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Indigenous Placenames

In Australia there are two systems of placenames; there is the introduced system of placenames that Europeans developed to refer to places, and the network of Indigenous placenames that Indigenous people use.

Colonists, explorers, settlers and surveyors through their renaming of the Australian landscape have often consulted Indigenous people and adopted Indigenous names. Indeed it has been estimated (albeit rather unreliably) in New South Wales that over 75% of the current names of settlements and geographical features, such as creeks and hills, are of Aboriginal origin (Kennedy and Kennedy 1989).

Throughout Australian history, there have been times where at an official level the use of Indigenous names and the acquisition of local Aboriginal knowledge had been promoted. In 1884 the International Provincial Geographical Conference in Melbourne advocated the preference for Indigenous placenames (Henderson and Nash 1997). And a little earlier in the mid 19th Century the South Australia Governor, George Gawler, sent out a decree to colonists to record carefully and precisely names that the Indigenous peoples had given to features of the landscape (Amery and Williams 2002). These records were to be sent to the Surveyor-General and when proved to be accurate were to be included on public maps. This type of policy resulted in many names of Indigenous origin being inserted into the new introduced system of Australian names.

The explorers, landowners and surveyors who delved into the rich world of Indigenous names, whether as a result of official policy or individual fascination, were prone to misunderstanding due to their lack of familiarity with Indigenous language and culture. For example, when the landowners or surveyors adopted Indigenous placenames they frequently applied them to features different from that originally designated.  For example, the town of Lameroo in South Australia and Lameroo Beach in Darwin apparently get their names from each other (Simpson 2003).

The sound systems of Indigenous languages are quite different from English and those individuals learning and applying names had difficultly capturing Australian Aboriginal speech sounds. As a result many of these transcriptions are very unreliable records of the original pronunciation in the relevant Indigenous language; many names would be unrecognisable to a speaker of a source language. Thus, names of Indigenous origin have become distorted and anglicised, and are considered part of the introduced system of names rather than the Indigenous system proper.

As previously noted, before the colonisation of Australia it has been approximated that there were around 250 Indigenous groups speaking distinct languages. Each of these languages had its own toponymic rules and its own set of names for places that were important to them. These sets of placenames often included names of places located in the territory of neighbouring groups, thus many portions of the landscape have been named several times over by different Indigenous groups. A map made in the 19th century of the Diyari people’s territory in South Australia contains 2,500 placenames (Simpson 2003). This concurs with linguist, Peter Sutton’s calculation that the Wik People of Cape York know several thousand placenames (Hercus and Simpson 2002; Sutton 2002). These figures are quite a lot more than Hunn estimates in the 1994 paper ‘Place names, population density and the magic  number 500’ (quoted in Henderson and Nash 1997). He postulated that Indigenous language groups around the world have around 500 placenames for their territory. Assuming this is a correct and reasonable figure and that there were 300 language groups prior to European settlement it would follow that Australia had around 150,000 Indigenous placenames. While Kennedy and Kennedy in their 1989 publication Australian Place Names have ventured a rough estimation that Australia has over four million placenames with approximately three-quarters of them being Indigenous.

An Indigenous person has no difficulty remembering hundreds of placenames even though they are not recorded with gazetteers or on maps. Indigenous names given to the land relate to the journeys of ancestral beings, and thus feature heavily in traditional stories, song and dance. So people remember the placenames as part of the narration of stories and the singing of songs. 

…during a land claim hearing, Warumungu people of the Tennant Creek area told the court how ancestral women go to the place Witiin and leave a coolamon, a container for carrying water. That coolamon is visible now as a waterhole. Witiin means ‘coolamon’ in Warumungu. The ancestral beings go east to another place, Manaji, where they dig bush potatoes. Manaji means ‘bush potato’ in Warumungu, and there are bush potatoes growing there now. And so on. Now Witiin and Manaji are short names which refer directly to features of the place as well as to actions of the ancestors. Many Aboriginal placenames describe the actions of the ancestor at a place but only indirectly describe the place. Luise Hercus has recorded many such names among the Arabana of the Lake Eyre region. For example, Rockwater Hill’s Arabana name is Kudna-tyura-apukanha ‘they (that is ancestral Emus) had diarrhoea long ago’. You have to know the story and the place to know how the name fits the place. What has diarrhoea got to do with the hill? Well, it’s represented by lots of green stones on the hill. (Simpson 2003)

Indigenous placenames have developed as an essential aspect in traditional stories and a key tool for moving through and surviving in the Australian landscape. The content of the story the names feature in and the often highly descriptive name of a place (for example, Manaji being the Warumungu name for a site where a group of ancestral beings dig bush potatoes and Manaji also being the Warumungu word for bush potatoes) are extremely useful aides to knowing the value of various sites as good water and food sources. And the sequencing of placenames according to the journey of an ancestral being in these stories is a crucial way to locate these sites. All the places in the stories are interconnected with locational information, and thus, the location of a place within the story can be determined through its relationship to other places.

So we can see that the principles of the Indigenous naming system differ greatly from the toponymic practices in the introduced European system. For example, there is a vast difference between what is regarded as a feature that need to be named in the Indigenous and a features that requires a name in the introduced system. Indigenous people often have several names for different stretches of a watercourse, whereas the whole river or creek would only bear one introduced name. Or a hill may have a name in the introduced system while the Indigenous system doesn’t have a name just for that hill but a name that refers to the whole surrounding region as well as the hill. Another example: one feature may have several Indigenous names known by different groups of people. Indeed, Indigenous placenames are often owned, secret or sacred, and only one clan may have the rights to impart this knowledge. In contrast, the introduced system strives to maintain a single network of placenames that are accessible to all.

Dual Naming

This information is from the Australian National Placenames Survey, Indigenous Languages Fact Sheet, written by, and republished with permission of, Clair Hill. Claire notes that much of the informaiton in this section is indebted to Hercus and Simpson 2002.

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