Australian National Placenames Survey PDF Print E-mail

Artist Johanna Parker and placenames workshop coordinator Darlene Proberts at a Lightning Ridge workshop. Photo by ANPS
Artist Johanna Parker and placenames workshop coordinator Darlene Proberts at a Lightning Ridge workshop. Photo by ANPS
FROM a quiet, sunny room within the Division of Humanities at Macquarie University, a team of dedicated workers have undertaken the mammoth task of researching the myriad of names that cover the map of Australia. With the number of placenames in the country wildly estimated at up to 4 million, it would seem to be a David and Goliath type challenge for this tiny unit, as they dig for information on the origins and meanings of all Indigenous and introduced names attached to geographical features and localities across the land.

While each state and territory has a body responsible for the creation, use and recording of names, they are limited by staffing and financial resources in the scope of their activities.The work of the Australian National Placenames Survey (ANPS) goes beyond the recording to research the history, origin and meaning of placenames, documenting the previous names used and all the varying forms found in historic sources.


Making the task more challenging is the overlaying of two distinct naming systems, the original Indigenous naming and the introduced. As described by ANPS Research Assistant, Susan Poetsch, the two systems contrast strikingly.

"Placenames in the Indigenous system are connected to each other and the country, e.g. they may tell a story of the travels of ancestral figures, on journeys through the landscape, or they may refer to flora and fauna features.

By contrast, in the introduced system, a mountain could be named after a person in England, a nearby hill after a place in Canada, and a lake in between after a horse in a party of colonists."
In many parts of Australia the living network of Indigenous placenames has been significantly disrupted; in others it has not yet been fully documented and in some cases elements of the network form 'secret', sacred knowledge.

The linguistic interpretation of Indigenous names is challenged by the fact that in most cases they were first recorded by people with little knowledge of the language concerned, and then have often been altered to conform more closely with English sounding names. In addition to this, some names have in places been transferred across large distances and appear far from the country of origin.

As explained in the June 2005 issue of the ANPS newsletter by Theresa Sainty, aboriginal Language Consultant for the palawa kani Languages Program of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre:

'Firstly... you need to be a linguist, or at least know some basic linguistics, to recognise the sounds of original Aboriginal words in those recordings from scribes of many nationalities who tried to capture unfamiliar Aboriginal sounds in their own European spellings. Reconstruction using linguistic analysis and knowledge of Aboriginal languages is necessary to retrieve the authentic sounds of the original words.

Secondly, you need to look further than published books to find evidence for languages no longer spoken. A wealth of manuscript material from the colonial period is amassed in libraries and other institutions both in Australia and overseas, and this primary source material is essential reference for this kind of scholarship. As also is local knowledge, in this case, aboriginal social and cultural knowledge.

... linguistic expertise as well as extensive research in published and unpublished sources, together with knowledge contained within the Aboriginal community, were all employed in the retrieval of 'narawntapu'  [Asbestos Range National Park] and other Tasmanian Aboriginal words.This work is undertaken by the palawa kani Languages Program, a language revival initiative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre for the past ten years, and continuing.

The approach taken by the AN PS has contributed to the development of a dynamic working partnership between the survey team, and FATSIL members around Australia, as hand in hand with community language work comes the investigation of the stories around the placenames.

In 2003, a major grant from DAA in NSW saw a collaboration between ANPS, the New South Wales Aboriginal Languages Research and Resource Centre, and the Geographical Names Board NSW to gather and share information through a series of community meetings throughout that state.The project funding allowed for meetings in twelve different regions of New South Wales with the ANPS linking into the contacts network of the language centre.The meetings were co-ordinated by Darlene Proberts (see photo), a student at Warawara Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University, who has also been working part-time for the ANPS. At each meeting local presenters talked about their current local language projects and plans. Community members were able to contribute accurate information on the historical and cultural background to naming, while at the same time gaining access to recorded data to support their own local projects. The ANPS have attended other FATSIL meetings and made contact with communities in many parts of Australia.

ANPS is keen to attend further meetings in other states should funding be available. In the meantime, staff are at all times happy to provide communities with whatever assistance can be given by phone, fax or email.

A similar project which began in England in the 1920's is still underway, however the Australian project has the obvious advantages of technology and to ensure a usable product will be achieved within a far shorter space of time. It is hoped that the first version of the ANPS database will be available for access by the public in 2006.

Originally funded by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the team headed by David Blair, (ANPS Director) and Flavia Hodges (ANPS Research Fellow), has been supported for five years by Macquarie Uni. Volunteers and students provide invaluable service to the small crew, who include in their workload the publication of four information-packed newsletters a year.

All of the research will be done by volunteer Research Friends of theANPS. Information about Indigenous placenames will be collected by Indigenous and non-Indigenous linguists, ethnologists and other specialists in conjunction with Indigenous communities, speakers of Australian languages and their descendants. Information about Introduced placenames will be collected by interested individuals and members of historical societies all over Australia. Most of the information stored in the database will be directly accessible to the public over the Internet, and it will be able to be queried and analysed with a variety of database management tools. Restricted access will be necessary in the case of certain placenames in the Indigenous network.The ANPS will be guided by local communities with regard to this.

The ANPS does not presently record details of placenames pronunciations, although it is hoped to expand the coverage to include that aspect in the future, and give access to pronunciation through the database.
Find out how to become a volunteer participant in the Survey.

Subscribe to our free quarterly newsletter, Placenames Australia. Contact ANPS for your subscription. Phone 02 9850 8240 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it