Other Australian animals

(Long but very interesting)

The kangaroo was the star of the show then as now, but given the number of new and unusual animals they saw, the British writers of the Endeavour and First Fleet surprisingly rarely refer to them in general text by their indigenous names. Generally, if it was possible to use an English word, or a word already borrowed into English from another language, then they did, even though the resemblance was, in some cases, very slight. Every writer did this, and the list of animal names used in this way runs into dozens. They sometimes qualified the reference with words such as ‘resembling’, ‘like’ or ‘kind’, or ‘wild’, ‘native’ or ‘New Holland’, starting with ‘Wild Geese’ (Endeavour Commander Lieutenant James Cook). Naturalist Joseph Banks also referred to the kangaroo (before he learned its name from the Aborigines of Endeavour River) as ‘the wild animal’.

Note that a number of names which might be thought to be indigenous Australian words  had, in fact, already been borrowed into English from other languages: cassowary (Malay), cockatoo (Dutch from Malay), emu (Portuguese), goanna (from ‘iguana’, Spanish from Arawak) and  possum (from ‘opossum’, Algonquian dialect (Virginia)). Dr Jakelin Troy lists the Sydney language word for the goanna (wirriga) citing researchers in 1875 and 1903, long after ‘goanna’ was already in wide use.

The processes by which indigenous names for animals entered or didn’t enter wider use is sometimes rather arbitrary. The animals below are now known by names from the language(s) of the greater Sydney region (dingo, wombat, koala) or further away (kookaburra), a pre-existing Portuguese name (emu), and several specially-coined names (lyrebird, echidna, platypus).

• the dingo, dingu and the warrigal, wuragal (Troy’s reconstructed spellings). Cook and Banks’s illustrator Sydney Parkinson recorded the Endeavour River language word, ‘Cotta or Kota’, which is clearly not cognate with the Sydney language words. Two of the First Fleet writers used ‘dingo’ in general text (with different spellings), and both names (with various spellings) appear in other writers’ word lists: ‘They have a number of Dogs belonging to them which they call Tingo, they do not bark like our Dogs but howl’ (Navy Midshipman Newton Fowell); ‘The only domestic animal they have is the dog, which in their language is called Dingo, and a good deal resembles the fox dog of England’ (Marines Captain Lieutenant Watkin Tench). Navy Lieutenant Philip Gidley King (‘Tingo A dog … Waregal, A large dog’) implies that the distinction between the two names is size. Perhaps the dingo was the (semi-)domesticated variety and the warrigal the wild variety. Almost every writer refers to dingos as ‘dogs’, sometimes qualified with variations on ‘native’ or ‘wild’.

• the emu: The Sydney language word is ‘marayong’ (there is no standardised spelling; this is spelling of the Sydney suburb. Troy’s reconstructed spelling is murawung). Only King used it in general text, but it also appeared in four word lists: ‘The Emu, (Maroang) the Patagorang, and the Menagine, (a small animal) are all named “Goa-long,” which term is supposed to mean an animal, as Wolarewarrè [Bennelong] uses it in contradistinction to a bird or a fish: on being asked, if the Emu was a bird, (Binyan) he shook his head, and said, “Goa-long.”’ Conceptualising the emu as an ‘animal … in contradiction to Bird’ is presumably on the basis of its land-based flightlessness.

There was originally some confusion as to whether the bird was a cassowary, emu or ostrich, but these are now classified as three distinct species. There are also a surprising number of different spellings for ‘emu’ (emew, amue, emue, amew). There are references to the British eating them (‘very good eating’, ‘very fine eating’ (Bradley), ‘the flesh was very well flavoured’ (Collins), ‘Seven officers have dined abundantly’ (NSW Corps Captain William Hill), ‘not unlike beef’ (Governor Arthur Philip), ‘very good … not unlike young tender beef’ (Chief Surgeon John White), ‘very good Eating, & Four of Us dined’ (Navy Surgeon George Worgan)) though none to Aborigines doing so. Several writers record heights or sizes, and Collins asserts that one female contained ‘exactly fifty eggs’. Wikipedia, citing the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, states that an average emu egg measures 134 by 89 mm (5.3 in × 3.5 in) and weighs between 700 and 900 g (1.5 and 2.0), so you’re welcome to calculate the total volume and weight (though the eggs in question may not have been mature).

• the lyrebird: James Wilson was ‘a wild idle young man, who, his term of transportation being expired, preferred living among the natives in the vicinity of the river’. By himself and with the Aborigines, he ranged ‘upwards of 100 miles in every direction round the settlement. In the course of his travelling he had noticed several animals, which, from his description, had not been seen in any of the districts’. One of these was ‘a bird of the pheasant species’, which he had eaten.  Collins didn’t believe him. In January 1798 Wilson and John Price, a free servant of Governor John Hunter, explored the area to the south-west of Sydney. ‘They brought in with them one of the birds which they had named pheasants, but which on examination appeared to be a variety of the Bird of Paradise’. Collins didn’t record the indigenous name. A W Reed lists three indigenous names, ‘bulln-bulln;  weringerong; woorail’, but unhelpfully gives no evidence as to the language of origin of those words. ‘Lyre’ is ‘Middle English … from Old French, from Latin … from Greek’.

• the wombat (Troy wumbat): Wilson also reported ‘a quadruped, which he said was larger than a dog, having its hind parts thin, and bearing no proportion to the shoulders, which were strong and large’. Of the south-west expedition of January 1798, Price wrote: ‘We saw several sorts of dung of different animals, one of which Wilson called a whombatt, which is an animal about 20 inches high, round ears, and very small eyes; is very fat, and has much the appearance of a badger. Collins later reported that Price and Wilson shot and ate one: ‘it resembled pork in flavour’.

• the koala: In the same passage, Price also reported ‘another animal which the natives call a cullawine, which much resembles the stoths [that is, sloths] in America’. Collins doesn’t mention this animal at all. The name koala was first recorded (as ‘colo’) in 1802 by engineer and explorer Francis Barralier in the area to the west of the Nattai River (south-west of Sydney).

• the echidna: ‘The dogs found a porcupine ant-eater, but they could make no impression on him; he escaped from them by burrowing in the loose sand, not head foremost, but sinking himself directly downwards, and presenting his prickly back opposed to his adversaries’ (Collins). The only reference to an indigenous name — ‘burroo-gin’ (Troy barrugin) — is by the convict artist Thomas Watling. ‘Echidna’ is ‘New Latin, from Greek: viper’.

• the kookaburra (‘laughing jackass’ or ‘great brown kingfisher’) is recorded only in word lists and appendices. Collins records ‘Go-gan-ne-gine’ in one his word list and ‘Go-gen-ne-gine [coast] Go-con-de [inland]’ in a discussion of the differences between the language(s)/dialects(s) of the lower harbour area and the Hawkesbury River region. The name ‘kookaburra’ is from the inland Wiradjuri language (reconstructed spelling gugubarra), indicating a date of 1813 at the very earliest.

But nothing prepared Collins (or anyone else) for the sight of: ‘an amphibious animal, of the mole species, one of which had been lately found on the banks of a lake near the Hawkesbury. In size it was considerably larger than the land mole. The eyes were very small. The fore legs, which were shorter than the hind, were observed, at the feet, to be provided with four claws, and a membrane, or web, that spread considerably beyond them, while the feet of the hind legs were furnished, not only with this membrane or web, but with four long and sharp claws, that projected as much beyond the web, as the web projected beyond the claws of the fore feet. The tail of this animal was thick, short, and very fat; but the most extraordinary circumstance observed in its structure was, its having, instead of the mouth of an animal, the upper and lower mandibles of a duck. By these it was enabled to supply itself with food, like that bird, in muddy places, or on the banks of the lakes, in which its webbed feet enabled it to swim; while on shore its long and sharp claws were employed in burrowing; nature thus providing for it in its double or amphibious character. These little animals had been frequently noticed rising to the surface of the water, and blowing like the turtle’.

Despite the fact that the Aborigines knew of this animal (Collins records them hunting it) neither he nor anyone else records their name for it. When reports of it reached the zoological authorities in England, they didn’t believe it was real, even when presented with a preserved specimen. The first scientific name given was Ornithorhynchus paradoxus (‘paradoxical bird-snout’), which was later changed to Ornithorhynchus anatinus (bird-snout, duck-like). The name platypus (flat-footed) is ‘New Latin, from Greek platypous broad-footed’. The Australian Platypus Conservancy’s website states ‘Traditional names for the species included “mallangong” and “tambreet” in New South Wales’, without giving sources for those names.

Several other creatures are described and named using Sydney language words, none of which has entered general use, because the existing English words were sufficient.

Of all the indigenous words which have entered English, animal names are now among the most commonly used. Bruce Moore, in Speaking our Language: The Story of Australian English, records the results of his search of Factiva, a searchable collection of newspapers in electronic form. ‘Kangaroo’, ‘wallaby’, ‘koala’, ‘kookaburra’, ‘dingo’ and ‘wombat’ are six of the top eight, the others being ‘waratah’ (from the Sydney language) and ‘billabong’ (Wiradjuri), whether these are used for the animals, in place names, in company names, as nicknames for sporting teams etc. ‘Boomerang’ is the possibly surprising non-appearer on this list. Other well-known animal names were recorded later and in other areas as British settlement extended up the coast and inland, evidenced by them being from different languages: brolga (Gamilaraay), budgerigar (?Gamilaraay) and galah (Yuwaalaraay). Probably the best-known animal found and name recorded away from the eastern/central coast is ‘quokka’, from Rottnest Island (that is, ‘Rat’s Nest Island’ in Dutch) off Perth and the Nyungar language (a possible reconstructed spelling is gwaga)is gwaga).


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