Jonathan Jones: Birds and Aboriginal Languages

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Many names for Australia’s birds are in fact Aboriginal names for birds. For instance, when you say galah (Eolophus roseicapilla), you are using a Wiradjuri word spelt gilaa.

In Sydney the local Aboriginal language was first taught to astronomer and engineer Lieutenant William Dawes by Patyegarang, a local Eora woman. Many Eora words for birds entered the English language and are still with us today, like bōkbōk, the southern boobook owl (Ninox boobook).

Many Aboriginal names for birds sound like the call of the birds, so if you want to learn some words you can listen to the birds and they will teach you. For instance, the Sydney word for the Australian raven (Corvus coronoides) is wo-gan. It can be worth finding out the local Aboriginal language of your region and learning some of the words for birds.


Each week Jonathan Jones shares stories of native Australian birds, touching on their importance, the issues they face and what we can learn from them. Jones' upcoming artwork for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art requires thousands of native Australian bird feathers, which he needs your help to find.

Image 1: Galahs, photo via Birdlife Australia
mage 2: Southern boobook owl, photo via NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service
mage 3: Australian raven, photo via Birdlife Australia