Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Unique Words

There are a few words I'd never heard before I came to Darwin and words I'd heard but not spoken by Australians in their native tongue!

I was amazed when I first heard Aboriginal people using the word Balanda! A few years before coming to Darwin I tried studying Bahasa Indonesia and had become quite familiar with the word Belanda. It meant Holland or people from Holland. (The Hollanders, or Belandas, held much of what is now Indonesia as a colony. They extracted quite a bit of wealth from the region and delivered an equal amount of misery, they are often remembered with a tinge of resentment.) The word was introduced to the Indigenous costal people of northern Australia by Macassan fishermen.
Wow! I'd never heard an Aboriginal Person speaking their own language before coming to the NT and I was already familiar with a word. My ears were pricked everytime I heard it and I clung on to that word like some kind of treasure I'd discovered!

When I was a postman a colleague used to call me Bunj and Bunji all the time. "What's that mean?" I'd always ask him. "Stupid!" He'd say! I soon found out it was a word often used as slang for 'mate' but of course as with most things there was more to the word than that.

Another time when I was only new to Darwin. I was doing some washing at the Parap Laundromat when I got into a conversation with a group of young Aboriginal men from a community I'd never heard of and wouldn't dare try to pronounce. We had a friendly chat about where each was from, the usual conversation I'd had with travellers from all over the world. They took immense pride in speaking of their homeland and with far greater reverence than I've ever observed from those who are often heard (Patriotically?) chanting the popular but vulgar Ausie... Ausie... Ausie... Oi... Oi... Oi... A meaningless, mindless, agressive alcohol induced mantra that is somehow meant to convey a sense of national pride and camaraderie, but only makes me feel like spewing and emegrating to New Zealand!
As I was packing up to leave one of the men shyly asked me if I was going past Bagot. I knew where that was because I'd noticed it on the major road from Darwin to Casuarina and was quite curious about who lived there. It was on my way home so I offered them a lift.
After a few detours, to pick up some family members (I wasn't aware they were coming too!) one young man said, “This is 'gammon' lets just go, this fella wants to go home.” (phew thanks) So I dropped them all off at Bagot and was soon released from service. “See ya later fellas”.
What’s this 'gammon'? I wondered. It sounds familiar I’m sure I’d read it in an old book sometime, maybe something by Joseph Conrad. I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary and found that it was a commonly used word by English speakers in the 19th century, but has become ‘archaic’ or disused in modern English. In looking up the word gammon I discovered the word, ‘humbug’ which is another generaly disused English word you can hear around Darwin. The funny thing is that although these words are no longer in common use elsewhere they are incredibly appropriate words who’s meaning can’t be described better by any other word in English, that I can think of.

I love the use of language up here. There is a kind of originality or authenticity about the place that transcends the drab language used in other places in Australia, it adopts elements of indigenous language that is quite useful and appropriate.

If you're interested in the word 'Balanda' this article by Kevin Murray gives a little of the background and meaning: Call me non-Indigenous!

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