What’s your ‘skin’?

[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:


Spencer 1912, p34. CLICK FOR A CLEARER IMAGE

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.



Spencer 1912, p35. CLICK FOR A CLEARER IMAGE

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.


  1. John Mansfield says:

    The Murrinh Patha term is “nginipuny”, which can also mean literally “skin”, “body”, or “like/similar”. (However there is another term “darripi”, which also means “skin” or “bark”, and I think is used more often to talk about these physical things.)

    Note that Murrinh Patha people only took on the subsection system in the early twentieth century, and have since largely discarded it. Perhaps the polysemy with literal “skin” is related to this recent borrowing?

  2. Sue Hanson says:

    family shadow

  3. Cassy Nancarrow says:

    In Lardil the term ‘julda-rel’ and in Ganggalida/Yukulta the term ‘bultha’ – both literally meaning ‘head hair’ are translated as ‘skin’ (as in subsection).

    I have heard it said (by a Garrawa elder who has lived mostly with Ganggalida people) that you can tell what ‘skin’ someone is by their (type of) hair.

  4. Cat Kutay says:

    The skin is not the same as the totem, at least for some people. But skin has the nice similarity to kin in english. It does not seem to refer to a subsection of anything except maybe Moiety? Maybe (family/community) relationship. It needs to include the idea that it provide a link or likeness with many others of the same skin….

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