Tasmanian Aboriginal place names

Tasmanian Aboriginal place names

There are no living speakers of the original Tasmanian languages. Spoken records of the original sounds are limited to a few sounds that can only just be heard when Fanny Cochrane Smith spoke on the records of her songs in 1899. So to attempt to recover the original sounds and meanings, we have to start from written records made by early Europeans of the sounds they heard, and the meanings they thought they understood when they heard our ancestors speak.

Those Europeans are the recorders of our original Tasmanian languages, and there are over 20 of them, including convict labourers, published scientists, sailors, soldiers, farmers, doctors, writers and clergymen. They were Scottish, Polish, French, Danish and mostly Englishmen, from different regions and social classes. Each one of them used the familiar spelling of their own language to write down something that approximated to the unfamiliar sounds they were hearing in our Aboriginal languages.

Their spellings are what we call ‘recordings’ and ‘spelling variants’. Different recorders give different spellings for the same word, and one recorder can even give several different spellings for the same word, if he heard it on different occasions and from different people.

Those spellings of words made by the recorders, which have become familiar through repeated use in publications by Plomley, Ryan, and other historians and writers, are not Aboriginal words. They are part of the smorgasbord of recordings from European scribes of many nationalities, writing down what they heard spoken by Aborigines, and attempting to capture unfamiliar Aboriginal sounds in their own European spellings.

We are fortunate to have so many different recorders of the original languages because this allows us to compare spellings and meanings. Using linguistic analysis and phonetics we derive statistically common sounds from this comparison of the different spellings of the one word. We already know from earlier analysis what sounds existed in our languages, and we represent the sounds we recover with the alphabet system we have developed.

We can then work out the most likely authentic sounds for a word from all the possible sounds. This is what reconstruction is – retrieving the authentic original sounds and meanings as closely as possible from the evidence in the recordings, based on the principles described in the palawa kani Sounds and Spelling Book 1998. These principles were developed by Gaye Brown and have been applied since by Theresa Sainty; both were trained by and worked with linguists engaged by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Before we began any reconstructions, we also determined who were the most accurate, hence most reliable, recorders of the sounds and meanings. This also helped us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of individual recorders. These factors are taken into account with every word.

Historical and biographical research and, where possible, knowledge still held within today’s Aboriginal community, assist in checking the meanings of words.

Retrieving place names

The factors taken into account when determining which is the most authentic names for a place are:

  1. A number of spelling variants from the same language region for the word, and
  2. Which are preferably from more than one reliable recorder
  3. The Aboriginal speaker/s who told the word to the recorder/s is named.
  4. The Aboriginal speaker/s of the word comes from the area of the place, or nearby.
  5. The word is recorded from the language of the place or people of that place even if the speaker of the word is not named.

There are only two recorders of Tasmanian place names.

George Augustus Robinson, 1829 – 1839

Most of the Aboriginal names for places within Tasmania were recorded by George Augustus Robinson. He was one of the first Europeans to travel widely in Tasmania Between 1829 and 1834 Robinson was engaged by the colonial government to directly contact all Aborigines in Tasmania and persuade them to relocate to offshore islands. During those years he recorded (wrote down) a lot of cultural information both from the Aborigines who travelled with him as guides and also from Aborigines he met who were still on their own country. From 1835 till 1839 he was commandant of Wybalenna on Flinders Island, where he continued to record small amounts of language from the Aborigines interned there. In his journals and other notebooks devoted specifically to lists of words, Robinson compiled the most extensive of the records made of the Aboriginal languages while they were still fluently spoken. His is the only compilation which covers a wide range of tribes and regions. He wrote down over 500 recordings of words for places, although many of them are simply different spellings of the one word. A few other recordings made before 1831 came from Robinson’s clerk, Sterling, but these seem mostly to be simply slightly different copies of Robinson’s own recordings.

Joseph Milligan, 1844 – 1847

67 other names for places were recorded by Joseph Milligan between 10 to 15 years later, between 1844 and 1847 when he was surgeon-superintendent at Wybalenna. By this time the surviving people from different tribes had been living together for over 10 years and a mixed language was being used, with basic words mainly from north eastern languages. Very few, if any, of the words for places were told to Milligan in the actual place. Also, he did not know all the people very well; he does not name the person who told him words but only occasionally the tribes he thought they were from. Like Robinson, he recorded other language words as well, and many of his translations are very suspect (as NJB Plomley also noted when he compiled his Wordlist of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages 1976). So Milligan is a less reliable recorder than Robinson. He is however good at recording sounds, and is the only recorder who told us what sounds his spellings represent.


So the preferred choice for a name is a word recorded by Robinson. It is very useful to have spellings for a word from both Robinson and Milligan, to get a better idea of the sounds.

In some cases however there may only be a word recorded by Milligan for a place, so we have to use that;

  1. the only recording of a name for the Jordan River is kutalayna, from Milligan.


Recordings/spelling variants

To have the best chance of working out the original sounds of a word, it’s best to have a number of spelling variants from the same language region and preferably from a number of different and reliable recorders. With place names there are only the two recorders; but often Robinson has has made several recordings of one word on different occasions – eg. he recorded 15 spelling variants of takayna.

Sometimes there is only one recording (spelling variant) for a word and so that has to do. For instance, larapuna has only the one recording, from Robinson.

Translations of the words

Where words are said by their recorders to refer to more than one place, it is preferred to reconstruct the one for which only one translation was given. This also then allows the other word/s to be used to name the other place/s. This is the case with lutruwita and truwana.

‘Meanings’ of the words

Geographic features in the Tasmanian landscape, on both land and sea, had Aboriginal names until they were supplanted by Europeans in the 19th century.

The names formed complex interlinked networks in which place, their names and attributes, reflected the relationship between the people and the land. The names were not arbitrary but integral to the places to which they were attached, and derived from the activities of ancestral beings who formed the landscape as they moved through it.

While European names mark individual places and individual memories of parcels of history and generally have no particular connection to each other, each standing in its own right, the meaning of many Aboriginal names can only be understood through their connection to other names and places. They also describe the land physically and identify its resources. Therefore many words translated by recorders as the “name” for a specific place are also the same words as those for geographical features or their characteristics, or can include parts of those other words.

The daily use of the names meant history was always present, always available. But this use stopped with the destruction of our ancestors’ society, and the decimation of our culture and language, and most of that knowledge behind the names of places has tragically been lost. While we are able to retrieve the sounds of the names and re-establish their connection to the places they refer to, we cannot today decipher the original ‘meaning’ of many of our words for places.

Nonetheless, the names still form a unique element of our heritage, and carry irreplaceable cultural values of vital significance to our identity, sense of belonging, and emotional and psychological wellbeing. They also embody the history of their near loss and eventual retrieval. Through their current and future use by modern Aborigines, our place names will continue to accrue further layers of meaning and association.


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