Speech Tools and the letter ‘S’

According to the ‘Jandai Langauge Dictionary’, ‘Bigun’ is ‘Jewfish’; ‘Burong’ is ‘Whiting’;  ‘Bimba’ is ‘Snapper’;  ‘Malang’ is ‘Bream’.[1]


I have used this map as an Acknowledgement of Country.  I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Quandamooka.  I offer my respect to the Elders of the past, the present and of the future.  This is what I have heard …

We are the people of the sand and the water.

For generations we have lived along the coasts of Quandamooka near the inland waters, the swamps and lakes and creeks.  The sea was full of fish.  The food was good and there was plenty.  People were happy and our numbers grew.

There are 3 clans that comprise the peoples of the Quandamooka.  They are the Nughi of Moorgumpin (now known as Moreton Island) and the Nunukul and Gorenpul of Minjerribah and there are currently twelve (12) families represented on the Quandamooka Native Title Family Representative Steering Committee.

We shared our bounty with our kin who shared our borders in south east Queensland.  They came to our Country for ritual and feasting.  We traveled to them for tribal councils, initiation and corroboree, to settle grievances and for marriage.[2]


The ‘Jandai Language Dictionary’ speaks of ‘speech tools’.  This is a phrase I have not heard before.  The dictionary says:

Humans can make 140 sounds with their speech tools.  Different languages combine various numbers of these sounds in set patterns to make words that can be recognized by the speakers.  These sounds are made not only by manipulating the components of the mouth, but with our lungs, throat and nasal passages as well.  For Jandai, 17 different sounds have been recognized.

Although I didn’t know the phrase ‘speech tools’, I was aware of the concept.  While living amongst Muslim people, I was aware of some of the sounds of the Arabic language, which I could not pronounce, as well as the English letters, which were not in the Arabic alphabet.  The names of my children were intentionally drawn from a subset of sounds common to both languages.

With this in mind, a comment attributed to the Eora man, Pemulwuy, caught my attention.

“The aliens spoke in a strange hissing, whistling language…”

(From Pemulwuy, The Rainbow Warrior, by Eric Willmot)

Suddenly, I noticed the hissing sound of spoken English. I noticed the absence of the letter ‘s’ in my random collection of words, which are labeled of ‘Aboriginal’ origin.  Place names dominate my exposure to these words, which are from many different languages of the First Nations of the Australian continent.

The street map of Point Lookout is dominated by words which can be found in the Jandai Language Dictionary, though sometimes they are spelt slightly differently.  Blending the Jandai words Bigoon, Bimba, Boreen and Mulung, with the English word ‘Street’ has added a ‘hissing’ speech tool from English to those words.

I value at least three things about these street names.  Firstly, I value this specific language, which has its own name – Jandai.    Secondly, I value access to the dictionary meanings of the words.  Thirdly, I value the opportunity to go down to the ocean and experience the fish, the sand, the clouds and the winds, etc which are honored by these street signs.  They are relevant to the life of the neighbourhood where they are used.

In the pursuit of a language that resources a meaningful respect of the First Nations, I look forward to three developments in 21st century English in Australia.

Firstly, we can affirm that there were hundreds of languages on this continent, by using, where possible, the specific names of the languages we use.  I am frustrated by explanations of words, which are referred to as ‘of Aboriginal origin’.  Enduring references to ‘Aboriginal’ words fail to acknowledge the diversity of Nations and languages encountered by Cook, Flinders, Bingle, Oxley, Cunningham, Fraser, Logan, Petrie etc.

Secondly, I look forward to meaning being associated with cultural insight, rather than simply a dictionary meaning.  Just as it would seem strange to interpret thoroughfares like ‘Legacy Way’ or ‘Federation St’ according to the dictionary meanings of the words ‘legacy’ or ‘federation’, I feel an awkwardness about interpreting the streets of Pt Lookout as if I am reading a dictionary.  There are so many references to fish, plants, the land and the elements in the accounts of Cook, Flinders, Oxley, Cunningham, Fraser, Logan, Petrie, etc when they encountered the Quandamooka land and people.  This is an indication that these street names are words of cultural significance.

Thirdly, I look forward to being part of a generation who learns from the land.  The frenzy of labeling the Australian landscape with street and place names has filled our vocabularies with place-based references to the past.  Each person’s vocabulary is stronger in some areas and weaker in others, based on where they go, and the words they become familiar with.  Different people use some place some place names more than others.  So it is not only the land which speaks to us of our past.  We also need each other to piece together the stories which can tell us more about who we are and how we got here.  Such a broad-based and inclusive process could change the role of experts and ideology in the important public discussions of the 21st century.

[1] Minjerribah Moorgumpin Elders-in-Council, 2011.

[2] Quandamooka Aboriginal Community Profile and Action Plan 2007, p.5


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