If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back one and join in the discussion of the art of Melissa Zink and the question of what the physical book means to you. Then come back and join me and Alan as we venture into the roots of place names.
JANE: We were venturing into the territory of the exotic names attached to our landscapes that connect us to the indigenous peoples who lived here before us and – in places like New Zealand and New Mexico – still live with us.
Alan, you’ve already given an example in the place of the man with the big knees and the nose flute, but do you have another?
ALAN: Yes I do – but first I need to digress slightly and explain a bit of background. In New Zealand the Maori language is ubiquitous. All the tribes spoke the same language and had a common culture. That influence remains very strong and so Maori names for places are used all the time all over the country, though they may sound a little odd to foreign ears. My favourite is Wanganui (that’s pronounced “one-gu-noo-ee”). A local TV comedy programme used to have a segment they called “The Deliberate Mispronunciation Of Maori” and they mangled that into “wan-gan-you-eye”, which I found quite hilarious! Even my Maori friends laughed at it.
JANE: I’d like to start with a place I talked about in my Wednesday Wandering for 10-27-10 – Acoma Pueblo. “Acoma” falls into the relatively mundane name category. It translates from its original Keresan as “people of the white rock.” In earlier texts, Acoma is refereed to as “Ahacus” and later “Acuco,” which shows how often words are transliterated differently by different listeners.
Showing that names are subject to change, Acoma has picked up a modern nickname – “Sky City” – which celebrates its elevated location.
That’s just one name, from one language group. Here in the American Southwest, we’re blessed with a great number of tribes, each with their own languages. We have Navajo, Apache, Zuni, and Hopi. Although they’re frequently lumped together, the various “Pueblo” groups speak languages that fall into several distinct groups: Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, and Keresan.
ALAN: Ah! You’ve already arrived at the place I was heading to. In Australia, the situation was quite similar to what you have in New Mexico.
The Aboriginal tribes did not have a common culture and there were literally hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages. Nevertheless, Australia still uses many Aboriginal place names which sound somewhat exotic to our ears and which, because of the different languages, also seem quite dissimilar to each other.
For example, Western Australia is mostly desert, so water is obviously very important. In one Aboriginal language the “oo” suffix means “by water” and so we have towns called Wanneroo and Innaloo. Another Aboriginal language in the same area uses the “up” suffix in a similar context, hence Joondalup and Karrinyup. Those two tribes lived close together and neither could speak the other’s language. But their heritage remains.
JANE: Ah, hah! I see now why in his novel The Last Continent Terry Pratchett named that one town “Buggerup” and why, despite the obvious joke, the name seemed to fit so nicely into Australian naming structures.
ALAN: I seem to recall that he also had a place called “Didjabringabeeralong” which also seems to fit nicely into this structure but which is, of course, a reference to something else entirely! Pratchett is a very clever man.
Sometimes the sense of history associated with the names used by various indigenous people also shows that no matter how different our cultures are, we all have a shared sense of place and values. This can lead to surprising resonances. For example I once stumbled upon a small, out of the way cottage by the coast in the far north of New Zealand. It had a nameplate attached: “Wharemoana.” That translates as House (“Whare”) of (or by) the sea (“moana”). In other words, prosaically, Seahouse or, stretching it a little bit, Seahouses. And the reason that resonated with me is that my father’s side of the family comes from a town in Northumberland in the north of England which is called Seahouses. Suddenly I felt at home even though I was on the far side of the world.
JANE: I may be a sentimentalist, but that actually made me tear up. It’s wonderful you found a piece of home away from home. I suspect this is the very impulse that leads to so many colonial places being named “New” something – a desire to feel you’ve brought a bit of home to your new home.
ALAN: And New Zealand is the perfect example of that. Zealand (or more accurately Zeeland) is an area of Holland and I assume that’s where the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman came from. He was the first European to see New Zealand, though he didn’t land, he just sailed on by.
JANE: This question of names and what they mean to those who live on the landscape brings me to a change I’ve seen happening during the time I’ve lived in the Southwest – the reclaiming by indigenous peoples of the names they gave to their landscape. It’s a complex topic, though, so I’d like to save for next week.