KANGAROO.

Joel of Far Outliers has one of his typically thought-provoking posts with an extensive quote from a book, in this case Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz, and I have to excerpt and share this part of the quote, for reasons that should be obvious:

As for kangooroo, this was a fair approximation of the Guugu Yimidhirr word, which Eric rendered gangurru. But Aborigines, unlike Maori and Tahitians, didn’t have a shared language; living in small, widely scattered groups, they spoke scores of different tongues. The English failed to recognize this. The result was a comically circular instance of linguistic transmission. Officers of the First Fleet, familiar with the Endeavour’s journals, used the words Cook and his men had collected in Queensland to try and communicate with Botany Bay Aborigines eighteen years later.
“Whatever animal is shown them,” a frustrated officer on the Fleet reported, “they call kangaroo.” Even the sight of English sheep and cattle prompted the Gwyeagal to cheerfully cry out “Kangaroo, kangaroo!” In fact, the Gwyeagal had no such word in their vocabulary (they called the marsupial patagorang). Rather, they’d picked up “kangaroo” from the English and guessed that it referred to all large beasts. So a word that originated with an encounter between Cook and a small clan in north Queensland traveled to England with the Endeavour, then back to Botany Bay with the First Fleet, and eventually became the universal name for Australia’s symbol. There was an added twist. The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials, depending on their size and color. “Gangurru means a large gray or black kangaroo,” Eric said. “If Cook had asked about a small red one, the whole world would be saying nharrgali today.”

Comments

  1. Something similar happened across the ditch, too. In his excellent “The Illustrated History of New Zealand”, Michael King explains how the word “Aotearoa” ended up being adopted by most Maaori as the name for what is now NZ, when it was originally very localised and specific. Its journey to to “re-importation” was not nearly as convoluted as “kangaroo”s though, thanks for sharing this.

  2. I can’t imagine Cook and his crew trying to learn a language from the Aborigines. But then again, the English fleet did travel a long way, so I guess “kangaroo” isn’t a bad effort after all.

  3. The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials
    Yeah, yeah, yeah.

  4. Intriguing story! A few additional details from Through the Language Glass:
    […] Captain Philip Parker King visited the mouth of the very same Endeavour River in 1820, fifty years after Cook had left. When [he] asked the Aborigines he met there what the animal was called, he was given a completely different name from what Cook had recorded. King transcribed the name in his own diary as ‘minnar’ or ‘meenuah’. […]
    […] By the mid-nineteenth century, scepticism about the authenticity of the word was rife […] Myths and legends of all kinds soon spread. The most famous version, beloved of comedians unto this day, is that ‘kangaroo’ was the phrase for ‘I don’t understand’, the answer allegedly given by the bemused natives to Cook’s question ‘What is this animal called?’ […]
    […] The mystery from Down Under was eventually resolved in 1971, when anthropologist John Haviland began an intensive study of Guugu Yimithirr […] Haviland found that there is one particular type of large grey kangaroo [only rarely seen near the coast] whose name in Guugu Yimithirr is gangurru […] King probably pointed at a different type of kangaroo, which has a different name in Guugu Yimithirr. But we will never know which type of kangaroo it was that King saw, because the word he recorded, ‘minnar’ or ‘meenuah’ was no doubt minha, the general term that means ‘meat’ or ‘edible animal’.

  5. Joe, if you were trying to link something, give me the URL and I’ll add it to your comment.

  6. dearieme says:

    When I lived in The Land of the Long White Cloud I once remarked casually that “Aotearoa” was obviously bogus. This was not greeted with universal approbation, but there was the odd knowing grin. Whether this was because the grinners were familiar with King’s tale, or whether it was just because some people are good at smelling a rat, I don’t know. Or maybe it was just that they were old enough to remember the imposition of the term.

  7. Joe turns out to be a spammer when you click on his name.

  8. dearieme, Aotearoa was not “obviously bogus”, according to King, but was never universally applied to all of what is now called New Zealand. It, and variants of it, did exist, but had only narrow local usage, apparently. If his understanding is correct, the “imposition” was not that blunt either – Te Reo needed a word for a concept its speakers did not previously have, and “Aotearoa” fitted the bill. THat’s why it reminded me of the “kangaroo” account, a very specific local word being picked up by the English, given an extended meaning, and eventually being absorbed back into the language of origin with the “English” definition.

  9. Joe turns out to be a spammer when you click on his name.
    Curses, they snuck one by me! I’ll delete the URL. Thanks.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    I see your “ten different words for the marsupials” and raise you P.J. O’Rourke’s “Possibly as a result of their country’s being upside down, the local dialect [i.e., Australian English] has over 400 terms for vomit.”

  11. kangaroo, wallaby, wombat, numbat, Tasmanian devil, Tasmanian tiger, sugar glider, koala, bandicoot, possum
    Doesn’t everybody have at least ten words for the marsupials?

  12. Everyone with access to the internet has at least ten words for marsupials.

  13. “If Cook had asked about a small red one, the whole world would be saying nharrgali today.”
    Except it would have been anglicized by the sailors so we would actually be saying something else. Nawgly? Nawgully? Hawgully?

  14. I was wondering about that myself. One would have to listen to a native speaker saying the word to make even an informed guess.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    If Cook had asked about a small red one

    That’s the euro, right?
    (Macropus robustus)

    One would have to listen to a native speaker saying the word to make even an informed guess.

    In case I can be of help… nh is apico-dental (tip of the tongue against the incisors), as opposed to the apico-alveolar n (like in English); rr is the trill, as opposed to r, the retroflex approximant (like in English, except the English one is not always retroflex); l is apico-alveolar like in English, as opposed to the apico-dental lh. The vowel system of most Australian languages is /a i u/, each in long and short versions.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Sound files of Australian languages:
    Kaititj
    Nunggubuyu
    Wangurri
    Yanyuwa, which really takes the cake!

  17. The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials
    Be fair – they probably didn’t have ANY words for snow.

  18. dearieme says:

    “was never universally applied to all of what is now called New Zealand. It, and variants of it, did exist, but had only narrow local usage, apparently.” Yeah: bogus.

  19. Oh, dear. The New Zealanders have failed to please dearieme. We all know how unusual that is. They must be mortified.

  20. Mortified? Not this citizen of Aotearoa, John. Amused and entertained by dearieme’s idiosyncratically non-standard definition of “bogus”, and reminded of the classic xkcd strip
    http://xkcd.com/386/ but definitely not mortified. And for those without an apparent need to define any adaptation of a pre-existing word to suit a new circumstance as “bogus”, there’s another interesting example of the same phenomenon here:
    http://www.maorinews.com/writings/papers/other/pakeha.htm

  21. dearieme says:

    “for those without an apparent need to define any adaptation of a pre-existing word to suit a new circumstance as “bogus”..”: a feeble straw man argument. Adapting a word isn’t bogus when you admit to it; it’s the accompaning pretence that you haven’t that makes it bogus.

  22. Oh, for Christ’s sake, dearieme.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    I gather from WP that Aotearoa was one of several competing names for the North Island. It may well be that it was a misnomer when applied to the pair of islands, and that it was not used all over the place, but generalizing a local name is the rule rather than the exception when a new and bigger geographical entity is conceived. So just by virtue of being a traditional country name it’s far from the worst example I’ve seen.

  24. Absolutely, Trond. Certainly less bogus than applying the name of a province on the other side of the world.

  25. “The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials
    Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
    I understand the English have something like the same number of terms for bos taurus, but oddly, no one term for the species as a whole.

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