Indigenous languages and connection to place

Emma Swann

The front cover of the book 'Wilam A Birrarung Story' by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly
It’s Week One of #NaturePact 2022, where I’ve taken a pact to spend at least 2 hours in nature every week for a month. Each week different practices are suggested to help those participating feel more connected to the natural world.

One of the suggestions for this week was to find a story from the traditional owners of the land you live on. It was a fun thing to look for, and I was excited by what I found.

A beautifully illustrated children's book about the journey of Birrarung - the Woiwurrung word for the Yarra River which runs through the city of Melbourne. It’s written by a Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Joy Murphy.

It tells the story of Birrarung as it trickles down the slopes of the Great Dividing Range, meanders through forests then opens up into plains of Greater Melbourne before mixing with the salt water of Port Philip Bay. It talks about the many plants and animals that it meets on its journey. 

What’s striking about this book is that each page is peppered with words from the Woiwurrung language.

I’ve lived in Melbourne (or Naarm) my whole life and this is the first time I’ve seen so many Woiwurrung words in one place, and they are all of common animals and plants to this bioregion.

It’s been so interesting to play around with this - when I pass the Wood Ducks in the park to recall their Woiwurrung name ‘Bathmu.’ To look up at the Sun and say ‘Ngua.’ There’s something profoundly special about language and connection to land. This language Woiwurrung evolved from the land I call home. Wood Duck has been called ‘Bathmu’ by the humans here for tens of thousands of years. The English language that is my mother tongue evolved in the land that is England, and while it adapts to the places it travels too, its roots and underpinning concepts and worldviews are from another place. 

Knowing and using some of these Woiwurrung words as I wander slowly on country and greet what’s around me has put a warm smile on my face. Even though some words feel a bit foreign and clunky, they still feel more ‘true’ than the English name I’ve always used. There’s this sense of rightness when used.  I know the more I use them the more natural they’ll feel. 

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