Language folklore


Recently I visited an exhibition on the Gadigal people. I read from the curator’s text that gadi was the name of the grass tree, an important totem for the people who lived near Sydney Harbour. Furthermore, it was interesting to note that in a South Australian language, the grass tree was called yacca or yakka and it was from this that we have the phrase in Australian English, hard yakka. The reason for this was that the non-Indigenous people found the process of extracting the resin from the grass tree to be very hard work.

That etymology didn’t seem right to me so on the spot I checked out my Macquarie Dictionary (yes the app is handy) only to find that it was an accident of English orthography that the two Aboriginal words, yacca meaning ‘grass tree’ and yacca meaning ‘work’, ended up looking the same. The first yacca came from a South Australian language, and the second one came from Yagara, a language spoken in the vicinity of Brisbane. 

The curator of the Gadigal exhibition was not the first to mix up the two words. The same story pops up in Medicinal Plants in Australia Volume 1: Bush Pharmacy by Cheryll Williams (2010). I am sure that other citations could be found. It is surprising how entrenched language folklore can be.

I do find it irritating that people who are, no doubt, scrupulously careful in checking the facts in their own area of expertise, will happily accept folklore and hearsay when it comes to language matters, even though there are reference books close to hand. Macquarie Dictionary could have set them straight on this, as could the Australian National Dictionary which supplies many citation. In the case of yakka meaning 'work' not one of these comes from South Australia. It is relatively easy to be right, but so much more tempting to be wrong. Often the folklore, however illusory, is more satisfying in that it is a better story or it fulfils a need for connection that makes it more appealing than the truth.