2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages and a good time to look at the contribution made to our vocabulary by the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander languages of Australia. There are all the words you might expect, such as budgerigar, koala, billabong, corroboree, bombora, woomera, yabby, boomerang, kookaburra, dingo and currawong. However, some words you may think are Aboriginal come from another source. Cockatoo is a Malay word, bandicoot is from the Telugu tongue and emu is from Arabic, via Portuguese, meaning ‘large bird’. The jabiru bird got its name from Spanish, goanna is a corruption of the Taino ‘iguana’ and Nullarbor is Latin for ‘no tree’. Didgeridoo is from the Irish Gaelic dúdaire dubh meaning ‘black piper’. The expression hard yakka meaning ‘hard work’ comes from an Aboriginal language, also yabber, ‘to talk’. The word Kylie means ‘boomerang’ in the Nyungar tongue, and has become a popular name worldwide.
However, the best-known of all the words we’ve borrowed is probably the call Cooee! It originated from the Dharug language of the original inhabitants of the Sydney area and means ‘come here’. The Cooee shout is used in Australia, usually in the bush, to attract attention, find missing people, or indicate where the shouter is. When done correctly, loud and shrill with a long ‘coo’ and an abrupt and much higher ‘ee’, the Cooee call can carry over a considerable distance. It is also known as a call of help, which can blend in with different natural sounds in the bush, especially the sound of a bird. The Cooee call caught on elsewhere. It was being used in London as early as the 1850s. Arthur Conan Doyle even used it in one of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas called out Cooee to his wife as he left his home to fight in WWI, and she called it back to him until she could hear him no more. It turned out to be the last word they said to each other because he was killed 5 weeks later. It was also used as a rallying cry in Australia in WWI to recruit men to fight in the war. There was a Cooee March from Gilgandra, NSW to Sydney. Staged by 35 men, it finished with 277 new recruits.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared this year to raise awareness of the crucial role languages play in people’s daily lives. It is an opportunity to take further actions to improve the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander languages. In Australia, of the estimated 250 languages, only around 120 are still spoken, and of these approximately 90 percent are endangered.