Aboriginal loanwords in English

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One of the interesting topics that comes up in discussions around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the number of loanwords from Aboriginal languages that are commonly used in English. Words such as boomerang and kangaroo may be easily recognised but did you know there are over 400 loanwords used across Australia! This resource guide provides a snapshot of some of these, highlighting some of the examples from Queensland’s Aboriginal languages.

Placenames

Placenames are obvious loanwords and have generated several publications – the general rule being if it ends in '-dah /-da' or '-bah /-ba', it is an Aboriginal word meaning 'place of'; examples include Pinkenba [Yugara] = 'place of long-necked turtle', Elimbah [Yugambeh] = 'place of grey snake'. Other suffixes also have meaning such as ‘-dilla /-billa’ which usually refers to water in Western Queensland; for example Muckadilla [Gunggari] means ‘plenty of water’.

Other placenames may have significance to people, such as Wamuran [Kabi Kabi], Obi Obi [Kabi Kabi] and Guthalungra [Biri] which were named after local Aboriginal identities. Yuranigh a locality in Western Queensland was named after Yuranigh, an Aboriginal man from Molong, NSW who was one of Thomas Mitchell’s guides.

There are also placenames that tell a story about the landscape – Burgowan [Butchulla] means 'flat where there are dogwood trees'; Wandoan [Barunggam] refers to a 'flat where grey possums are plentiful'; while Goondiwindi [Gawambaraay] is named after a point on the Macintyre River where waterbirds used to nest and refers to the bird droppings on the rocks.

Other Aboriginal placenames from across Queensland include:

  • Alcheringa – means 'dream' in the Yugambeh language of South-East Queensland
  • Belyando – means ‘no go’ in unknown language / dialect from Central Queensland; spoken by an Aboriginal man to Thomas Mitchell to stop him going further north.
  • Chinchilla – believed to mean Cypress Pine in the local Barunggam language of Darling Downs.
  • Dulbydilla – means ‘black waterhole’ in Gunggari language of South-West Queensland; refers to the discolouration of water by eucalyptus leaves.
  • Eungella – means ‘land of cloud’ in an unknown language, possibly Birri language of Central Queensland.
  • Giangurra – believed to mean ‘village of the wild rose thorn’ but there is no further reference or identifying details or language.
  • Humpybong – means ‘dead or empty houses’ in Kabi Kabi language or Redcliffe/Sunshine Coast.
  • Indooroopilly – means ‘gully of leeches’ in Yugara language of Brisbane.
  • Jambin – means ‘echidna’ in Gangulu language of Central Queensland.
  • Kirrama – named after local Aboriginal group Girramay of Far North Queensland.
  • Minbun – means ‘possum’; language not recorded/unknown but possibly Dyirbal language of Far North Queensland.
  • Nunga Island – means ‘clam’ in local Ngaro language of the Whitsundays.
  • Oolandilla – means ‘place of ooline timber’ in Gunggari language of South-West Queensland.
  • Pyealy – believed to be taken from the local clan or group Bayali in Central Queensland.
  • Quilpie – means ‘curlew’ in Margany language of Western Queensland.
  • Sillago Island – means ‘whiting’ in local Ngaro language of the Whitsundays.
  • Taromeo – believed to be adapted from local Wakka Wakka word for ‘wild limes’.
  • Ubobo – refers to ‘wild arrowroot or orchid’ from local Gangulu language, Central Queensland.
  • Wyangapinni – believed to mean ‘mother mountain’ in unknown/unrecorded language, possibly local Giabal language of Darling Downs.
  • Yungaburra – means ‘silver ash’ in Yidinj language of Far North Queensland.

Flora and fauna

Possibly, the most popular Aboriginal loanwords are plants and animals which are now in everyday use.  This is understandable as early settlers, explorers and others would need to discover the names for animals and plants in this unknown Australian landscape.

Plants

  • Amulla – based on ngamula from Dharumbal language of Rockhampton region
  • Bindi-eye – Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay languages of North-West NSW/South-West Queensland [based on bindayaa]
  • Bumble Tree – Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay languages of North-West NSW/South-West Queensland [also used in neighbouring languages, e.g. Gunggari] – based on bambul.
  • Bunya – from Yugara language of Brisbane region – [also used in neighbouring languages, e.g. Kabi Kabi, Wakka Wakka] – based on bonye / bonyi
  • Conkerberry – from Mayi-Yapi / Mayi-Kulan languages of Cloncurry region
  • Coolabah – from Yuwaalayaay language of North-West NSW/ South-West Queensland
  • Midyim – from Yugara language of Brisbane region
  • Millaa – from Ngadjon language of Atherton Tablelands – also known as Millaa Millaa
  • Nardoo – from several languages in Western Queensland, Western NSW and South Australia; e.g. Yandruwandha and Gamilaraay – based on nhaadu
  • Wallum – from Kabi Kabi language of the Sunshine Coast – based on walum / walam

Animals

  • Barramundi – from Gangulu language of Central Queensland
  • Bilby – from Yuwaalaraay language of North-West NSW/South-West Queensland – based on bilbi
  • Brolga – from Gamilaraay language of North-West NSW/South-West Queensland – based on burralga
  • Chowchilla – from Dyirbal language of Tully region, Far North Queensland [also used in neighbouring language of Dyirbal] – based on jawujala
  • Currawong – from  Yugara language of Brisbane region – based on gurrawang
  • Galah – from Gamilaraay language of North-West NSW/ South-West Queensland – based on gilaa
  • Kangaroo – from Guugu Yimidhirr language of Cooktown region, Far North Queensland
  • Quoll – from  Guugu Yimidhirr language of Cooktown region, Far North Queensland
  • Taipan – from Wik Mungkan language of Western Cape York [also used in neighbouring languages on Cape York] – based on dhayban / thaypan
  • Yowie – from Yuwaalaraay language of North-West NSW/ South-West Queensland – based on yuwi

Artefacts

Many of the terms for Aboriginal artefacts derive from the Sydney region, such as woomera, waddy, nulla-nulla and boomerang; however there is one example from Queensland. Dilly as in dilly bag originates from Brisbane – the Yugara people called it dili or dilli. Dhilla also referred to the long grass used in weaving dilly bags – the scientific name is Lomandra longifolia aka longleaf mat rush.

Other words

A well-known word from the Yugara language of Brisbane is the word yakka which means ‘work’; it is based on the word yaga and was first formally recorded in the 1840s.

“Didjeridu / didgeridoo” is a word associated internationally with Aboriginal culture; the instrument originates from the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory who called it Yidaki. Historically, the term ‘didgeridoo’ came into being in the early 1900s and is onomatopoeic referring to the musical drone produced by the instrument.

Further details

For further information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages at the State Library of Queensland, please contact:
Queensland Memory, State Library of Queensland
Stanley Place, South Brisbane Qld. 4101.
PO Box 3488, South Brisbane Qld. 4101.
Telephone: (07) 3840 7666            Fax:   (07) 3842 9126

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