You say maguro and I say magura

Today we had lunch at a Japanese restaurant. On the placemats were drawings of the various ingredients, with their English and Japanese names. I noticed that the Japanese name for tuna is ‘maguro’. By one of those very strange coincidences of languages, the word for ‘fish’ in the Indigenous language of the Sydney region is ‘magura’. Various sources from the early colonial period render the word in various ways, but the scholar Jakelin Troy has reconstructed the spelling ‘magura’.

This is not to suggest that there is any connection between Japanese and the Sydney language. Given six thousand (approx) languages in the world, and a core vocabulary of ten thousand (approx) words in each language, similar-sounding words with similar-sounding meanings must crop up reasonably often.

Colonial Judge-Advocate David Collins draws an exceptionally long bow when he compares three individual words from the Sydney language with three individual words from European languages:

‘I met with only two or three words which bore a resemblance to any other language. The middle head of Port Jackson is named Cā-ba Cā-ba — in Portuguese Cāba signifies a head. Cam-ma-rāde, a term of affection used among girls, has a strong resemblance to the French word Cammerade; and may not some similitude be traced between the word E-lee-mong, a shield, and the word Telamon, the name given to the greater Ajax, on account of his being lord of the seven-fold shield? How these words came into their language must be a mystery till we have a more intimate knowledge of it than I can pretend to.’

If he could use Portuguese, French and Greek examples in a single passage, he must have known that relationships between languages are more systematic than that.


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