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The Australian National University

Borrowings from Australian Aboriginal Languages

In 1770 Captain James Cook was forced to beach the Endeavour for repairs near present-day Cooktown, after the ship had been damaged on reefs. He and Joseph Banks collected a number of Aboriginal words from the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. One of these words was kangaroo, the Guugu Yimidhirr name for the large black or grey kangaroo Macropus robustus. On 12 July 1770 Banks recorded in his journal ‘Kill Kanguru’, and on 4 August Cook wrote: ‘the Animal which I have before mentioned called by the natives Kangooroo or Kanguru’. The word found its way back to Britain. In Boswell's Life of Johnson for the year 1773 we find an account of the famous lexicographer Dr Johnson expounding on the nature of the new creature:

The appearance, conformation, and habits of the qwuadruped were of the most singular kind; and in order to render his description more vivid and graphic, Johnson rose from the table and volunteered an imitation of the animal. The company stared; and Mr Grant said nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man, like Dr Johnson, standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and, gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.

Thus the word kangaroo had become part of the English language even before the First Fleet set sail. Cook and Banks mistakenly thought that kangaroo was a general or generic term for all kangaroos. Later, Banks gave Governor Phillip a vocabulary of the ‘New Holland language' to take with him on the First Fleet, and Phillip mistakenly thought that it must have been taken down at Botany Bay. Members of the First Fleet employed the word in talking to the local Aborigines, but it took them some time to realise that the Aborigines of the Sydney region did not understand the words that had been collected near Cooktown. David Collins, a naval officer who was appointed Deputy Judge-Advocate at Botany Bay in 1786, was one of the more astute observers. In his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1798), he notes that the words adopted from the Sydney Aborigines pertained exclusively to the external world: ‘our knowledge of their language consisted at this time of only a few terms for such things as, being visible, could not well be mistaken; but no one had yet attained words enough to convey an idea in connected terms’. Collins recognised that the Sydney language was very different from the language Cook had recorded in northern Queensland: ‘The dialect spoken by the natives at Sydney not only differs entirely from that left us by Captain Cook of the people with whom he had intercourse to the northward, (about Endeavour river,) but also from that spoken by those natives who lived at Port Stephens, and to the southward of Botany-Bay, (about Adventure Bay,) as well as on the banks of the Hawkesbury’.

We now know that when the First Fleet arrived in 1788 there were about 300,000 Aborigines in Australia, divided into roughly 600 tribal groups, each with about 500 members. Thus there were at least 600 dialects. And there were more, since clans within tribes sometimes had their own dialect. Yet to speak of dialects is misleading—within these groupings, there were in fact some 250 distinct languages, each as different from one another as English is different from, German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Hindi.

In the first 100 years of European settlement and exploration about 400 words were borrowed into Australian English from some 80 languages. Most of the borrowings were from the languages spoken in or near the major points of settlement.

The Dharuk language was spoken in the area around Sydney, and this language provided a large number of very familiar words. They include (with the year in which they were first recorded indicated):

bettong (1802)
boobook (1790)
boomerang (1790)
burrawang (1790)
corroboree (1790)
dingo (1789)
geebung (1790)
gibber (1790)
gunyah (1803)
koala (1798)
koradji (1793)
kurrajong (1801)
nulla-nulla (1790)
paddymelon (1802)
potoroo (1789)
waddy (1790)
wallaby (1798)
wallaroo (1826)
waratah (1788)
warrigal (1790)
wombat (1798)
woomera (1793)

Borrowings from other NSW Aboriginal are fewer and later, as exploration and settlement spread out from the central hub of Sydney. Borrowings from the Kamilaroi language of eastern New South Wales include:

brolga (1896)
budgerigar (1840)
bora (1850)
gilgai (1867)

Borrowings from the Yuwaalaraay language of northern New South Wales include:

bilby (1885)
galah (1862)
gidgee (1862)

Borrowings from the Wiradhuri languages of south-western New South Wales include:

corella (1859)
gang-gang (1833)
kookaburra (1834)
quandong (1836)

In terms of number of borrowings, the only language that compares with Dharuk is the Nyungar language of south-western Western Australia. There was a European settlement at the present site of Albany in 1826, but the major settlement was on the Swan River in 1829. Many words for flora and fauna were borrowed from Nyungar. They include:

boodie (1842)
chuditch (1842)
dalgite (1840)
dibbler (1850)
gnow (1840)
jarrah (1833)
karri (1866)
kylie (1835)
mardo (1839)
marl (1840)
morrel (1837)
mundarda (1840)
noolbenger (1842)
numbat (1842)
quenda (1839)
quokka (1842)
tammar (1847)
wambenger (1928)
woylie (1842)

The words borrowed from Indigenous languages are almost exclusively nouns, and they refer to the external world. Most of the borrowings are terms for flora and fauna, followed by words for religion and ceremony, implements, and features of the environment, suggesting that there was no interest on the part of the colonisers in understanding any of the conceptual aspects of Indigenous cultures.

Some adjectives and verbs were borrowed into the Australian pidgin that was spoken in the nineteenth century. Most of these have now disappeared, but two important words have survived. These are bung (1841) and yakka (1847), both borrowed from the Yagara language of the Brisbane region.

Updated: 18 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher