Monday, July 11, 2011

Kangaroo

I really like this story about the origin of the English word 'kangaroo', apparently quoted from Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz (Picador, 2002):

As for kangooroo, this was a fair approximation of the Guugu Yimidhirr word, which Eric rendered gangurru. But Aborigines, unlike Maori and Tahitians, didn’t have a shared language; living in small, widely scattered groups, they spoke scores of different tongues. The English failed to recognize this. The result was a comically circular instance of linguistic transmission. Officers of the First Fleet, familiar with the Endeavour‘s journals, used the words Cook and his men had collected in Queensland to try and communicate with Botany Bay Aborigines eighteen years later.

“Whatever animal is shown them,” a frustrated officer on the Fleet reported, “they call kangaroo.” Even the sight of English sheep and cattle prompted the Gwyeagal to cheerfully cry out “Kangaroo, kangaroo!” In fact, the Gwyeagal had no such word in their vocabulary (they called the marsupial patagorang). Rather, they’d picked up “kangaroo” from the English and guessed that it referred to all large beasts.

One gets a pleasant image of the English patiently trying to use the word kangaroo because it was Aboriginal and the Aborigines patiently trying to use the word kangaroo because it was English.

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