Munanga and Murnginy

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’. 

Advertisements

10 responses to “Munanga and Murnginy

  1. Interesting Claire. Tindale (1974) says “According to Peterson (1969 MS) it has a general meaning of ‘shovel-nose-spear folk,'”. As “Murngin” the word was popular in the anthropology literature following W Lloyd Warner’s 1936 classic ethnography A black civilisation. A range of stabs at its origin are canvassed by Shore (1996:231-2), including ‘fire sparks’, a semi-moiety name, or ‘red ochre’.
    So, in your view Claire, would the re-phonemicisation as munanga have been by English speakers, and then Arnhemlanders borrowed munanga from English?

  2. I am borrowing “flash pants guy” into my idiolect.

    That’s all I have to offer.

  3. Looking only at present day usage (historical llnguistics is def. not my forte) is just can’t imagine ‘munanga’ having come from English. The majority of munanga in ‘munanga-saying’ communities barely know the word and almost always have trouble pronouncing it! (mainly cos the last syllable is ‘nga’).

    Where I’ve worked, I’ve only ever heard murrnginy to mean shovel spear and I can’t really imagine that being a common enough term to enter English and I can’t really imagine anyone massacaring the pronounciation of murrnginy in the direction of ‘munanga’.

    but as for where munanga comes from… search me! My guess would be that it come from one of the traditional languages of the Roper Region, or perhaps a pidgin brought from NSW/Qld and then spread into the local creoles and pidgins pretty quick way back when munanga first came. At Roper, Marra seems to be the traditional language that has the most borrowiings into present day Roper Kriol.

  4. @wawa:
    Looking only at present day usage (historical llnguistics is def. not my forte) is just can’t imagine ‘munanga’ having come from English. The majority of munanga in ‘munanga-saying’ communities barely know the word and almost always have trouble pronouncing it! (mainly cos the last syllable is ‘nga’). But we have a precedent for this: at least some of the ‘horse’ words were spread by stockmen.

    Where I’ve worked, I’ve only ever heard murrnginy to mean shovel spear and I can’t really imagine that being a common enough term to enter English and I can’t really imagine anyone massacaring the pronounciation of murrnginy in the direction of ‘munanga’.

    Ah, but I’m not claiming they massacred the pronunciation; I’m claiming that the source of munanga might be a written from like myrnonga, not the spoken form. I’m also claiming that there are parts of Arnhem Land where murnginy (I think it’s a glide in Yan-nhangu) refers primarily (or exclusively) to a designer-stubble-wielding David Wenham lookalike, and not to a spear. If we wanted parallels, though, the English term ‘tool’ might be parallel (the Yolngu term is, I think, more positive than ‘tool’ is, but the parallel is there for the drawing). There’s also something in Catullus and/or Martial for Latin (iirc it’s the word for pitchfork).

  5. Well, I confess I share Wamut’s skepticism about munanga being borrowed back from English in the way Claire posits, based though on the dearth of written occurrences of the term spelled “myrnonga” or any other vaguely similar way. And how much interaction was there between Yolŋu and munanga in the required period (well before the 1930s) — or was murŋiny in other languages in western Arnhem Land (or Roper) too? (I don’t know).

  6. Hey yapa,

    Re: horse words, my instinct is that the spread of these words are trackable throughout the country (is the etymology a bit clearer too?). My instinct also tells me that it seems quite likely that the moved through via pidgin speaking ppl working the stock routes, but I just don’t get that feeling with ‘munanga’. It’s too localised.

    Today, I asked some of my students from Beswick and Barunga where they reckon ‘munanga’ comes from and they didn’t know but associated it with the Roper Region and the mission there (Beswick and Barunga mob never had missions in their area). One students also commented that she heard that old people discouraged each other from using the word ‘whitefella’ when talking amongst themselves in the presence of munanga so that munanga wouldn’t know they were being talked about. :)

    As for its origin, I still reckon it’s got something to do with Roper – either a language in that area or the mission perhaps…

  7. David pointed me to the Marra materials, which has mununga, as does the Nunggubuyu dictionary.
    True, horse words are quite trackable.

  8. The students from Beswick and Barunga also said that a good reference would be the SIL mob who first worked on Roper and Bamyili Kriol in the 70s and 80, people like John Harris. They might have more ideas about where the word comes from.

  9. Yes indeed Wamut; this is the titbit I find in Harris’s publication on Kriol: “A few words are derived from the Aboriginal languages such as the term munanga for European(Harris 1986:46)
    John W. Harris. 1986. Northern Territory Pidgins and the Origin of Kriol. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
    It is noticeable, isn’t it, that the earliest written version we know of munanga appeared just a few years after Roper Mission was founded.

  10. FWIW, Dalabon people use both munanga and wahdû to refer to whitepeople, but only wahdû also means ‘ghost/deveildevil’. This suggests munangahas been borrowed into Dalabon/Kriol-spoken-by-Dalabon ppl, and wahdû is the authentic Dalabon term (not least because of the û vowel!). Not that Dalabon would be a likely candidate for a substrate influence at Roper…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s