Didgeridoo = Dúdaire Dubh?

Some time ago, I promised that I would continue my examination of the whacky theories of Irish-Australian academic Dymphna Lonergan about the Irish origins of certain typical Australian terms. Unfortunately, I have been busy since then and simply haven’t had time to complete the second instalment of my Dymphna Lonergan article. Until now.

Lonergan’s claim is that the name of the Australian Aboriginal Instrument usually known as a didgeridoo or didjeridu is really of Irish or Scottish Gaelic origin.

A bizarre claim, you might think, and you’d be right. How does Lonergan make a case for it?

Well, first of all, she has to argue that the word didgeridoo is not of indigenous Australian origin, though it is obvious that the instrument itself is. She argues that the name is not found in any Aboriginal language. This may be true but of course, a number of Aboriginal languages have died out since Europeans arrived. Another frequent claim dismissed by Lonergan is the idea that didgeridoo is an onomatopoeic term based on the sound of the instrument.

One of the things that really gobsmacked me when I read about Lonergan’s theory of the origin of didgeridoo was the way she chose to deal with the awkward possibility of onomatopoeia. Apparently, Lonergan put a number of volunteers in a room and played didgeridoo music to them: “asking subjects to make the sound of the instrument yielded words full of vowels starting with the letter “b” or “m”. No subjects made the sound didgeridoo.”

I need hardly point out how extraordinarily silly and pointless this is. For one thing, as Aboriginal music expert Randin Graves points out on his blog, there is more than one tradition of playing and some of the more unfamiliar styles would more than likely be represented by a d sound than by a b or an m. Then there is the matter of who Lonergan’s sample were. What a group of modern urban Australians interpreted the sound of the instrument to be is not necessarily what a group of rural settlers in the Northern Territories more than a hundred years ago would have heard.

In fact, onomatopoeia is the most likely explanation for the term’s origin and is certainly long-established. The earliest citations for the word, from 1918 and 1919 are clear that this is what lies behind the name.  ‘It produces but one sound – didgerry, didgerrry, didgerry – and so on ad infinitum’. Smiths Weekly 1918.

However, although this is the earliest mention of didgeridoo, there is actually a much earlier reference to the instrument with a slightly different term for its sound in the journal of Collet Barker, who wrote, circa 1829:

Mago had brought a kind of musical instrument, a large hollow cane about 3 feet long bent at one end. From [this] he produced two or three low & tolerably clear & loud notes, answering to the tune of didoggerry whoan, & he accompanied Alobo with this while he sang his treble. 

Didoggerry whoan is clearly similar to didgeridoo. Furthermore, linguist Sue Butler quotes Professor Nicholas Evans, who offers an alternative origin in his comment on Dymphna Lonergan’s theory:

When people blow the instrument, in Dalabon and Kunwinjku-speaking areas, they speak or mouth into the didgeridoo a type of word which is written as follows in the local orthography: didjmrrooo, didjmrroo didjmrroo. Those words also get used when someone is telling a story and wants to sing, or represent, the sound of the instrument being played. The stretch often finishes up with a simple didj! to represent the last sound it makes before fading to silence. I think this is a practice that precedes any contact with English.

In other words, there is good evidence that the name didgeridoo derives from words used to represent the sound of the instrument in much the same way that Irish traditional musicians use nonsense words like diddley-dee and diddley-eye when lilting a tune.

The second part of Lonergan’s appallingly incompetent theory is even easier to dismantle. Lonergan claims that didgeridoo represents either Irish or Scottish Gaelic and suggests that the didgeri part is really dúdaire (Irish) or dùdaire (Scottish Gaelic). Dúdaire describes a person and has various meanings, such as eavesdropper, trumpeter or crooner in Irish and dùdaire means various things including cornet-player in Scottish Gaelic. As for the doo, Lonergan suggests that this is either Irish dubh meaning black or Scottish Gaelic dùth meaning native or hereditary. Quite apart from this being a fairly ludicrous confection, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Irish would transfer the word for a person who plays an instrument to the instrument itself (a cruitire is a harpist, not a harp and píobaire is a piper, not a set of pipes).

The main methodological issue here is the same as it always is with crap amateur etymologists. The question is not, can I cobble something together by ransacking a dictionary to find something that sounds a little like the target phrase or word? The question is, is this what a native speaker of this language would be likely to use to describe the new object? Do I think a stray Irish-speaker, hearing the sound of the didgeridoo for the first time, would point at it and say “dúdaire dubh”?

No, I don’t think that. I think Lonergan’s theory is ill-informed, pretentious, fanciful, publicity-seeking rubbish.

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