Kamilaroi, Gamilaraay, or Gomeroi?
What is the difference? Which one is correct?
The good news is that from a linguist’s viewpoint they are all correct! To explain how these different words came about, we need to go back to before Europeans arrived…
Languages and people were known by their different words for “no” in this part of Australia, so these are now referred to as “No” Languages. For example, gamil is “no” in Gamilaraay language, and yuwaal used to be “no” in Yuwaalaraay language (now waal).
At the end of the words is a form of baraay, which is added to a word to mean “having”, and drops off the “b” after “l”. So this way of referring to languages is similar to saying that English is “No-having”, German is “Nein-having”, and French is “Non-having”.
Gamilaraay gamil “no” + –(b)araay “having”
Yuwaalaraay yuwaal/waal “no” + –(b)araay “having”
The map shows the languages that were spoken in this area when Europeans arrived. As well as Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay, we can see Yuwaaliyaay, Gawambaraay, Wiriyaraay, and Guyinbaraay:
From: Austin, P. K (2008), The Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) language, northern New South Wales: A brief history of research. In W. B. McGregor, (Ed.), Encountering Aboriginal languages: Studies in the history of Australian linguistics, pp. 37-58. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
“K” and “G”
The Gamilaraay language was not traditionally written down. When Europeans arrived, they wrote down what they heard, without understanding how the language works. Languages have different sound systems and they did not realise that there is no difference between “k” and “g” in most Australian languages. These sounds are both pronounced in the same part of the mouth, but “g” has voice added. You can feel this if you put your hand on your throat and say “k” and “g” in English. These sounds do not make any difference to the meaning of words in Gamilaraay.
In the nineteenth century some Europeans thought they heard “g” at the start of the word Gamilaraay and wrote it down as Gummilroy, while others heard “k” and wrote it down as Kamilaroi. This spelling was used to name the Kamilaroi Highway, etc. They also heard “k” but wrote it as “c” in Cobbadah, and in Gunnedah they heard “g”. Since then, linguists have analysed the language and standardised this sound by writing “g” for all Gamilaraay words.
Early Europeans did not know about the –baraay ending meaning “having”, so again they wrote down what they heard and it has ended up with different spellings. For example, –oi in Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay), or –i in Euahlayi (Yuwaalaraay).
This also happens in place names. For example, the name Collarenebri comes from galariin “gum blossoms” and –baraay, and Boggabri comes from bagay “creek”, and –baraay.
Collarenebri galariin “gum blossoms” + –baraay “having”
Boggabri bagay “creek” + –baraay “having”
The form of –baraay can be different in other languages. For example, dhuray in Wiradjuri, and buwan Wangaibon.
Wiradjuri wirraay “no” + –dhuray “having”
Wangaibon wangaay “no” + –buwan “having”
When we speak quickly, we sometimes miss out some of the sounds and the words become shorter. English examples are “can’t” from “cannot”, or “o’clock” from “of the clock”. So when the word Gamilaraay is spoken quickly it sounds something like Gomeroi or Gummeroi, and some people prefer to use one of those spellings.
Dr Hilary Smith
Australian National University
(Revised September 2020)
Below are some links to more information on names for languages, places and people in New South Wales. These articles can be freely downloaded. They are written by linguists and use technical terms for the concepts discussed:
Ash, A. (2002). “Place names in Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaaliyaay and Gamilaraay languages of north-west New South Wales”. In L. Hercus, F. Hodges and J. Simpson, (Eds.), The land is a map: Placenames of Indigenous origin in Australia, pp. 181-185. Canberra: Pandanus Books in association with Pacific Linguistics. http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p29191/pdf/ch134.pdf
Donaldson, T. (1984) “What’s in a name? An etymological view of land, language and social identification from Central Western New South Wales”. Aboriginal History, pp. 21-44. http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p71671/pdf/article032.pdf
Nash, D. (2014). “Comitative place names in central NSW”. In I. D. Clark, L. Hercus, & L. Kostanski (Eds.), Indigenous and Minority Placenames: Australian and International Perspectives, pp. 11-37. Canberra: ANU Press, The Australian National University. http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p286811/pdf/ch021.pdf
For further information about Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay: