Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Still loving Aussie language

Two events this week have reminded me how much I love the Australian use of language.

First, my friend Jackie posted some photos of frogs on facebook. They've had absolute lashings of rain across eastern Australia this summer -- so much so, in fact, that in much of Queensland and New South Wales the government is declaring an end to a drought that has lasted for ten years in some places. All that water is great news for the frog populations, and Jackie says their garden is full of them. She posted some lovely photos, including this one of a Peron's Tree Frog. It has several other names, but my favourite is Maniacal Cackle Frog. That's not just a great frog name: I think it may be the best name for any animal of any species, ever. And of course it's an Australian name, because Australians love to play with language.
It's not just frogs, either. There's a small black bird you see all over Australia that has a distinctive habit of swinging its tail back and forth. It's called -- and this is the official name, that is used in birding books and scientific monographs -- a Willy Wagtail. Somewhere in an ornithology department, a PhD candidate is sitting down with his advisor, discussing what more he needs to complete his thesis on the life structure of the Willy Wagtail. Presumably they are both able to keep a straight face throughout this discussion.
Even some familiar names are pretty funny when you think about it. What do you call a rat-like creature that scavenges at night? How about a Devil?
Unfortunately the best animal naming story in Australia turns out to be a myth. The story goes that Captain Cook and Joseph Banks named the kangaroo after asking an aborigine to name that funny jumping animal. The aborigine said "kangaroo" which means "what do you mean?" or "I don't know," or even "bugger off and stop asking such stupid questions," depending on which version of the story you prefer. Silly Cook and Banks misunderstood and adopted that as the name. A great story, but as I said, it's a myth: in the Guugu Yimidhirr language, the large grey kangaroo is called a gang-uru
Then, this morning, I flipped the page on our "365 images of Australia" fridge calendar and found myself looking at a familiar sight: bright yellow melons on a field of red dirt. We had seen these melons growing in the ditches around Alice Springs, but didn't know what they were called. According to the picture, they're called Paddy Melons. I later learned they're an invasive species in Australia. So why do I find the name amusing? It's because Australia already has a paddy melon -- spelled pademelon. It's not a melon at all, though, but a small marsupial, akin to a kangaroo. The name is from an aboriginal word.
In some countries it might cause confusion to have two very different creatures having the exact same name. After all, we don't have a flower called a moose, or a bird called a willow. If we do decide to share names across species, we clarify one of them: gooseberry, trout lily, pickerel weed. Australians, though, just take it in stride. In fact I'm pretty sure there's a stockman somewhere who has a little chuckle every time he gets to say "I saw some pademelons in the paddy melons last week." (to which his friend can reply "will a kangaroo paw a kangaroo paw?")
Uniquely Australian? Perhaps. Then again, that linguistic playfulness may just be one more thing our two countries have in common. After all, think about what we call our one dollar coin.

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