The English language dominates the world with its constantly evolving collection of words and phrases in the form of slang, hashtags, incoherent phrases complicated by jargon, acronyms and clichés, and words of the year shaped by world events and culture.
It’s a universal language used by business, governments, tourism, international relations, entertainment and pop culture. The World Economic Forum estimates about one in four people speak English, but it’s not the dominant natively spoken language. Chinese and Spanish take out first and second position. Not surprisingly, the number of English speakers use it as a second language.
English lovers will argue it’s a rich language, a descriptive language. But just as we gain words in our official dictionaries each year, so we lose some. With the passage of time some words become obsolete from underuse.
Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or place struggles to find purchase in our minds or hearts.Tim Dee, writer and broadcaster
In his book, ‘Landmarks’, Robert Macfarlane writes: What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occurring in English too – and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialised vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy and urbanisation. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ – meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.
He goes on to comment there are fewer people now able to name the specifics of natural phenomena, and once they go unnamed, they largely become unseen. Quoting fellow writer and broadcaster, Tim Dee, he writes: Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or place struggles to find purchase in our minds or hearts. Powerful words that leave one feeling a great sense of loss.*
English word descriptors can be powerful, thought-shaping tools that can often set the scene for how we value an environment. Australian writer and researcher, Cameron Muir, wrote of the Pilliga Scrub (now more broadly known as a forest) in a blog post, 30 July 2014: The Pilliga is a beaten-up burnt-out forest where the creeks flow underground and the trees grow barely as wide as a child’s arm. Its grasses have been eaten and its soils pulverised, its timber ringbarked and wood-chipped. It is criss-crossed with fire breaks and narrow old logging roads. Wild boars tear out from its sandy watercourses and wind whips dust into your eyes here.
And yet there are a bunch of people lining up to get arrested – to turn their lives upside down – for this ‘scrub’.
Muir is referring to the fight against coal seam gas extraction in the Pilliga. It’s often in situations like this, when there’s a resource to be extracted that the value of English words, the language of commerce, relates directly to the value of place. It’s not a coincidence that words like ‘desert’, ‘swamp’, ‘scrub’, ‘marsh’, ‘bush’, ‘bog’ or ‘backwater’ are used for those parts of the environment deemed to have little value. They’re almost dismissive terms.
The naming of places was often the only pleasure within our reach…John Oxley, explorer and surveyor
On an expedition to ascertain the course of the Lachlan River, and explore of the western interior of New South Wales, following a course north along the Macquarie River, explorer, John Oxley journaled on 30 June 1818: These plains were entirely barren, being evidently in times of rain altogether under water, when they doubtless form one vast lake: they extended in places from three to six miles from the margin of the stream, which on its immediate borders was a wet bog, full of small water holes, and the surface covered with marsh plants, with a few straggling dwarf box-trees. It was only on the very edge of the bank, and in the bottoms of the bights, that any eucalypti grew; the plains were covered with nothing but gnaphalium: the soil various, in some places red tenacious clay, in others a dark hazel-coloured loam, so rotten and full of holes that it was with difficulty the horses could travel over them. Although those plains were bounded only by the horizon, not a semblance of a hill appeared in the distance; we seemed indeed to have taken a long farewell of everything like an elevation, whence the surrounding country could be observed. To the southward, bounding those plains in that direction, barren scrubs and dwarf box-trees, with numberless holes of stagnant water, too clearly proclaimed the nature of the country in that quarter. We could see through the openings of the trees on the river that plains of similar extent occupied the other side, which has all along appeared to us to be (if anything) the lower ground. We travelled in the centre of the plains, our medium distance from the river being from one to two miles; and although we did not go above thirteen miles, some of the horses were excessively distressed from the nature of the ground.
There was not the least appearance of natives; nor was bird or animal of any description seen during the day, except a solitary native dog. Nothing can be more melancholy and irksome than travelling over wilds, which nature seems to have condemned to perpetual loneliness and desolation. We seemed indeed the sole living creatures in those vast deserts.
He concluded that day’s entry by writing: The naming of places was often the only pleasure within our reach; but it was some relief from the desolation of these plains and hills to throw over them the associations of names dear to friendship, or sacred to genius.
What of the names that existed prior to Oxley’s 1818 explorations? When listening to traditional custodians talk about Country using traditional language, it’s akin to hearing the land speak, a lyrical language that belongs to the Country as much as to its people — sounds reflecting the meaning of words and phrases.
The man who would replace Oxley as survey-general of NSW, Thomas Mitchell, made his own explorations of the western interior 28 years later. He wrote in his journal on 22 February 1846: The use of the aboriginal name of this river is indispensable amongst the squatters long its banks, who do not appear to know it to be the “Darling”. It is most desirable to restore such rivers to their proper names as early as possible after they have been ascertained, were it only to enable strangers to thereby avail themselves of the intelligence and assistance of the natives, in identifying the country by means of the published maps. The river Castlereagh is known to the natives as the Barrón; Morissett’s Ponds, as the Wàwill; and the lower part of the Macquarie as the Wammerawa.
In the case of the Wammerawa, the name for the river appears to have stuck for a period following Mitchell’s excursion. There are several references to the river and surrounding district as the Wammerawa in newspaper reports between 1866 – 1875. The name was also adopted as the name of an NSW electoral district between 1920 – 1927. However, in 1950, the Lithgow Mercury reported (with some surprise it seems) that “The Western River Has Two Names”: Not many people know that the Macquarie River has another name – the Wammerawa River. This was indicated in a Government publication received recently. From its source to where it joins the Darling (sic) River there are 140 tributaries of the Macquarie.
The name continues to pop up in official documents over the following decades, a 1970s document on the restriction of removing trees from NSW watercourses has the dual names of the Macquarie and Wammerawa River. The name is officially acknowledged today as a variant for the Macquarie River and the name of a Walgett parish in the County of Clyde. Anecdotally, it would appear the name isn’t widely known today.
She whispers to us, sharing secrets only those who take the time to lean in and learn will ever hear.Kim V. Goldsmith, artist
Colonisation and subsequent years of white policy attempted to scrub the language from the land. Despite efforts to erase Indigenous languages, traditional words embedded themselves in a way that often saw them hidden in plain sight – many in the property names given to land holdings or towns. While great work has been done reviving some Indigenous language like Wiradyuri, Ngiympaa, Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay, others have proven more difficult to piece back together.
More broadly, there’s been a desire in some sectors to see dual names or traditional names reinstated. The Barka or Baaka is now regularly used alongside the naming of the Darling River. In the upper Macquarie catchment, Bathurst Regional Council have resolved to support an application to the Geographic Names Board for the dual naming of the Macquarie River, to include the Waradyuri name of Wambuul, which has also be been adopted by some as far north on the river as Dubbo.
The days of Australia being a multi-lingual or even a polyglot nation may be getting closer, perhaps bringing us that little bit closer to understanding the need to listen to the land that sustains us. She whispers to us, sharing secrets only those who take the time to lean in and learn will ever hear.
* Naming names, Caught by the River, Tim Dee