David Nash recently posted at Elac about the word ‘munanga’ meaning ‘white person’ in Arnhem Land. I have a theory about this based on the spelling of the first citation in 1912, which is “myrnonga”. I wonder if this is trying to be murŋiny. This is a somewhat mysterious word which surfaces in the anthropological literature and is used to describe the Yolngu languages in Eastern Arnhem Land. In the older linguistic literature Murŋiny is sometimes used instead of Yolŋu. Someone (Berndt?) said it might be the same word as ‘shovel-nose spear’ but people I’ve talked to use it to mean a bit of a cruiser, that is a flash pants guy who’s really goodlooking and knows it, who shows off a lot, that sort of thing. Now, Nash quotes the following citation:
1912 Bulletin (Sydney) 15 Feb. 13/2 There is the much less widely known aboriginal term ‘myrnonga’. The myrnonga is a person of more promiscuous habits [than the combo] who … prowls with furtiveness when the moon is young.
This definition fits the term murŋiny quite well. murŋiny is pronounced with a pretty high rounded schwa vowel followed by a rhotic, which could perfectly well rended in quasi-English spelling as myr or myrrh. Englsih speakers often has difficulties with the nasal placement too, and though I’m a little surprised to see a vowel on the end of the spelling if I’m right, weirder things have happened in the history of phonemicisation.
So, my theory would be that someone tried to represent murŋiny, they wrote myrnonga, which someone who wasn’t familiar with the word re-phonemicised as mununga, which then got reintroduced as a word meaning ‘white person’.