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Today's Australia Day, the anniversary of the British invading Australia in 1788. Bang! Plants, animals, birds, land-forms got English common names, and the Indigenous language names were displaced. The exceptions were things which had no obvious look-alikes in England: unfamiliar animals (kangaroos, koalas), birds (currawong), plants (kurrajong, quandong), land-forms (billabong, yakka), fish (ponde), and some man-made things and ideas (boomerang, wurley, corroboree).

Two hundred years later, words from Indigenous languages are gradually coming back as parts of scientific names for species.

There's a good news story on the ABC about some year 12 students in Maningrida dscovering spider species. Googling came up with an earlier press release with some more details. Moses Watson, Alistair James, Aiden Balirija and their teacher worked with Dr Robert Raven from the Queensland Museum, and designed projects for spider-hunting which resulted in discovering 33 new species. The boys got the naming rights for some of them, and consulted with their families about using words from the local languages. In the later ABC article their teacher is quoted as saying:

"One's called Blakie and I think another one is Campo and Campionode," he said.
"And they put some Indigenous names in there - for the Tarantula one, it's difficult for me to pronounce but it means big black spider."

[Some day, it will be second nature for journalists to give the name(s) of the language(s) and samples of the full scientific names...]

There probably never have been 33 plus different names for the 33 plus species in the local languages, and it may be that the name for 'big black spider' actually covers more than the species to which it has been assigned. The Linnaean names are a new kind of name; they don't replace common names, and so aren't displacing Indigenous names. Having a genus-species binomial name which includes a word from a relevant Indigenous language reflects, not displacement, but the collaboration between the Aborigines and the Queensland Museum scientists.

And it's generous on the part of the scientists, as selling off naming rights is becoming a way that museums recover some of the costs of scientific work ($5,000 to have a spider named after you through the Queensland Museum, or you can bid for different species at auction at the South Australian Museum).

So, a modern Indigenous name gets incorporated into a structure created from an extinct language, Latin, as a name uniquely identifying something for the whole world. Nice!


And here's a link to Anggarrgoon's earlier post on the ABC article.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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