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What’s in a Name ?

Well may we ask what’s in a name and if you put that question to our ABC you will get all sorts of responses but not necessarily in a language with which you are familiar.

If you listen to ABC Radio National in the mornings you will hear ‘Breakfast’ presenter Patricia Karvelas announce that she is coming to you from the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation ; I had to Google that as I am – to my eternal shame – not up on the language of the Wurundjeri people. As it turns out, the Wurundjeri people are an Aboriginal people of the Woiwurrung language group, in the Kulin nation. They are the traditional owners of the Birrarung (Yarra River) Valley, covering much of the present location of Narrm (Melbourne).

So Patricia was broadcasting from Melbourne but, due to a policy on inclusion at the ABC, she was not able to say that she was in Melbourne or Glenelg if you want to be pedantic. Fun fact : The first official name proposed for Melbourne was Glenelg but Governor Sir Richard Bourke overruled this, and on his visit in March 1837 decided on Melbourne – after the then British Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, who resided in the village of Melbourne in Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Prior to that, albeit briefly, Melbourne was named ‘Batmania’ after John Batman, who claimed to have founded the city in 1835 – but the less said about that, the better.

Melbourne was just a whisker away from being named Glenelg or perhaps Bourke. Incidentally, Bourke, a town in north-central New South Wales, on the Darling River, was named after the very same Governor Sir Richard Bourke – the township of Bourke is located on Gurnu – Baakandji Country and was home to the Ngemba group of the Wongaibon Aboriginal language group prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Meanwhile back at the ABC : on Saturday mornings David Lipson presents a Radio National program titled ‘This week’ and he tells us that he is coming to us from Gadigal Land. Again, my knowledge of Aboriginal regional dialects fails me so it’s back to Google. It seems that the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the City of Sydney local area were the Gadigal people. The territory of the Gadi (gal) people stretched along the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) from South Head to around what is now known as Petersham. Although, somewhat confusingly the traditional custodians of the land on which modern Sydney stands are the clans of the Darug, Dharawal and Eora peoples. Suffice to say, David is broadcasting from Sydney but inclusion protocols at the ABC won’t allow him to mention that ; does inclusion only work one way ?

The Anglo name for Sydney was nominated by governor Arthur Phillip who established the European settlement on the shores of Port Jackson in 1788 and named the inlet “Sydney Cove” in honour of the British Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Lord Sydney.

Visitors to Australia frequently comment on the names the British gave various places in this wide brown land : fancy, for instance calling a highway Bruce (after former Queensland and federal politician, Harry Bruce) or a city Townsville (‘Town’s town’ after Robert Towns, entrepreneur, businessman and occasional ‘blackbirder’, whose ship the ‘Don Juan’ brought one of the earliest shiploads of South Sea Islanders from present-day Vanuatu to labour on his Queensland estates in 1863 – Queensland had only just been formed when separation from New South wales was granted by Queen Victoria in June 1859.

There has been talk of a name change for Townsville but there are many claims for the area comprising the land of the Gurambilburra Wulgurukaba, Bindal, Nywaigi, and Gugu Badhun Peoples. The ABC are still working on that one.

The whole issue of place names and the changing of names is one fraught with attitude, entitlement and ego, with virtue signalling and political correctness frequently evident. There is also a process that needs to be adhered to : you can’t just change the name of a place and say that’s it, from now on everybody must adopt that name, inevitably somebody will have their nose out of joint.

Some changes are not controversial : in 2020, Western Australia renamed the King Leopold Ranges, named after the brutal colonial Belgium monarch, the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges, using both the Ngarinyin and Bunuba names for the area. Nobody objected. In 1993 Ayers Rock was renamed Uluru with little controversy particularly as dual naming policies allow Ayers Rock to be maintained as a secondary point of identification for visitors to ‘the rock’.

Most Australian jurisdictions now have dual naming policies, which allow geographical features to be identified by both their traditional and colonial name, as with ‘the rock’. But it can get a bit messy where there is little no consultation. In 1992, the Victorian government renamed the Grampians national park as the Grampians (Gariwerd) national park, but the decision was reversed after a change of government in 1992 and official use of Gariwerd was not reinstated until after the Geographic Place Names Act 1998 (Vic) was introduced. Suggestions that the Dandenong ranges should be renamed with an Aboriginal place name became confused when it was established that Dandenong was in fact a corruption of the original Aboriginal name, Tanjenong possibly and not unsurprisingly, wrongly interpreted by an early surveyor.

Personally I am comfortable with dual naming as being a reasonable compromise in most cases. Back at the ABC, the morning am program is presented out of Tasmania by the very talented Sabra Lane. Sabra without fail will tell you that she is broadcasting from ‘nipaluna, Hobart’. That strikes a nice balance for me.

What do you think ?


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  1. wam

    Dual naming is a sop to Australian who object to Aboriginal names.
    In the NT we have an ABC who often use Gove rather than Nhulunbuy and a mob of CLP who always give the english name(s).
    Sydney. Melbourne were not there in Aboriginal era but Uluru has existed for thousands of years before Ayer. Ayer should be dropped.
    Nuhulbuy is the main town for the Gove Peninsula, an area of Arnhem land named after a WW2 pilot.
    Townesville and Mackay are celebrating the names of two white ‘blackbirders’ The Australians who operated a slave trade disguised as ’employment’. They need changing..

  2. Phil Pryor

    I’m happy to live in Turramurra, a high ridge. I’d hate to live in Farquar or Knatchbull-Hugesson. Who would agree on a replacement for Sydney and for New South Wales?

  3. Keitha Granville

    ABC Hobart TV news simply says nipaluna now. Tasmanian Aboriginal people have chosen to have no capital letters – kunanyi is Mt Wellington, lutrawita is Tasmania, the reasoning being that there is no upper case in their language. The fact that there was no writing in their languages AT ALL seems to have escaped notice and I find it absurd that the tradition of place names having a capital start is simply thrown away. I find it insulting personally that our state, our capital city and our mountain are not recognised as important. We already have a number of Aboriginal town names with capitals so it looks like a mistake.
    I have no issue with dual naming for many sites, but state names and capital cities should remain as they are. New Zealand seems to manage duality very well, we could do worse than to follow their lead.

  4. Michael Taylor

    Very interesting subject, Terry.

    When in the federal public service – and as a person deeply passionate about Aboriginal issues – I was more than happy that welcome to country and the respect to Elders past and present was regularly acknowledged prior to formal meetings.

    But what annoyed the crap out of me was the mispronunciation of the land we were on, which, to me, was disrespectful.

    We were on Ngunnawal land, which everyone pronounced as “Nunnawal”.

    Ummm, sorry, but Aboriginal languages do not have a silent ‘g’.

    To say ‘ng’ you pronounce it like the ‘ng’ in the word ‘sing’ (as an example).

    I mentioned it to our departmental secretary, but sadly, she wasn’t interested. Obviously her welcome to country was only a token gesture, and not a passionate one.


  5. Michael Taylor

    I grew up on Karta land.

    Known to the world as Kangaroo Island.

    It’s God’s country. If he/she ever came to Earth to live … it’s where he/she would head to.

    My Kangaroo Island

  6. Clakka

    Yeah, all for it Terence.

    One side of my lot, being of refugees from the English theft from, and oppression of the Scots. And the other side, from 8 Oz generations, of humanists, of merchant class of Cornish, Welsh, Irish roots, arriving and settling in reaches from Port Augusta (and beyond), Adelaide, Melbourne, Lakes Entrance (Cunninghame) and Orbost. None of that I knew when I was a youngster.

    Other than family, and young beast-like peers, there were people weird and wonderful, and passers-by to maybe include with a “hello”. I learned my name, attached to which I learned was family – people, some of whom I learned, provided food and shelter.

    I never met Aboriginal people, and although allegedly educated, knew nothing of their stories until my adulthood. Despite immersing myself in readings of them and many visits to their “country”, I know little of their stories of connection.

    Nothing, was more intrinsic to my existence, than the land and the living things arising from it, to which I was born and became my stomping ground. From its minutiae, to it sky and running water, its heights, breadths and depths available to me from my tracks. Sacred and ineffable.

    For convenience, I might call its proximity by a name known to others, yet to others telling their story, another handle may suffice for the sharing, and that seems reasonable to me, to the extent that the listeners may be able to derive their comprehension.

    For me, the story it imbues is essential. It might assign itself as “Clakka” land, and now that I am not there, “Lakkaclakka” land.

    Relevant perhaps on a need to tell, need to know basis.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Clakka, I reckon that more than half of the Adnyamathanha people who live in Port Augusta and the communities in the Flinders Ranges have a Scottish surname, with McKenzie and Coulthard being dominant.

    I joked to my Adnyamathanha ‘brother’ – a Coulthard – that when the white fellas sailed up the gulf to what is now Port Augusta the captain yelled out; “McKenzie, row ashore and see if the natives are friendly. Oh, and take your mate Coulthard with you.”

    My brother laughed his head off. My white boss, who overheard me, was not impressed. He clearly had no idea about black fulla humour.

    My brother’s grandfather – a Scotsman – bragged that he never lost a fight at the Hannahville Hotel.

  8. leefe

    Ayers Rock was not renamed Uluru. It had been called Uluru for centuries, probably milleniia, until being renamed Ayers Rock. The resumption of the old name was nothing more than a tiny gesture of recognition for the usurpation of the land and countless other injustices perpetrated by colonisers.

    “Suffice to say, David is broadcasting from Sydney but inclusion protocols at the ABC won’t allow him to mention that ; does inclusion only work one way ?”
    Oh, the indignation of the coloniser when confronted by resistance to their assumption of cultural superiority. Is having to put a little effort into finding out a few annoying facts about pre-colonial nomenclature really that onerous?

    (written in the lands of the mirimirina in southern lutruwita)

    The palawa have the right to decide how their language is transliterated. It is, after all, THEIR language. It’s not for you or me to dictate how it is used.
    And, for the record, personal names are still capitalised in palawa kani; it’s only place names that are not.

  9. Clakka

    MT, ha ha haar, excellent quip on the spread of the Scots.

    My Scottish side came late, only to Melb, and have there remained. Those heading for Portaguddu and Adelaide were from the other side, the Welsh, Cornish copper miners headed for the likes of Burra and Peterborough, where they bred and spread from Mildura to Whyalla, and now concentrate as Moxams in Adelaide. I even inadvertently learned from my old man that via that neck-o-the outback, Lynne Kosky was a 2nd or 3rd cousin – wha!

    The others from that side came before the gold, and as merchants and iron founders sailed into both Dudley Flats (early) and Cunninghame and spread from there. Of course, they had no fear, after centuries of battling the English barons, dealing with the corsairs on the south coast or crossing the Irish sea in coracles to add strength through diversity with like minded folk.

    Regardless of the till, change is a must. There’s always some plotting a domain of monoculture, a nonsense of the egg-bound. What comes around goes around. Gimme strength through diversity that’s what I like – a colourful life ducking and weaving and communing with the unknown.

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