South Australia--'Kind of Different'?


An idiotic driver ... ploughed into a stobie pole .

The track said 'bad luck matey', threw in a few pudels, and left him 18 short.

Pillar bashing is not an advisable practice.

We raise our funds by holding meat and echo draws.

Perpetual leases on the following hundreds cannot be made freehold.

The words that South Australians use are mostly the same as those of their fellow Australians. But the quotations above, all found in publications of the last five years, are likely to leave most of us a little bemused. These words, and many others, give some indication that South Australia is 'kind of different', as the state's advertising slogan used to say. The argument for difference often relies on the fact that it is a state born with no convict taint . It was a 'planned' colony of free settlers with nary a felon to arrive on its shores. So it has always seemed a wonderful irony that this morally upright province was founded on a plan written in a British jail by a convicted felon. How did this quirk of history come about?

            In the 1820s in Britain there was general concern about the fast-growing population, particularly of the poor. Colonisation had a certain appeal as a way of getting rid of some of the problem, and a number of paupers were exported to Canada at public expense in 1823. Around this time, conservatives were also concerned that the recent enemy, the French, were showing altogether too much interest in Australia for British comfort--French Captain Nicolas Baudin in Le Géographe had charted parts of the coast of southern Australia and given French names to the land he called Terre Napoléon . Radicals, also concerned about population increase and the French, were nevertheless appalled that the earlier colonies in Australia had been little more than dumping grounds for convicts. They had idealistic plans for any future colony to be an extension of the best of British civilisation, with none of the unemployment or religious discrimination that was then affecting England. Enter Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Young Wakefield, born in 1796, came from a humanitarian Quaker background and looked set for a brilliant career in the British civil service. But Wakefield, as described by author Derek Whitelock, had a 'penchant for adolescent heiresses'. He abducted and married one underage heiress, but unfortunately she died. Not content with one error of judgment, Wakefield then managed to persuade another rich but underage lass to run away to Gretna Green with him. Her family had him arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. Rather than give in to despair at his fate, he became a prolific writer, and in 1830 published anonymously A Letter from Sydney (though he had never been to Australia), outlining what he called ' systematic colonization '. The main ideas of this plan were that land in any new colony should be sold (on spec--unseen, unsurveyed) to those with capital who aspired to be settlers, and that the proceeds of such sales would fund the passage of the free emigrants, who would provide labour. For both conservatives and radicals alike it was an attractive package. It would alleviate the 'poor' problem and, at the same time, trump the French.

With Wakefield released from jail, a team of supporters was assembled, and succeeded in persuading the British government to pass the South Australian Colonization Act of 1834. The colony was to be open to settlement by British subjects and, importantly, to be convict-free . By the end of 1835 the British government's guarantees of land sales of country sections and town sections had been fulfilled, and settlement of the non-penal colony became possible. So began the settlement of what was to become the state of South Australia.

The early settlers borrowed many words into their vocabulary from the Aboriginal languages of South Australia. Such terms were almost always nouns, the names of things that were unfamiliar to the European settlers: terms for animals, fish, plants, and tools that were so very different from any the Europeans had seen. Although words such as midla ('spear-thrower') or pirri ('engraving tool') have fallen out of use with the demise of the traditional ways of living which they represented, many words are still familiar. Some are to do with fishing, such as mulloway (first recorded in the language of the Ramindjeri people around the Coorong), and the popular bait bardi grubs (common in many southern and central languages). Others are names for outback fauna such as the euro (not a form of currency in South Australia), the reptiles perentie and carney, and of course witchetty grubs, which come from languages further north. Less well-known to coastal Europeans are the little nocturnal desert marsupials such as the kowari (from the Diyari language east of Lake Eyre), and mulgara (from Arabana and Wangkangarru, languages west and north of Lake Eyre). There are many plant terms, some of which are becoming more familiar with the popularity of bush tucker foods, such as the little purple berries muntries, first recorded in 1840 in Kaurna. The terms referring to Aboriginal people themselves are more recent additions to Australian English. As with Aboriginal people of eastern Australia identifying as 'Koori' or 'Murri', so now do South Australian Aboriginal people prefer to call themselves Nungas or Yura or Anangu, depending on where they live, and in turn are referred to by those names.

Although some of the new British settlers were learning about the new plants and animals, they still retained an undeniable Englishness in both customs and lexicon. When the first Episcopalian Bishop, Dr Short, arrived in Adelaide in 1847, he observed: 'We find civility and intelligence the characteristics of the population to more than an average degree. A more thoroughly English colony does not probably exist.' And British usage of some words continues today. For example, South Australians do not harvest their wheat, they reap (very Biblical, as one commentator has observed); toddlers are not taken for a walk in a stroller but a pusher (from British pushchair); children start school in Reception (not a hotel foyer, but the SA version of Kindergarten or Preparatory). Sparrows are spoggies (from Scots sprowg or sprowgie) and a terrace is a street. Hundreds, as in the quotation above, is a retention of an English term hundred, meaning 'a subdivision of a county or shire', and dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Its origins are obscure, although it has been variously suggested over time that it denoted the district that furnished a hundred warriors, or a division of a hundred hides of land (a hide being the area considered adequate for the support of one free family, or as much land as could be ploughed with one plough in one year). In early South Australia, the hundred was intended to contain one hundred square miles, one-third more or one-third less, depending on the placement of creeks or hills, and the one hundred warriors seem not to have been required. The term is no longer in use in Britain--the last evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1888, but in South Australia the subdivision term is still current in 2004.

The Cornish were early arrivals to the colony, bringing words from the Cornish mines as well as their Methodism with them. The knockers also accompanied them--small goblin creatures who were supposed to inhabit the mines, and who indicated their presence by repeating the blows of the miners' picks with a knocking sound, sometimes leading lucky miners to a productive lode. Some of the terms from Cornish dialect such as sett (a mining lease), and sturt (a great profit), lasted only as long as the copper mines of the new colony were viable, but others such as skimps (mine refuse), and working on tribute (payment according to the quality of ore mined), became familiar in other kinds of mines across Australia, as the Cornish themselves moved further afield. These days, the revival of Cornish customs in the largest Cornish festival in the world, the biennial Kernewek Lowender ('Cornish happiness') is held in the Copper Coast towns of Kadina, Moonta, and Wallaroo on the Yorke Peninsula. The celebrations not only make for great photo opportunities for Australian and overseas tourists, but substantially boost the local economy. The festival also ensures that visiting Cornish descendants from all over the world can inspect various wheals (mines), look through real miners' cottages, and become reacquainted with the joys of the furry dance and Cornish wrestling .

Shortly after the first Cornish arrived in South Australia came the first group of German Lutheran settlers. They made their farms in the Adelaide and Barossa areas, and were admired for their courtesy, piety, and hard work. Their communities were united in their customs, their food, their faith, and their language (which became known as Barossa Deutsch) . Some of their terms became familiar to other South Australians--events like the shooting competition Schutzenfest (now an annual summer festival) were enjoyed, and the choral music of the Liedertafel was highly regarded. But with some xenophobia never very far from the Australian consciousness, world events in the early twentieth century resulted in a ban on such activities and essentially on the words themselves. Even food items were not exempt from the xenophobic response: Berliner buns, the jam doughnuts, became Kitchener buns, and there was a determined and somewhat ludicrous effort to change the name of the sausage fritz to 'Austral'. Terms like bockwurst and streusel cake were representative of 'enemy aliens' around the time of the First World War and the Nomenclature Act of 1917 removed any trace of German place names in the state. Hahndorf became Ambleside, Hergott Springs became Marree, and so on. Over time some of the activities and words have come back, some not. But tin kettling (a noisy welcome-home party after a marriage) has spread out across Australia from its German beginnings as 'Polter Abend', and the quark (a kind of cottage cheese) of the early Barossa residents is even being produced commercially. The game of kegel (a kind of indoor bowls) is still alive and well in the Barossa region, and pudel, a direct borrowing from German for 'a blunder or bungle', is the term used when the ball rolls off the track. As for the buns, Berliners and Kitcheners now sit comfortably side by side on bakery shelves (but note that Kitcheners are the ones with the cream in the middle).

Other South Australian regionalisms have originated within the state rather than being British retentions or borrowings from other languages. Discovery of opal resulted in a whole lexicon in itself. And so there are terms like pillar, a vertical block of earth and rock left intact as support when a tunnelling machine hollows out a dugout (a preferred kind of residence in the opal town of Coober Pedy). And there are words that can have other senses elsewhere, such as floater, a bleached piece of opal, and the evocative painted lady, not a butterfly or a female, but a boulder that has broken and has a thin coating of opal across the fracture line. Labels were also coined to describe agricultural innovations, and so arose the stump-jump plough that opened up vast areas of mallee country for farming, and the Bull-Ridley stripper that revolutionised wheat farming. Some terms derived from names of places, such as the extraordinary little lizard known as the Lake Eyre dragon, the Murray magpie (a peewee or magpie lark elsewhere in Australia), and the tree disease Mundulla yellows . Others took on names of people, though the person's association with the word is often forgotten. Such words include the Sturt's desert pea, the state floral emblem, mullenising, a method of preparing scrub-covered land, named after settler Charles Mullen, and Torrens title, a form of land title introduced into parliament by Robert Richard Torrens. Of course, one of the best known is the iconic Hills hoist, devised in 1945 by Adelaide motor mechanic Lance Hill.

Present-day living in South Australia, as the avowedly 'lifestyle state', is a far cry from its early days. It used to hold to a reputation of stuffy respectability--'I went to South Australia and it was closed' was the criticism. Yet from the 1970s it has had some of the most socially progressive legislation in Australia, and hosts impressive cultural events in the form of the Festival and the Fringe and more recently Womadelaide . But what of the words that Croweaters themselves would regard as most quintessentially South Australian? These might include the ultimate Adelaide delicacy the pie floater, a meat pie floating upside down in a bowl of pea soup, and stobie poles, the distinctive tapered poles of concrete and steel that carry power and telephone lines across the state (invented in the 1920s by James Stobie, as an answer to the lack of hardwood in South Australia). And many South Australians still call a stubby an echo, although the capacity to return the bottle for a refund disappeared in the 1990s. Then there are the beloved police greys, the horses of the mounted police, and Salvation Jane ('Paterson's Curse' to the rest of us). And what of frog cakes, those cream-filled green-iced creations of Balfours' Bakery from the 1920s? They have been copied over the years in other states. They have appeared with chocolate or pink icing rather than green, and even in the Crows' colours. And the classic frog cake has appeared as an Easter Chick frog cake or a Father Christmas frog cake. But whatever their colour or form, they are still uniquely South Australian, still 'kind of different'.

[Dr Dorothy Jauncey is a researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre. She is the author of the book Bardi Grubs and Frog Cakes: South Australian Words (OUP 2004; ISBN 0 19 551770 9]