Fieldwork, onomatopoeia & bird names


I went to a wonderful guest lecture on theories of the evolution of language by Ian Keen last week.

During the course of his discussion about the arbitrary nature of language he gave a number of examples of words that are completely arbitrary or unmotivated in contrast to others, which were notably onomatopoeic or motivated in that way.

One example Ian gave with regard latter was the name of a particular bird in Yolŋu Matha, which has a clear relationship with the corresponding bird-call. All this made me very happy and excited because the onomatopoeic nature of bird names in the various dialects of Yolŋu Matha is something really special.

During my time in camp (and in the course of learning Gumatj) I found such poetry-like delight in learning and coming to know the name of locally familiar birds. There is something about the onomatopoeic character of the names that really endears you to the birds in question. The onomatopoeic quality also makes it a lot easier to identify and recall the names of birds when out on Country.

Below are a handful of my favourite birds or bird names in Gumatj (~ an underlined letter denotes a retroflex sound, a double ‘rr’ denotes a rolled ‘r’ sound):

Little ‘Djirribi-djirribi’ is the Willy-Wagtail (nb the rolled ‘r’ sound). The trick I find with Djirribi-djirribi is to say the name so fast that it almost collapses a syllable and it sounds like that which they make when flitting their little fan-tail side-to-side. The sound I’m referring to is just after the half-way mark in the audio recording below.



Wäk’ is the name of the crow (said just as you would imagine with a long ‘a’ sound).

Worr’wurr’ is the handsome, common name for owls. Such a beautiful name and sound (see recording below).



The White cockatoo is ‘ŋeerk’, which is perfectly exactly how you would imagine it sounds.



The cheeky little swallows that dip and dive over the airstrip in camp are ‘Mulunda’, which I’m not sure reflects their call or song.

The varied lorikeet is ‘Wirritj-wirritj’, again, with a rolled ‘r’ sound.

Latj-latj’ is one of the common names for the Northern Rosella.

‘Djirikitj’ is a particularly special little small brown quail, associated with fire.

Delili’ is the domestically familiar little ‘peewee’ or magpie-lark, which is really reminiscent of their bird-call (as you can hear below).



The Brolga that used to dance on the airstrip is ‘Gudurrku.’’ I never heard the Brolga calling out so I can’t tell if this is onomatopoeic or not.

Gudidi’ is the little Plover or wading bird that scoots along the flats when the tide is out.

‘Bilitj-pilitj’ is the Red-winged Parrot (which is otherwise a beautiful bright green).

‘Murryil’’ is the formal-looking Torres Strait Dove. Finally, the little common name for little finches, is lidji-lidji.’


I should say also in closing that the more socio-politically significant birds feature in ceremonial songs and the corresponding dances, which are so beautiful to hear and watch.



Filed under Ethnography, General personal writings, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

6 responses to “Fieldwork, onomatopoeia & bird names

  1. Thanks. I wrote an earlier piece on onomatopoeic desire in Yolngu matha that you may appreciate – you can find it here:

  2. Orange Kind'a' Boird

    An interesting poem about birds,

    4,30am by C. Bukowski

    the fields rattle
    with red birds;
    it is 4:30 in
    the morning,
    it is always
    4:30 in the morning,
    and I listen for
    my friends:
    the garbagemen
    and the thieves,
    and cats dreaming
    red birds
    and red birds dreaming
    and worms dreaming
    along the bones of
    my love,
    and I cannot sleep,
    and soon morning will come,
    the workers will rise,
    and they will look for me
    at the docks,
    and they will say,
    “he is drunk again,”
    but I will be asleep,
    among the bottles and
    all darkness gone,
    my arms spread like
    a cross,
    the red birds
    roses opening in the smoke,
    like something stabbed and
    like 40 pages through a bad novel,
    a smile upon
    my idiot’s face.

  3. Hey! That’s super lovely, thank you 🙂

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