  2. Interesting post David!

    I’ve always found the Alawa word for didj interesting: golarrong. I don’t think Alawa-mob used them traditionally (only north of the Roper, I think). Plus the ‘o’ isn’t an Alawa phoneme (so it should probably technically be written ‘gularrung’), but I’ve heard pronounced clearly as an ‘o’. I’ve never bothered looking for cognates but others might know – or could it be somehow related to what’s discussed here?

  3. Kim Akerman writes (Tue, 03 May 2011 06:38:57 +1000), commenting on Update 2:

    I have found – contrary to Eylmann’s description that it is likely that the dijeridu [depicted by Eylmann] was made from a young B. arnhemica bamboo shoot – which is why it contracts so sharply – mature bamboo culms are generally parallel-sided (ie more columnar). Also the immature culms are thinner walled, so therefore lighter and the septa would be easier to perforate – however they do split more easily than mature culms of B. arnhemica. – The mature ones are very tough and strong.

  4. I meant to add to my last comment – that on most early dijeridus, as the thin walls of the young bamboo used in their manufacture are easily fractured, the instruments usually show multiple repairs executed by filling cracks with a resinous substance – usually beeswax but also ironwood resin was possibly used also.

  5. Thanks for mentioning that, Wamut. I’ve looked in the Alawa Nanggaya Nindanya Yalanu rugalarra = Alawa-Kriol-English dictionary ((compiled by Margaret Sharpe in 2001 and available from her online shop)), and one of two words for ‘didjeridu’ is gulurrun ~ gulurun (your golarrong; there is a note that ‘L[ockwood?] gives gulurrung, golorrong’).

    An apparently related word is Yanyuwa

    ma-kulurru (noun) 1. musical instrument 2. didgeridoo. Made from a hollow length of wood, not traditional to the Yanyuwa. (p195 = p202 of PDF)

    where ma- is the Class 5 prefix, with manufactured items (pp58-9 = p66-7 of PDF). This is from the 1992 Yanyuwa Wuka: Language from Yanyuwa Country ‘a Yanyuwa Dictionary and Cultural Resource’ by John Bradley with Jean Kirton and the Yanyuwa Community.

    More related however to where I started is the other didj entry in the Alawa-Kriol-English dictionary:

    wurlumbu n. bambu, dijaridu; didjeridu, bamboo. Once wulumbu. Prob. also applies to any instrument played similarly (e.g. brass instrument); do not confuse word with warlumbu ‘smoke tree’. •Wurlumbu didung-jilanna. Deibin pulum bambu, they were playing didjeridu.

    This wurlumbu corresponds well with kulumpu etc which I discuss in a later post.

  6. David Nash in Santós et al 2012 refers (in note 6) to the phrase ‘bamboo puller’ meaning ‘a didgeridoo player’, and elsewhere (p.15) gives the Kriol sentence Deibin pulum bambu, meaning ‘They were playing didjeridu’. Jay Arthur (1995:54-5 via p.c. David Nash) says that the origin of the term ‘puller’ in this sense is unknown. But surely it is from a Kriol form of the English verb ‘to blow’.

  7. Perhaps the Kriol ‘pulum (bambu)’ is from ‘blow’ but it’s not clear cut. ‘Pulum’ as a Kriol verb also means, and is clearly derived from, ‘pull’. My conceptualisation of the two senses – pulum (bambu) and pulum (generic) – as an L2 speaker is that they are the same lexeme because when playing a didj you grip it in a way reminiscent of how you would if you were going to physically pull something that size.

    For ‘pulum’ to be derived from ‘blow’ suggests that the ‘bl’ cluster and is a troublesome cluster for L1 Aboriginal language speakers acquiring Kriol or a pidgin and that they inserted a vowel as an influence of substrate phonologies. I’m not sure convinced that this would be the case. The word-initial ‘bl-‘ cluster is common in Kriol, including in some words we can assume go back to NT pidgin, see for example the all-pervasive ‘bla/blanga’ (for) and other words like ‘blad’ (blood), ‘blekwan’ (black), ‘bluwin’ (inhale, from “blow in”). In fact, some Kriol words have gone the other way and reduced syllables to form the ‘bl’ cluster: policeman -> blijimen, burlanggangga (‘whitecurrant’, origin: Marra) -> blanggangga.

    I’m not saying ‘pulum (bambu)’ isn’t from ‘blow’ – it’s possible and a very interesting thought – but I don’t think it’s necessarily obvious that it is.

  8. @Gavan and @wamut: Another source to consider is English play. All three citations by Jay Arthur (1995:54-5) are explained with play: e.g. the earliest is

    The player — or puller as he is called — was playing a walika. (Harney 1943:80)

    and it seems the form puller predates other forms of the verb, for which I would think player is more likely as a source than blower.

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