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Eureka Street Online
January-February 2001
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January-February 2001
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Also this month:

In his own write: Alex McDermott looks at recent Ned Kelly literature, including Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

Naming rites: Brian McCoy on language matters.

A farewell to the Australian welfare state: McClure is newer, but not better, argues Francis G. Castles.

Flash in the Pan: reviews of the films Sunshine and Charlie’s Angels.

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Naming rites

Brian McCoy on language matters.



There is a sound in a number of Aboriginal languages which most of us find difficult to say. It is the sound formed by the two letters ‘ng’. It is easy enough to say when it comes in the middle of a word, like the ‘ng’ in ‘singer’. Put it at the beginning of a word and one’s tongue has to learn a new acrobatic feat.

Being able to say the sound ‘ng’ correctly becomes a type of litmus test of how seriously we are prepared to change when we meet a language with this sound in it. Important words can often begin with this sound. In some languages the word for ‘father’ begins with the letters ‘ng’. The potential for misunderstanding, perhaps even offence, becomes even greater when the same word is used to address God.
We can avoid the challenge by avoiding the hard words or preferring to say everything in English. Learning another language is not as easy as it sounds, especially as one gets older. But it is important—the trying, that is.

In the book The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, the hero, an extremely talented linguist, discovers one time he does not want to learn a new language. His journey to another culture initially went well but he then encounters a new race and a new language and everything starts to get messy and violent. He realises that ‘if he didn’t learn the language, he wouldn’t have to stay’. Is that one reason why we haven’t learnt many of our Aboriginal languages? Is it that we are not sure about where we deeply belong or for how long we want to stay?

Aboriginal people have countless names for rivers, waterholes and hills. The songs of the Dreaming figures describe the various places where they visited, acted and moved on. So many places hold a history, a story, a dramatic event, gathered often in a word. Too often we can get the word wrong.

One instructive learning for me was the meaning of the word ‘Balgo’, a commonly used name of an ex-mission desert community. When I first came to the community I asked people for the derivation of the word. Someone said it meant ‘dirty wind’, referring to the cold, south-easterly winds that whip across the desert in winter. Another said the name was really ‘Balgo Hills’. But the community itself lay on the rise of break-way country. No hills there. I prefer another explanation. It is the interpretation given by a middle-aged man as he recounted life in an earlier time. In the days of the old mission, before they moved to the present site, the people lived at a place surrounded, in part, by low-lying hills. One day the German priest pointed to these hills and asked their name. Thinking the priest was referring to what grew on the hills someone replied ‘parlkurr’. Parlkurr is a type of native grass which grows abundantly in this country. Parlkurr easily became ‘Balgo’ (in most desert languages ‘p’s and ‘b’s, ‘g’s and ‘v’s are interchangeable). Balgo then became ‘Balgo Hills’.

Learning another language is learning a new way of speaking about and describing the world. It means hearing old things in new ways. The learning, as those of us who try know, can be an occasion of great embarrassment and humility. When even children can correct one’s attempts to speak correctly or accurately, one knows there is much still to learn.

Take people’s names. In the desert I could call someone by their kinship name (there are eight male and eight female names), their ‘bush’ or traditional name, their nickname or by the relationship we shared in the kinship system. I had been given a kinship name many years before and hence was related in some way to everyone. I could therefore call a person by that relationship name, as they would me. I could do it in English or in one of the local languages. Then there were names that were associated with people who had died. These names, or more precisely the similar sound of their names, had become taboo. There was another name I could use in that case. After a while I found I was forgetting a person’s English name.

Some of the older people have only one English name but most have acquired a first name and surname. A number have ended up with a number of surprising names. Some of them I find embarrassing, some offensive. One old man I knew had, as his only English name, a female kinship name. Sometime, somehow, someone had given it to him. Non-Aboriginal people would refer to him by this female name and, I can only assume, were not meaning to insult him when they did so. Most were probably not even aware of the incongruity and offence. That name, in the traditional Western way, had been handed on to his children and had become their surname. One time I asked one of his daughters, who was signing a document, whether she liked her ‘surname’. She thought for a while. She said that not only did she did not like it, but if she was to have a surname she would prefer to use her father’s traditional or ‘bush’ name.

She faced a great challenge. She was known by this surname, as were her sisters, brothers and her children. Centrelink, Family and Community Services, whatever government department there was, knew her in only one way. It would take a great effort on her part just to change her name. The fact that her father had no choice over his name, that it was given to him some 30 or more years ago, did not count for much.

Are people offended by the names we have given them? I think they have got used to some of them, as we have got used to some of the more unusual ones in our culture. Nonetheless, for Aboriginal people names are a good example of where ignorance and paternalism have worked in unkind partnership. Most white people assumed that everyone should have two names; rarely did they consider the names people already had or what they were already calling each other.

People deserve to be called by their own names because that is the best means we have to encounter and remember them. So also for the names for hills, rivers, communities and roads. Uluru not Ayers Rock, Gariwerd not the Grampians, Warmun not Turkey Creek, Wirrumanu not Balgo—the list seems endless. Why is it that we do not prefer to speak the older name of a person or place but rather a new or imposed one? We forget that old names have been tried over time and can be trusted. Using them is the best way to honour a person or place and our relationship with them.

To speak an old name is to begin to learn an original way of seeing the people and world around us and, in many ways, becomes an invitation to a more ancient way of living and belonging to the land. I now prefer to use the name of a person or place which has been their name for much longer than I have known them. I believe they deserve it. But in fact we both need it.

Brian F. McCoy SJ has lived with indigenous people in the north of Australia for 21 years and in the Western Desert country for the past seven. He is currently studying indigenous health issues.
Postscript: In 1788 there were more than 250 Aboriginal languages, spoken in more than 500 dialects. Now over 100 have gone and only about 20 are being learned by the children of today.

Graphic by Siobhan Jackson.

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