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Putting a Name to a Place: Understanding Aboriginal Place Names in New South Wales

By Rebekah Bradshaw

If you have ever visited or lived in Australia, chances are you would have spent some time puzzling over a road sign or two. Perhaps you were heading up to Coonabarabran for some star-gazing, or enjoying the nightlife in Woolloomoolo. Or maybe you were wondering why Wagga Wagga can be called ‘Wagga’, but Woy Woy can never be just ‘Woy’? There is no doubt that Australia has some very unique place names! But where do these names come from, and what do they mean? 

When Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, there were over 250 languages spoken across the continent, with as many as 800 dialects. As the country was colonised throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers often recorded and repurposed the traditional names of places they were moving into. Many places are still known by their Aboriginal names today – examples around my hometown of Sydney include the suburbs of Parramatta, Bondi, Turramurra, and Cammeray. In other cases, a location was renamed, meaning that its original name might exist in a record but not on the map. Since 2001, the Government of New South Wales (hereafter NSW), where I live, has been committed to a policy of dual naming, reinstating a place’s traditional name where possible to be used alongside its newer, colonial name. 

The state of NSW was the first place In Australia to be colonised, and as such has had a longer history of Aboriginal peoples being dispossessed from their lands and discouraged from speaking their languages. Our knowledge of languages in NSW may often be patchy and incomplete as a result. Sometimes, surviving traditional place names of an area may be one of the few keys we have to understanding that area’s language. 

Recent years have seen an increased interest in Aboriginal cultures and their languages, with many curious to learn about local place names and their meanings. Understanding Aboriginal place names in NSW is not always a simple process, however, often presenting an interesting puzzle for linguists and historians. 

In NSW, most local languages are no longer spoken fluently. When interpreting a place name, the initial challenge is often working out how it is meant to sound. To understand the difficulty, we must go back to when these place names were first being recorded. Aboriginal languages have no writing system of their own, with information being passed along orally. The first time their place names were recorded in writing was by European settlers, farmers, and surveyors, most of whom had no linguistic training, and often poor literacy – as you can imagine, this was not a foolproof process! 

Aboriginal languages and English do not share all of the same sounds with each other. It can be difficult for a person to describe Aboriginal words using an English spelling system, particularly if their ear is not tuned in to recognise the differences. English makes distinctions between sounds where Aboriginal languages tend to only hear one – for example, languages in NSW do not distinguish between voiceless and voiced velar plosives /k/ and /g/, so Cadigal and Gadigal are both reasonable English spellings for the group of people belonging to the area around Sydney Harbour. On the flip side, English has only one rhotic /r/ sound, whereas a language like Gamilaraay has two, including a rolled or tapped sound (often denoted by a double ‘rr’). A native Spanish speaker would be more likely to notice the difference between the words muru (nose) and murru (buttocks), whilst an English speaker may miss it. NSW languages also commonly make use of quite “un-English” sounds like the lamino-dental stop/plosive, notated as ‘dh’. To make this sound, try pressing the tip of your tongue forward onto your bottom front teeth as you make the sound /d/. To the untrained English-speaking ear, this sound is often heard and written as either ‘d’, ‘th’, or ‘t’. 

Next to consider is the question of accents. An English word can be spelled exactly the same around the world but sound very different spoken aloud, depending on where the speaker comes from. To cut a long story short, if we do not know the accent of the person who initially recorded the place name, it is hard to know what sounds they had in mind when they used certain letters in their spelling. We will often end up with multiple different spellings of the same place name, and sometimes none of them accurately represent the pronunciation of the original word. 

So, how do linguists unravel this problem? It helps to go back to the source, comparing the earliest forms of the name as it first appears in the records. We then use what we know about the language as clues to help us reconstruct the original word. Working backwards in a kind of reverse Occam’s Razor, we want to find the most complex solution so that all of our potential spellings can be explained through simplification. 

Let us take the example of a coastal town on Yuin country, where I like to stop at my favourite pie shop: the name is spelled Ulladulla today. Going back to records from 1828, we find spellings including Ulladulla, Woollahderra, and Nulladolla – all seemingly quite different! But notice the /n/ that one of the settlers chose to put in their version. Most NSW languages don’t start words with an /n/, but what is quite common is a velar nasal /ng/ at the beginning of a word. And because English speakers never start their words with /ng/, they have trouble picking it up, instead hearing a straight /n/, or even a /w/, or no consonant at all. Now notice the ‘rr’ in Woollahderra.

This could be a trilled or rolled /r/, another sound not common in English and easily mistaken for an /l/ (notice how, to make both sounds, the tongue is up and sometimes touching the roof of your mouth). We can also make a reasonable assumption that the /d/ in the middle of the word was actually our lamino-dental stop/plosive /dh/. Putting this together, we end up with our best guess for the reconstructed place name, written as Nguladharra (quite a mouthful for an English speaker!) 

Linguists beware: you might think you know which place names are Aboriginal in origin, but take care not to miss any that are hiding in plain sight! The delightfully-named Blue Knobby has its origins in the Gamilaraay Buluuy Nhaaybil (the meaning of nhaaybil is uncertain, but buluuy actually means ‘black’, not ‘blue’!) 

Once we have our reconstructed place name, can we find out what it means? Much like the rest of the process, the answer is complicated. In any language, the primary “meaning” of a place name is its geographical referent – the location that comes to mind when the name is spoken. But when we ask about an Aboriginal place name, we often also want the etymology of the name, and the story of how it became associated with its location.

Our records may not always help us with this. Language barriers and misunderstandings could lead to the place’s cultural or functional significance being given as its meaning, rather than a translation of the name’s components. For this reason, linguists are wary when a general answer such as ‘meeting place’ or ‘watering hole’ is listed in the records.  

Sometimes we get lucky: local Aboriginal communities still hold the knowledge of the place name, we can match a reconstructed name with a definition in an existing word list for the language, or we have a way to confirm the supposed etymology provided by the early settler. Other times, it can be a very speculative process. We can use certain known trends as guidelines – for example, many place names that we know the etymology of include species of flora and fauna, body parts, and sometimes rock or soil types.

We can also look for common elements in multiple names in a language that can help us identify related meanings. A common ending for place names across Gamilaraay country is bri (see Narrabri, Collarenbri, etc.) Consonant clusters like ‘br’ do not occur in Gamilaraay or its associated dialects, so we know that we must add a syllable. And as it turns out, -(b)araay is a common comitative suffix meaning ‘with’ or ‘having’. At the very least, we know that any local place name ending in bri can be roughly translated to ‘place with [a certain feature]’ or ‘place having a lot of [a certain feature]’. 

Even when we can provide an etymology with certainty, we still do not necessarily have the full story behind the name. A place might be part of a network known as a Songline, a chain of sites that tracks a particular journey or event in the Dreaming and helps Aboriginal peoples pass on knowledge of important routes across their country. These Dreaming events might not always be clearly encoded in the etymology of the name. In the Northern Territory, a place is known as Manaji, meaning ‘bush potato’ in Warumungu. Taking this etymology at face value, the outside observer might think that bush potatoes can be found in this area (which may well be true).

Warumungu people, however, know that this is one of the stops in a journey taken by ancestral women during the Dreaming, in which they dug up bush potatoes after travelling east. Knowledge of how places connect into the Dreaming often survives today within Aboriginal communities, and so consultation with these communities and their Elders is a vital stage in the process of understanding place names. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some stories and elements of lore are sacred, and not meant to be shared publicly. The full meaning of certain places may forever remain a mystery. 

As we have just discovered, something seemingly as simple as a place name can be absolutely full of information! Directing people to a single point in space, it can also become a gateway to discovering the history, people, and language of an area. Being able to relate to our surroundings “in language” is a fantastic way for Australians to recognise and celebrate our country’s unique and rich heritage, and for visitors to learn about and experience the incredible linguistic diversity of the oldest surviving culture in the world.

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