Author Archive

Tongue twisters in Australian languages

A lively thread has been unwinding over on the RNLD email list recently, in response to a request for examples of Australian tongue twisters.

So many great phrases have come out of the woodwork that it behooves us to set them down here for posterity. Thanks to John Hobson for starting the discussion, and to all those who contributed examples.

It’s interesting that quite a few of these seem to be about drilling the word-initial velar nasal [ŋ-], one of the perenniel challenges for mother-tongue speakers of English but less ‘twisty’ for speakers of Australian Aboriginal languages, or indeed for anyone who lives in the vicinity of these red dots.


Intelyapelyape yepeyepe-kenhe lyepelyepele anepaneme
‘The butterfly is sitting on the sheep’s intestines’

(thanks: Jenny Green) Continue reading ‘Tongue twisters in Australian languages’ »

A wild horse chase

Susan Butler (Macquarie Dictionary) and Bruce Moore (former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre) would both like to know if there is any update on the origin of the word ‘brumby’. The Australian National Dictionary (1988)—which lists the variants ‘brombie’, ‘brumbie’ and ‘brummy’—records the earliest citation as 1880, marking the origin of the term as ‘unknown’. The entry for ‘brumby’ in Australian Aboriginal Words in English (1990) notes that the etymology is ‘obscure’ and suggests a possible indigenous source in southern Queensland or northern New South Wales. Here too is found the popular story that “the name came from that of a Lieutenant Brumby, who let some horses run wild, but this has not been confirmed” (p. 58). The source of the story is traced to E. E. Morris’ Austral English (1898, p. 58):

Brumby, Broombie (spelling various), n. a wild horse. The origin of this word is very doubtful. Some claim for it an aboriginal, and some an English source. In its present shape it figures in one aboriginal vocabulary, given in Curr’s ‘Australian Race’ (1887), vol. iii. p. 259. At p. 284, booramby is given as meaning “wild” on the river Warrego in Queensland. The use of the word seems to have spread from the Warrego and the Balowne about 1864. Before that date, and in other parts of the bush ere the word came to them, wild horses were called clear-skins or scrubbers, whilst Yarraman (q.v.) is the aboriginal word for a quiet or broken horse. A different origin was, however, given by an old resident of New South Wales, to a lady of the name of Brumby, viz. “that in the early days of that colony, a Lieutenant Brumby, who was on the staff of one of the Governors, imported some very good horses, and that some of their descendants being allowed to run wild became the ancestors of the wild horses of new South Wales and Queensland.” Confirmation of this story is to be desired.

More than a century later, confirmation of this story is still to be desired.  As it happens, Morris was mistaken in directly associating ‘brumby’  with the Warrego River. In Curr’s Australian Race, the word is found in a vocabulary collected by a Mr James O’Byrne on the Weir and Moonie rivers further to the northeast. (A separate vocabulary was indeed elicited by Joseph Hollingsworth on “the Warrego and Paroo Rivers” that includes booramby for ‘wild’). His surmise that the word “spread from the Warrego and the Balowne about 1864” is not supported with textual evidence.
Continue reading ‘A wild horse chase’ »

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.
Continue reading ‘What’s your ‘skin’?’ »