Author Archive

What’s a Warrambool?

‘What’s a Warrambool?’ asks one Rob Brennan in Westprint Friday Five 2011.6.24 (Replies from others are now in Westprint Friday Five 2011.7.1.) The usual English dictionaries are no help, not even the AND. Warrambool is a good example of a word borrowed from an Australian language into local English, but which, although well-known in its region, has not spread through Australian English (or beyond!).

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Iwantja Band launch ‘Palya’

Around the remoter parts of Australia there’s a ferment of contemporary music and Australian languages. I had a taste of this a week ago in Tennant Creek, where I learnt of a freshly released album from Iwantja Band, now on their launch journey (Iwantja Band launch Palya).

cover art for 'Palya'

Cover art for 'Palya'

I caught some of the enthusiasm from Patrick McCloskey, a freelance music producer working with the Winanjjikari Music Centre1 at Tennant Creek.

Most of the songs on the album (eg Kungka Nyuntu, Wamanguru) are in Pitjantjatjara / Yankunytjatjara, languages spoken at Iwantja (perhaps better known as Indulkana), some 900km south of Tennant Creek. It suited the band to use a studio not in a city, or in intermediate Alice Springs, but at Winanjjikari in Tennant Creek. And there is more to the mix, as the band’s manager says in an interview:

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  1. The name is Warumungu, wina-njji-kari ‘sing-Nom-Genitive’; see also WMC’s blog

A Warlpiri double launch

The annual meeting of Warlpiri-patu-kurlangu Jaru Inc. and its professional development workshop known as Warlpiri Triangle this year is being hosted by Yuendumu CEC, 16-19 May 2011.

This evening in the Yuendumu school library two resources were launched to a large gathering including senior Warlpiri women.

Yuendumu launch invitation

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Trumpeting revival at Lajamanu

My recent interest in some traditional Australian aerophones sprang from hearing about the Warlpiri kurlumpurrngu or ‘Warlpiri didjeridu’.

The instrument was shown in a event on Thursday 21 April at the National Library, when Steven Patrick Jangala and Yukihiro Doi presented ‘Milpirri: A Response to Cultural Loss’ to the National Australian Folklore Conference 2011. The pair also have a paper accepted for ICTM 2011 in Newfoundland this July, ‘Milpirri: An Aboriginal community event that joins the ancient with the contemporary.’

Milpirri is a biennial gathering at Lajamanu1, with ‘extraordinary performance events’ (source).  Milpirri has been a focus for maintenance of traditional Warlpiri performance which has also ‘toured to local and national festivals’.

Steve Jampijinpa is a Warlpiri man who has long worked at Lajamanu Community Education Centre (CEC), and who has led Milpirri. Yukihiro Doi (土井幸宏) is an ethnomusicology PhD student who has spent time at Lajamanu and also been involved in several Milpirri.  Together they appear on a short video (with transcript) [update: now only on YouTube] (also on YouTube) in which we can glimpse a kurlumpurrngu and something of its revival at Lajamanu. As the NT Mojos mobile journalist (and Jerry Jangala’s granddaughter) Jasmine Patrick says on the commentary, the kurlumpurrngu ‘was used in the early days and it was lost in our days but Jerry is bringing the Kurlumpurrungu back to the community’.

There are a couple of linguistic angles on this revival.

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  1. Records of the last three Milpirri are available through Tracks Indigenous Projects

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!).

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  1. ɭ represents l-with-dot-under, apico-domal lateral

‘Anco’ Pelletier

Narcisse Pelletier1 (1844-1894) spent half his adult life (1858-1875) with Aboriginal people on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula. He learnt their language and had no contact with outsiders, and in time he lost command of his native French. His removal from the coast at Night Island was as out of his control and as sudden as had been his arrival there seventeen years earlier. He then regained command of French over subsequent weeks and months, and upon return to his birthplace in France, he was interviewed by Constant Merland (1808-85) a French surgeon-turned-savant. Merland’s 1876 book Dix-sept ans chez les sauvages: Narcisse Pelletier is quite rare and apparently not held in any Australian library. It had been overlooked as an ethnographic source but last month it has appeared afresh and “Now, for the first time, this remarkable true story is presented in English, complemented by an in-depth introductory essay and ethnographic commentary” as the blurb accurately states.

The translator and annotator Stephanie Anderson has marshalled the help of anthropologists and linguists Athol Chase, David Thompson, Bruce Rigsby, Peter Sutton, and Clair Hill. Between them they show that the people who adopted Pelletier were speakers of a dialect of the language now known as Lockhart River ‘Sand Beach’ language comprising Kuuku Yaʔu and Umpila, probably the dialect known as Uutaalnganu, AIATSIS code Y211.


The full account is spread through Pelletier : the forgotten castaway of Cape York published by Melbourne Books. The volume includes an ethnographic commentary by Athol Chase and an introductory essay by Stephanie Anderson who you might have heard talk about this in mid July on ABC’s Late Night Live.

Merland has a chapter on language. He had taken down some 70 words and a few longer expressions as recalled by Pelletier, but before he presents these, he starts from the general, “How thought is expressed”:

one point on which most people agree is that the degree of civilisation of different peoples can be gauged from the degree to which their language has evolved (p185)

Merland found that the language he recorded from Pelletier did not have the primitive properties that contemporary theorists described. Merland refers to the view that

Man’s first words were necessarily imitative words, onomatopoeic words, as grammarians call them (p185)

then points out that, on the contrary, judging from Pelletier’s vocabulary,

while there are still numerous monosyllabic words in our highly evolved language of French, these have completely disappeared from the language spoken by the savages of Endeavour Land. (p191)

Indeed, Merland records not one monosyllabic word — just as we with hindsight would expect of a Pama-Nyungan language(!).

Merland’s transcription (possibly influenced by Pelletier’s own spelling suggestions) has a few words with syllable-initial tr. These words match up with phonemic apical stop (apico-alveolar or possibly -domal) in Kuuku Yaʔu as recorded by the Rev DA Thompson (1988):

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The ‘wombat’ trail

How English acquired the word wombat is another story which began in early Sydney, after dingo (1788) and before boomerang (1820s). The way that the form and denotation of wombat came together for the colonists is notable for its convolutions, and for the record we have of some of the twists along the way.

The intriguing story of the European discovery of the common wombat Vombatus ursinus was assembled recently by museum specialists Pigott and Jessop, focussing on how “the Governor’s wombat” comes to be in Newcastle upon Tyne.  There was a string of coincidences, with one sequence leading to general adoption of the word wombat for this marsupial.  It spread also through the genus Vombatus (É. Geoffroy 1803) (with the synonym Wombatus (Desmarest 1804)) which was an early incorporation of an Australian word into a biological genus name — and through Family Vombatidae (Burnett 1829), up to Suborder Vombatiformes (Burnett 1830) and superfamily Vombatoidea (Archer 1984).

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Sydney Language –mb– ~ –m– and dingo

Update: The contents of this post have been incorporated in the paper ‘Dawes’ Law generalised: cluster simplification in the coastal dialect of the Sydney Language’, published in 2011 in Indigenous languages and social identity: Papers in honour of Michael Walsh. Pacific Linguistics 626, pp.159-178.

Aspects of the Sydney Language are a perennial fascination. Last month recent events prompted me to look into the etymology of boomerang. In recent weeks the gripping SBS documentary First Australians first episode (available as a 227MB MPEG4) took us to the early days of Sydney.  And now I’ve noticed what I think is an unreported sound correspondence, as I’ve become more familiar with sources on the Sydney Language.

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An “unsaleable bent stick”, boomerangs, and yardsticks

The (in)authenticity of accounts of early Sydney have been in the news recently. The fictionalised account of Lt William Dawes and his pioneering documentation of the Sydney Language in Kate Grenville’s new novel The Lieutenant has had mixed reviews, but the concurrent story about a possible 1770 boomerang has gripped me more.

Ten days ago the Sydney Morning Herald reported

A boomerang claimed to have belonged to Captain James Cook appears to have been withdrawn from sale on the eve of a London auction after advice from the National Museum of Australia that it was probably not the real thing.

The Times reported bluntly that

Arthur Palmer, an Australian ethnographer who independently appraised the boomerang, described it is [sic] an “unsaleable bent stick” which hails from about the 1820s — 40 years after the explorer’s death.

The colourful Arthur Beau Palmer‘s sizeable bucket of cold water can be hefted here; it is worth consulting for the view of early Sydney weapons. The story began in The Times of 21 August (with a photograph) and here in The Age on 22 August; there was an update in the SMH on 10 September.

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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

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