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Borrowings from Aboriginal languages

The following words have been borrowed into Australian English from Aboriginal languages.

  • bilby
  • billabong
  • boomerang
  • cooee
  • coolibah
  • corella
  • corroboree
  • currawong
  • dingo
  • gunyah
  • kangaroo
  • koala
  • kookaburra
  • mulga
  • mulloway
  • numbat
  • quokka
  • quoll
  • waratah
  • witchetty
  • wombat
  • woomera
  • yabby

For each word:

  1. find out the name of the Aboriginal language from which the word was borrowed;
  2. find out where this language was spoken.

You will find this evidence in the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary or the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary or Australian Aboriginal Words in English.

From the evidence of this list, which languages have provided the most borrowings? Can you think of any reason for this?

The word kangaroo is an interesting borrowing. This is the first and best-known borrowing of an Aboriginal word into English. In 1770, when Captain Cook was forced to make repairs to the `Endeavour' in north Queensland, he and his party saw a number of large marsupials. From the local Aborigines Cook elicited kangaroo or kanguru as the name of one of the animals. This was in the Guugu Yimidhirr language of Cooktown. The Aborigines gave the name for a species of kangaroo - the large black or grey kangaroo Macropus robustus.

Cook mistakenly thought that this was a general or generic term for all kangaroos (and even wallabies), and this is how the word came into English. Later, Sir Joseph Banks gave Governor Phillip his vocabulary of the `New Holland language' and Phillip mistakenly thought that it must have been taken down at Botany Bay. Members of the First Fleet employed the word kangaroo in talking to the local Aborigines, and must have used it in connection with a variety of marsupials. The Aborigines, not having this word in their vocabulary, thought they were being taught the English word for `edible animal'; when cattle were unloaded the Aborigines enquired whether they were kangaroo. The story doesn't end there. When Europeans settled along the Darling River, the English word kangaroo (an original loan word from Guugu Yimidhirr in Queensland) was taken over into the Baagandji language (with the form gaanggurru) as the name for the introduced animal `horse'.

Updated: 19 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher