“It’s Etymology Captain, but Not as We Know It”: Pump in North Australia

  • David Nash


We consider the words originating from the English word ‘bamboo’ borrowed into the indigenous languages of northern Australian and denoting the didjeridu (drone pipe) or other aerophones. The word ‘bamboo’ must have been first acquired by speakers of Australian Aboriginal languages in the 19th century, and in north Australia where the large stem plant is endemic, namely in the region of Darwin. The available data is organised in support of an hypothesised spread whereby the word was applied to the aerophone made from bamboo, and then to similar aerophones made of other wood. In this sense, ‘bamboo’ (as pampu) spread inland southwards, and eastwards to western Cape York Peninsula. In western Cape York Peninsula the word lost the final vowel, and in this form was borrowed southwards and applied to the particular aerophone the ‘emu caller’, used to attract the emu (a large flightless game bird). A comparable distribution is collated for an indigenous word denoting aerophones: kurlumpu(rr) and corresponding forms in various north Australian languages. The study demonstrates how some etymological headway can be made on loanwords in languages with only a recent documentary record.


Castor Bean Torres Strait Island Hollow Tree Parallel Trade Cape York Peninsula 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am grateful to Kim Akerman, Barry Alpher, Barry Blake, Gavan Breen, Yukihiro Doi Open image in new window , Murray Garde, Philip Jones, Grace Koch, Harold Koch, Frances Kofod, Patrick McConvell and Peter Sutton for assistance, and to Aet Lees and Fred Karlsson for helpful review comments. I have benefited from the Pama-Nyungan etymological database funded by NSF grant 844550 ‘Pama-Nyungan and Australian Prehistory’ awarded to Claire Bowern. Thanks also to ANU Cartography for preparing the map, and to Nic Peterson for the question which started me on this.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Language StudiesThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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