Aboriginal – Ngunnawal language 1800s

Cu-Um-bean means Queanbeyan

Aboriginal words are difficult to speak, let alone spell, because the Aboriginal language is a musical language, and can have a “ring sound” where letters run together and words are not pronounced as separate letters – an example being the “g” in Ngunnawal (or Ngunawal or Ngambri) – the “g” is silent in these Ngunnawal words. 1

An example of a slight variation in the Ngunawal Aboriginal spoken language, compared to our written language (that is based on hearing and then interpreted into letters and words, is the variation in Ngunawal (with one “n”) and Ngunnawal (with two “nn”). The difference may have been as simple as holding the “n” for a longer period of time like a song note–we don’t know and this makes it impossible for us to know how they pronounced similar words to show the variation. 2

Aboriginal elder Don Bell (1935-2008) asserted that Ngunnawal with two “nn” means “language” and Ngunawal with one “n” means “people.” Elder Don Bell was “an Elder of the Ngunawal people from the Canberra area and grew up on Hollywood Mission at Yass, NSW, learning his traditional culture from his parents and Elders, including his grandmother Queen Lucy of Yass. Don Bell  also asserted that he was the great-grandson of Queen Nellie Hamilton of Queanbeyan and Queen Lucy was Queen Nellie’s daughter.”3


The sound of the first part of the word Ngunnawal – “Ngun” is like saying “sung” and holding the word up into the top of your pallet and nasal, so the “ung” rings in your ears. Then remove the “g” sound; substitute the “n” sound for the “s” sound from the word “sung” (almost slurring the whole word) so that the first part of the word “Ngun” is one “sing-song-sound-note” (without saying or hearing individual letters) although the “g” is kind of in-there, as part of the overall sound. The emphasis is on the musical-sound. The pronunciation of the last portion of Ngunnawal, the “awal” appears to be straight forward where the letters are the phonetic sounds and run together quickly. 4

Our town

Our town’s name, Queanbeyan is based on an Aboriginal word, from the local “Queanbeyan” Aboriginal people, who were native to our town; within the combined Ngunnawal people (nation); the word Queanbeyan appears to have slipped further and further away from the original Aboriginal language pronunciation into a standardized “English” pronunciation based on the written rather than the spoken word. 5

It would appear that someone in officialdom in Sydney standardized the spelling of our town as ‘Queanbeyan’ when it was gazetted on 28 September, 1838 – five days later on October 3, 1838 it was officially proclaimed the village of Queanbeyan. 6

Cu-Um-bean phonetic for Queanbeyan

Cu-Um-bean, is the phonetic spelling used by Stewart Mowle for the word Queanbeyan and has credibility because of Mowle’s linguist and musical skills in many Aboriginal languages, in this area, and his long 70 years of close association with local Aboriginal people from 1838, when he was just 16 years of age until 1908, when he died aged 86 years. 7

For these reasons the authenticity of Stewart Mowle’s pronunciation is creditable and he asserted this in a letter to the editor of the Queanbeyan Age in 1905, when he used the phonic spelling of Cu-Um-bean, for Queanbeyan. 8

Journalist – Kyun-bi-ana

The most popular Aboriginal meanings for Queanbeyan are ‘clear water’ or ‘beautiful lady.” 9

But Frederick Slater said Queanbeyan meant “the sun, the great orb of the day, father attached, … Father of Light.” Slater also wrote that the original Aboriginal pronunciation for Queanbeyan was Kyun-biana, in the Journal, Mankind in 1934.” 10

Slater’s pronunciation and meaning are more unusual, and a less often quoted pronunciation, when the original Aboriginal meaning and Aboriginal pronunciation for Queanbeyan is under discussion. 11

Phonetic connection

Slater’s  phonetic spelling of Queanbeyan using the “k” sound for “Kyun-bi-ana, appears to link with Stewart Mowle’s phonetic spelling of “Cu-um-bean” using the “c” sound at the beginning of his phonetic spelling and pronunciation for our town Queanbeyan (both “k” and “c” sounds are the same). 12

To explain how the “Qu” may have crept into the spelling of Queanbeyan and still have a “c” pronunciation we only have to look at the spelling of Quay, the example of spelling and phonetic pronunciation before us everyday in Sydney as “Circular Quay.” 13

Usage and abuse-age

Quay is pronounced “Key” and spelt “Quay” and is still in use today – language pronunciation and spelling cannot be standardised as it depends on usage and is constantly changing. 14

It must also be remembered that not only convicts had accents and were mostly illiterate but also the general population of the Colonies during that period, bought with them their own prejudices of correct spelling and pronunciation from various localities and countries as English was not standardized. 15

Right or wrong ?

One sound that is probably correct in Queanbeyan is the “be” sound in the middle of Queanbeyan because the “be” sound exists in all researched variations of recorded phonetic spelling made during the contact period in the 1800s. 16

When comparing many of the various phonetic spelling examples that have been recorded, research suggests that it is wrong to emphasise Queen” at the beginning of Queanbeyan and the emphasis of “ann” or “yann” on the end of Queanbeyan may also be wrong, 17

Convict usage – Quinbean

“Quinbean” was the name used as the location of Timothy Beard’s property, Beard, a former convict was a pioneer squatter near Queanbeyan prior to 1828. 18

Timothy beard did not have a title or grant for the land but is listed and located there in the 1828 census along with his three assigned convicts who worked the property. 19

Surveyor usage – Quinbean or Quinbeam or Qiom-bee-ann

Sir Thomas Mitchell (1792 -1855), who was the Surveyor-general of New South Wales used two variations and spelt the name of our town Queanbeyan as “Quinbean”or “Quinbeam.” 20

Yet another variation “Qiom-bee-ann” attributed to Surveyor Mitchell, one of Australia’s early, east-coast explorers who liked to use local Aboriginal place names, by Frederick Watson in the Story of Queanbeyan 1838-1938. 21

Surveyor usage two – Queenbeenn

During Surveyor White’s time Queanbeyan was spelt “Queenbeenn” writes Rex Cross in Bygone Queanbeyan but Cross does not give any further information, although we can asume that Surveyor White was in the area in 1833 because Wilson writes that Francis Mowatt built The Lodge at Yarralumla after January 1833, and surveyor White included The Lodge on his survey map of January 1834. 22

Land owner usage – Quinbeane

In September 1832, John Palmer, (died 1830)  the owner of Jerrabomberra enlarged his property by adding an ‘adjoining 640 acres at a place called “Quinbeane”. This information comes from the NSW Government Gazette, 1832. 23

But it should be noted that John Palmer applied from his home near Parramatta, Sydney and may not have visited the Queanbeyan site although he could have obtained the spelling of “Quinbeane” from a government report. 24

Scientist usage – Quinbien

Doctor John Lhotsky was born in Lwow (formerly part of Poland) and is referred to as a Pole or German scientist-naturalist, who visited extensively in the area around Queanbeyan and Monaro region in 1834. 25

Lhotsky had studied gramma and came to Australian in 1832. He wrote the pronunciation of Queanbeyan as “Quinbien” in the vocabulary list he made when communicating with young Aboriginal youths during a visit to the “Menero Downs” in 1834. 26

Poet’s usage: Quaen-bien

Joseph Kelly, was living at Molonglo when he wrote a poem about the Queanbeyan River in 1865.

Kelly spelt Queanbeyan phonetically as “Quaen-bien” but did not explain the meaning of Queaen-bien or where he heard it pronounced; or by whom; when his poem was published in the Queanbeyan Age in 1865.

Quoted below is the first verse from Kelly’s five verse poem, The Quaen-bien: 27

Through many a lonesome valley,
Through many a shady dell,
Where summer wind breathes dally,
And bright -plumed songsters dwell,
Even murmuring onward floweth,
Our own old Quaen-bien … . 28

Stewart M0wle (1822-1908)

Most of the following information comes from Wilson’s Murray of Yarralumla:29

In 1838 when Terence Aubrey Murray met Stewart Mowle he was so impressed with the 16 year old that he asked him to manage his property at Yarrallumla, on the Limestone Plains near the village of Queanbeyan.

Murray advised Mowle to stay aloof and separate from the workers, whom he would be in charge of – sixty men, all older than Mowle (he was an unusual six foot four inches youth, educated and intelligent and self-assured) and most of the men were ex-convicts or convicts.

Stewart Mowle’s main friend, who kept him company was a young Aboriginal boy Tommy, the son of a local Elder, who was his equal in age, intelligence and position.

Mowle learnt the language and the skills of the local Aboriginal people through constant contact and usage.

Mowle kept a journal, but in later years destroyed it; and even later regretted destroying it; and later still Mowle wrote a retrospective journal based on his memories; held at the National Library Australia (nla).

Mowle shared his life and travelled widely through the Monaro region, always learning from local Aboriginal people – their songs (and sung with them) as well as their language and customs.

Mowle’s linguist and musical skills and his contact from 1838, the year that Queanbeyan was proclaimed a village, gave Mowle more experience in the language and customs of this area than other migrants to this country.

Stewart Mowle’s asserted the above in a letter to the editor of the Queanbeyan Age in 1905, when he used the phonic spelling of Cu-Um-bean, for Queanbeyan. 30

Pronunciation of Cu-Um-bean

Sound the “c” and add “u” saying the letter “u” as (you) and when the “Cu” are put together it sounds-like “q” but the emphasis is on the “c” sound, which makes it more musical; Then sound the capital “U” with more emphasis on the sound, do not speak it as the letter “you” but as the sound “uh”. Then join the “m” as one sound – “Um” (like when someone suggests something to you and you are not sure and say “Ummm”. Then add the “bean” as one word – without distinguishing each letter during pronunciation – Cu-Um-bean. The dashes as separations (slight pause) help give Cu-Um-bean a lyrical pronunciation. The capital “U” in the middle must be emphasized, because Mowle’s interpretation is based on his knowledge and musical ability and gives emphasis to help us understand and follow a truer pronunciation. 31

NOTE: This post was accidentally published, incomplete, on May 24 – it has now been revised. Reference and footnotes completed – May 25 at 9.50 am Eastern Australian time – apologies extended.On October 24, 2010 the first three paragraphs were reconstructed to clarify meaning.


Footnotes / Resources

1. Comment: (i) Indigenous Aboriginal refers to Australia’s Indigenous Aboriginal people. (ii) The Ngunawal people’s land was a huge area that included Queanbeyan and Canberra. and is a combination of many groups of Aboriginal people who lived within the huge Ngunawal area. (iii) Some of the various spellings and pronunciations in addition to Ngunawal and Ngunuwal are: Ngoonawawal. Wonnawal and Nungawal – and there are others, which add to the discussion on pronunciation; See also Tindale’s Aboriginal maps on language.
2. Connee’s opinion and impressions through the experience of being taught by local Ngunawal people in the 1990s.
3. (i) Bell. Don, The Swan. [Aboriginal Dreamtime story]. Gundaroo, NSW. (SBN 1 875495 34 7) p. 20. (ii) Bell. Don, Mununja the Butterfly – (ISBN 1 875495 29 0) – Don Bell’s photo and linage is on the back cover. (iii) Comment: There is no date on either book but the book Mununja the Butterfly was launched at the Canberra Museum and Gallery on February 26, 2000. If memory serves correct the book, The Swan, was published after the Mununja the Butterfly book.
4. Connee’s opinion and impressions through the experience of being taught by local Ngunawal people in the 1990s.
5. Comment: Connee’s ongoing research has focused on the Queanbeyan Aboriginal group (as distinct from other groups: eg. Ngambri and Pialligo, all of whom appear to belong to the Ngunawal people with a common Nugunnawal language – Since Ann Jackson-Nakano published her book: The Kamberi in 2001; the group who used to refer to themselves as “Ngunnawal” (spelt with two” nn”) broke away from the Nugunawal/ Nugunnawal (territory) and became the “Ngambri” group. A dispute about the name of the territory continues between calling it Nugunawal country or Ngambri country. Queen Nellie was from the Queanbeyan group ( group is sometimes referred to as a “tribe” – although “tribe” is too American and the Aboriginal people were nothing like that). Connee’s references date from the mid 1800s and are part of Connee’s ongoing research manuscript which will be published at a future date. References to Queen Nellie by Gillespie that Nellie was the “last of the Aboriginal people in this area seem to stem from the mid 1800s documentation, which specifically states that Nellie is the last of the “Queanbeyan” Aboriginal people that the others have been gone a long time (specifically gone from Queanbeyan). There were at that time other Aboriginal people from other groups living in this area. Don Bell claimed he was a descendant of Queen Nellie at the back of both books: The Swan, and Munjuwa the Butterfly, and always said that Queen Lucy was the daughter of a union between Hamilton Hume (one of the Hume men) and Queen Nellie, and that Lucy was born around Gunning. Bell said that Queen Nellie was “taken” by Hume when she was young. Bell also said that the child Lucy was so white that the Aboriginal people tried to “smoke” her to make her black. Bell made these assertions to many people and was believed by many including author Gillespie.
6. Connee-Colleen © Queanbeyan Outlook, Kyun-biana (98). The Queanbeyan Age, 13 July, 2007, p. 23.
7. Sheedy. P.B. (BEM) & EA Percy. Monaroo to Monaro – History of Monaro Street 1830s-1995. pp xii – xiii.
8. (i) The Queanbeyan Age, 1905; (ii) Cross, Rex. Bygone Queanbeyan – Revised Edition. 1985. p. 1: (iii) Wilson, Gwendoline. Murray of Yarralumla. Canberra, 2001. pp 61; 98-110.
9. Connee’s opinion.
10. (i) Aboriginal, Ngambri Elder Matilda House asserts that Queanbeyan means “beautiful woman”; (ii) Cross. 1985., writes that Queanbeyan means “beautiful lady”, p. 1.
11. (i) Cross, 1985. p. 1; (ii) Slater, Frederick. [article in] Mankind Journal, Vol 1, No 10. October 1934.
12. Connee’s opinion.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ramson, W.S. (Ed). English Transported: Essays on Australian English. Australian National University Press. Canberra 1970.
16. (i) Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales A Selection. (Edited and with an introduction by Donald R. Howard). Signet Classics 1969. (ii) Geoffrey Chaucer (born c. 1340, London); his Lord’s Prayer is a good example of changes in English; another example is doing your own family research or genealogy, which usually unearths changes in spelling and dates of what you thought were authentic names and dates, which results depended on the literacy of the recorder or the accent of the informant plus there are changes within the language during our lifetime, all the time as new words are invented and old words change in meaning.
17. Connee’s opinion based on local research.
18. Ibid
19. (i) Cross, Bygone Queanbeyan. 1985, pp. 4, 5; (ii) Errol Lea-Scarlet, Queanbeyan District and People. Queanbeyan. 1968, pp. 13-14, 16-17.
20. Australian 1828 Census (film and/ or book at libraries and Archives in Australia); records convicts, their families (if they came with them, transportation ship and date of arrival; years of sentence; convict assignment; religion; location and/ or employment (in 1828).
21. Rex Cross, p. 1.
22. Watson. Frederick, A Brief History of Canberra, 1927, on line: this reference on line may not be available at the moment. I will try and find the hard copy of the book and reference it again. <http:/www.standard.net.au/~jwilliams/xabor.htm>
23. (i) Rex Cross, p. 1. (ii) Wilson, Gwendoline. Murray of Yarralumla. Canberra, 2001. p. 63.
24. (i) Rex Cross pp. 4, 47; (ii) Errol Lea-Scarlet pp. 10-11, 15-16.
25. Errol Lea-Scarlet pp. 10-11
26. (i) Rex Cross, 1985. p. 1, 67-68; (ii) Errol Lea-Scarlet. pp. 18, 25. (iii) ‘Menero Downs’ is another variation of Aboriginal language “territory” name; Monaro (is the variation in use today; and Moneroo (was in use in the late 1800s).
27. Young, Michael, with Ellen & Debbie Mundy. The Aboriginal People of the Monaro – A documentary history. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2000. pp. 81-2.
28. Lyall L. Gillespie, Early Verse of the Canberra Region. Canberra, 1994. p. 47.
29. Wilson, 2001. pp. 98-110.
30. (i) Wilson, 2001. p.61. (ii) Queanbeyan Age, 1905.
31. Connee’s opinion.

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