The opening page of Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko throws down the language gauntlet. No longer are we to be sheltered from Aboriginal language. The text of this book glides easily between Australian English (of a rural variety that Les Murray would recognise), Aboriginal English and the Bundjalung language that was spoken in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales as far up as the Gold Coast.

 ‘Keep your pink-cheeked dugai cherubs, she thought, gimme Kym’s boys any day.’ Since the child she is looking at is Aboriginal we can assume that dugai means ‘white’.  

 The next page offers jalum in a context that makes it obvious that it means ‘fish’.  Jalum bira is a little more difficult but the glossary in the back of book reveals that it means ‘to throw in a line to fish’.

 Sometimes the Bundjalung word is glossed almost immediately. Auntie Barb’s meat was that slowpoke tree-dweller, boribi – koala.

 Sometimes the meaning is made clear in the next few sentences.   Jo gives Kym’s child a boiled egg and asks him where the egg has come from. Who disfla?

Timbo guesses that it is a bilin egg and  says that he saw two bilin while the mibun flew high in the sky.

 Jo pricked her ears. So when the eagles were soaring and wheeling overhead that morning, Timbo had noticed two bilin, hiding in a treetop, beside the road. 

This reveals that the mibun are the eagles (wedgetails) while the next sentence reveals that the bilin are king parrots.

 For those of us who don’t wish to part with the story, even for the small amount of time required to consult the glossary, this is enough to explain what is meant.

 Sometimes we can guess from the structure of the sentence what the Bungalung word must be, as in ‘I know that feeling, bunji, Jo told him, but you’re outta luck.’ We can sense the English equivalent, I know that feeling, my friend, …

Even easier is ‘the goona is going to hit the fan’.

 The glossary covers the words borrowed from Bundjalung pretty well, but it does not do justice to some of the Aboriginal English words. 

 The word that caught my attention in the example sentence above was not Bundjalung boribi but Aboriginal English meat meaning ‘a totem’.  This one was not listed in the glossary so I turned to the Australian National Dictionary which has citations for meat in this sense going back to 1945. This seems comparatively late but the scarcity of citations may have more to do with our lack of knowledge about Aboriginal English going back over time. An Australianist I consulted said he thought he knew it dating back to colonial days. 

 Meat in this sense is the literal translation of the Gamilaraay word dhingga.It seems odd to refer to one’s totem as one’s meat but it is clear from the Gamilaraay dictionary that dhinggaa means, firstly, meat, and, secondly, one’s totem. As J.M.Arthur helpfully remarks in Aboriginal English, ‘In many Aboriginal languages there is a linguistic relationship between what something is used for and the thing itself’, so that it is possible to use the term bush meats to refer to animals alive or dead. From referring to the animal or bird regarded as a source of food, meat extends to refer to the animal or bird as one’s totem.  In some earlier records flesh is used in the same way.

 Another item of Aboriginal English is humbug which has a very different meaning and connotation from humbug as it is used in Australian English. Or not used today. The word is something of an archaism in our English for a hypocritical sham or pretence. In Aboriginal English it is alive and well, but means ‘a nuisance, a difficulty, a trouble’. It can also mean ‘nonsense, foolishness, flirting, or generally playing up’.

It pops up in this book in the name Uncle Humbug whose opening line is ‘Yufla got ten dollar?’ Uncle Humbug is not so much begging as demanding, and doesn’t mind what methods he uses to get his way. He stirs up trouble for his own ends.

It is a pity, really, that most readers will interpret the name in Australian English rather than Aboriginal English, because definitely some understanding of Uncle Humbug is lost.

 As well as weaving in an Aboriginal language and Aboriginal English, the writer adapts contemporary Australian colloquialism as well, with expressions such as On ya bike and you do the math. I liked black o’clock for ‘nightfall’,which is a borrowing from Black American English: ‘I thought head down just before black o’clock hey, and watch the sunset at the rock wall.’

 As novels go, this one is linguistically rich. I am sure that a couple of decades ago it would have been thought the kiss of death to include all this language in a mainstream novel. It is wonderful to witness the change. Her latest novel doesn’t even have a glossary.


Write here… 

Write here… 



Sue ButlerComment