Say My Name: On Speaking the Indigenous Names of Plants

I know many of the plants in the bushland behind my house by their botanical names. Eucalyptus punctata, Angophora costata, Scaevola ramosissima. If I don’t know what they are, I work it out in my field guide book. I know them, I think, because I’ve slotted them into the system of knowledge in which I’m most at home, from which I’ve grown. Banda, Yarra, Gulgadya, Wargaldarra. These are some of the names the First Nations people of the Sydney area gave to the plants behind my house. Within these words is a world, a way of seeing vastly different to the one I’ve inherited. A way that has grown from the land itself.

It’s only words, they’d say when someone was picking on another in the school playground, ignore them. Because, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ But, like many seemingly small and dangerously familiar things, language is one of the most powerful forces in shaping us. Do we see what we don’t have words for? And how do words shape what we see? Professor Jakelin Troy is a Ngarigu woman from the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales and Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at The University of Sydney. Jakelin wrote an essay for The Guardian a few months ago on the importance of knowing the indigenous names of trees. “First Peoples worldwide have fundamentally and always understood trees to be community members for us – they are not entities that exist in some biological separateness, given a Linnaean taxonomy and classed with other non-sentient beings. Trees are part of our mob, part of our human world and active members of our communities, with lives, loves and feelings”, she wrote. For her, naming is not about classification, but acknowledging connection.

The ways in which plants and trees are named in indigenous languages, according to Jakelin, relate to how they are used and what they’re doing at different times of the year. “In English, we give things very static names and then that’s what something is known as, always. But from an Aboriginal point of view, trees and plants get different names at different times of year.  The historical records for the Sydney area give us a snapshot of what something was called at a particular time, and quite often the name will be about the kind of thing that it does at that time.” The name might speak of when the plant is flowering or fruiting, what animals might be drawn to it at certain times of the year, and how it’s appearance changes over the seasons. “I don’t see why we should see trees as being one-word wonders. They are much more than that,” she tells me as we speak on the phone. As we talk, I look at the trunk of a Casuarina glauca tree just outside my window and wonder what it’d be called today.

It strikes me that the fluidity Jakelin speaks about when discussing indigenous language and words to describe nature may relate to the fact that, in general, indigenous languages are an oral tradition. That writing things down, whilst useful, can also be restrictive. “The English language itself has become more static in the last few hundred years with the development of the Oxford English Dictionary”, Jakelin tells me. “Until there was an English dictionary there wasn’t the kind of constraints on the language that we have now. People now tell you ‘this is right’ or ‘this is wrong’. They say you have to call the gum tree by a particular name – its popular name or its scientific name – because if you don’t, you’re making a mistake. Whereas for Aboriginal people it’s an endless interpretation and reinterpretation of country.”

What does it mean to know country, not only from a place of classification, objectivity, and science, but also from a place of connectedness? Within the “endless interpretation and reinterpretation of country”, lies an important awareness: “People are constantly conscious of caring for country. Country will care for you if you care for it.  And that’s absolutely real.  That’s why you would never talk about something in simplistic terms, ‘Oh, that’s just a gum tree,’ one name, one thing.  I mean, most people if you ask them couldn’t tell you what a gum tree is from one day to the next.  You know, when does it flower?  Most people wouldn’t have a clue. So, the whole country is now managed by people who have no clue about what the country needs or what their connection is into country or why they’re even on country.”

‘Can my country hear English?’, asked a senior Yanyuwa woman of John J. Bradley, a scholar who has worked with the Yanyuwa people of Cape York for many years. Bradley asked her what she thought the answer might be to her own question. She decided that no, it can’t. Her country can’t hear English. The woman is one of the three remaining speakers of her language and is aged 85. I read of this conversation recently in an essay by Kim Mahood in Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country and the sense of loss contained within it hit me deep in the stomach. The silence. The placelessness.

“The importance of speaking to country in the language it can hear is fundamental to the continuing existence of country in its Aboriginal manifestation…”, writes Mahood. She continues, “… a tradition in which the naming and describing of everything that exists in a place is essential to keeping that place alive in the consciousness. To sing the country approximates bringing it into being in all its richness and complexity and the loss of language – in particular the loss of song – causes place, known, beloved and meaningful, to revert to featureless, primordial space. Language and country can’t be separated.”

But, in many cases, language and country have been separated. English is the language used to speak to country, if it’s even spoken to, these days. The same language spoken by the people who broke the words and worlds of those who first sang this land into being. And so, as a white woman, a speaker of English, the terrain of my existence in this place is layered, folded and rough under foot. I walk slowly, looking and listening. I walk towards words and begin learning some of the indigenous names of the plants I grow here in my garden. I am acutely aware that using words without a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between those words, the language they’re a part of, and the country from which they grow has the potential to diminish the complexity and nuance of the relationship in the first place. I guess I see it as the beginning of a conversation, as the first few jigsaw pieces slotted together in a big, complicated puzzle.

I’ll start using the indigenous names for the plants around me because, as far as I understand, they’re words that reflect the kind of relationship I want to cultivate with the land I live upon, and they’re words that respect the deep connection the First Nations people of Australia have with the country, through language.

A walk down the path from the house to the boatshed:

Hello Wadanggari (Banksia ericifolia), you’re looking very wild today. Grow, Waraburra (Hardenbergia violacea), please grow up and cover the fence! And you, Daranggara (Livistona australis) I like watching your fans rustle as the wind whips up and around your tall trunk. Hey Midjuburi (Acmena smithii), nice to see that pink re-growth after the wallaby attacked. Banda (Angophora hispida), sorry about the cage but I’m trying to keep you safe from hungry mouths. Oh Buruwan (Dendrobium speciosum), remember when I bought you from Ted all those years back?

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love,” writes author and farmer Wendell Berry in Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000), “and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know. The abstract, ‘objective,’ impersonal, dispassionate language of science can, in fact, help us to know certain things, and to know some things with certainty. It can help us, for instance, to know the value of species and of species diversity. But it cannot replace, and it cannot become, the language of familiarity, reverence, and affection by which things of value ultimately are protected.”

Jakelin Troy points to a similar conclusion. She suggests that scientists feel they know more about trees and plants because they study and classify them. “We, the indigenous peoples of the world, have a deep-seated understanding of what this foreign science means,” she says. “However, we understand it without disconnecting ourselves from the plants and trees around us. Let’s speak their names.”

More information on Aboriginal words and place names in Sydney, including a PDF of Jakelin Troy’s book The Sydney Language, can be accessed here.