language

A Rat by Any Other Name

Take a moment and picture a common Australian animal. Here are some clues – it’s small. It lives in rivers and waterways, where its dense fur coat and thick tail make it a sturdy swimmer. It’s shy, staying hidden during the day (less so in winter, when a streamside sunbeam makes a perfect spot to warm up and bask). It eats whatever insects and crustaceans it can fit through its broad, flattened mouth.

Up to this point (if you skimmed past the article title), you might be imagining either one of two Australian natives. The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a familiar emblem of Australia’s creeks, delighting tourist and local alike whenever there’s a spotting. And rightly so – with a soft body, sleepy expression, and harmless appearance, the platypus enjoys a charisma that keeps it in the good graces of the public. This is despite the males having poisonous spurs that can induce months of pain untreatable by morphine.

The Australian platypus in action.  Image: Museum Victoria

The Australian platypus in action. Image: Museum Victoria

However, this isn’t another article about the platypus (and its problematic pluralisation – is it platypi? Platypodes? Platypuses?). It is about language though; the way a species can be perceived, and marketed, and raised as a focal point for campaigns of conservation or destruction.

Hydromys chrysogaster was first described in 1804, at a time when Europeans were still acquiring the vocabulary for Australia’s unique ecosystems. Wombats were native badgers; koalas were native sloths; thylacines were native wolves, and later tigers. The platypus was a beaver, a mole, a bird, a fish, and a hoax, before eventually settling on flatfoot (platypus), bird-snout (Ornithorhynchus), and duck-like (anatinus).

By contrast to the majority, H. chrysogaster was an easy job – in English its name means yellow-bellied water mouse, and it is indeed a member of the mouse family. But for its size, and in the interest of comprehension to foreign naturalists, it was called the Australian water rat.

Ornithorhynchus anatinus , the duck-like bird snout.  Image: NMA

Ornithorhynchus anatinus, the duck-like bird snout. Image: NMA

Hydromys chrysogaster,  the yellow-bellied water mouse.  Image: Museum Victoria

Hydromys chrysogaster, the yellow-bellied water mouse. Image: Museum Victoria

When the English colonised Australia, they saw a vast expanse of opportunity and resources. Modern corporations like the Australian Agricultural Company and the Van Diemen’s Land Company started during the early 19th century, raising cattle and sheep for export back to Europe. The dominant thought – public and private, small and large – was of expanding an empire.

As the frontier of farming communities pushed outward, native landscapes and species suffered. Most famously, Australia saw the extinction of the thylacine after a century of conflict. The Tasmanian tiger was subjected to loss of territory, loss of food, diseases from dogs, and – perhaps most significantly – private and government-sponsored bounties for extermination. The thrill of tiger-hunting was a part of the worldwide British Empire; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a monument to the mood, with human’s triumph measured by the death of the villainous tiger.

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on  the   Tasmanian   tiger.   Image:  http://nichaygarth.com/

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on the Tasmanian tiger. Image: http://nichaygarth.com/

Animal hunting also had more pragmatic motivations. As late as the 1940s, when the threat of extinction had begun affording Australian wildlife protected status, the fur of the water rat was being used for clothing. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney holds a coat made from one hundred H. chrysogaster pelts, collected personally by the coat’s owners on personal holidays. The rat was vermin; was common; was not given the unqualified status of other animals. In Victoria, destruction permits in irrigation areas and seasonal hunting permits were issued until 1967; the species had been placed on a protected list earlier in 1938 after the fur trade drove a decline in number.

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum.  Image: Powerhouse Museum

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum. Image: Powerhouse Museum

Rebranding the Hydromys with other names, like the ‘Australian otter’, has helped its image simply by providing the public with a different point of reference in understanding its lifestyle. In the 1990s, a (perhaps obvious) decision was made to use Indigenous Australian names for Australian animals – from consulting the ancestral languages across its range, Hydromys was given the name of rakali.

Creating public awareness of the species is important; rakali is an elusive species, with attempts to monitor the population only resulting in trapping rates of 6-30% and usually as a by-product of platypus surveying. However, there is an indication that the species is experiencing population crashes in regions across Australia. An aquatic species is always only tenuously secure in Australia’s climate, and the rakali are vulnerable due to their breeding cycle being broken by drought. The design of modern irrigation channels also creates difficulties, with concreting or plastic lining depriving rakali of opportunities to dig burrows.

The Australian Platypus Conservancy has begun delivering seminars on rakali to local councils, recognising the overlapping benefits of restoring habitat. The apex predator flourishes best in healthy waterways, functioning as a barometer for management regimes. Creating public awareness is also a useful way for more people to understand their own interactions with the environment, for better or worse. The continued use of the popular Opera House nets – and their use is banned in all Victorian public waters – causes the drowning deaths of rakali that become stuck in them, a fate often shared by platypuses and turtles. More positively, the anecdotal evidence of citizen sightings is helping to build a clearer picture of populations across Melbourne and across the year, and can be incorporated into more widespread projects such as Bowerbird and the Atlas of Living Australia.

The wonder and exoticism of Australia’s wildlife has not diminished since it baffled those first Europeans. Through close observations, we will better begin to appreciate the rarity and individuality of our native species. And if the world can learn to love a bird-snouted flatfoot, there’s probably room for the rakali as well.

If you wish to become more involved in citizen science, you can relay your plant and animal sightings to:


Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.



Banner image courtesy of Museum Victoria. 

How Language Shapes Our Landscape

Theodore Roosevelt first encountered the writings of John Muir in his book, The Mountains of California, published in 1894. In its pages, Muir painted the San Gabriel range north of Los Angeles so vividly that Roosevelt was moved to contact him. Over the course of a three-day camping trip, a Scottish-born vagabond and the President of the United States explored the Yosemite Valley together. On the final night, Muir convinced Roosevelt to list the valley under governmental protection as a national park. Roosevelt went on to create over 230 protected sites during the course of his presidency, ranging from national parks to bird sanctuaries and covering roughly 230 million acres.

The story of Muir’s impact on Roosevelt is one of many shared by Robert Macfarlane in his fifth book, Landmarks. It is a powerful example of the influence of language in changing the landscape, both literally and figuratively. From the first line it is clear that Macfarlane shares a similar intention: ‘This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.’ Each chapter functions as a thoughtful essay on a writer whose works have shaped Macfarlane’s perception and articulation of the natural world.

More fascinating still, between these chapters is a series of glossaries grouped by theme: Flatlands, Wetlands, Northlands, Edgelands - every conceivable kind of ‘land’ in the British landscape. For years prior, Macfarlane had collected striking words for features of the environment as he encountered them. Gradually, it became a mission in itself: to seek out and curate place-terms ancient and modern, from every language that has been brought to Britain over centuries of ‘invasion, settlement and migration’. The glossaries are an exhibition of Britain’s linguistic evolution, ranging from archaic Old English terms like wæter-fæsten (place protected by water) to remnants of regional dialect like shuckle (icicle, Cumbria) and even mysteriously poignant coinages by children like honeyfurs (soft grass seed-heads).

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Unique and alluring cover art accompanies Macfarlane's poetic prose. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Though Macfarlane is necessarily limited to a survey of the British Isles, the scope of his book extends much further. From the outset, he calls with urgency and sincerity for ‘a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world – a glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. To his mind, this cataloguing of place-terms is not nostalgic, but urgently contemporary. Landmarks is a reaction to a changing literary landscape, in which dozens of words for nature were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of technological terms: acorn replaced by attachmentbluebell by broadband. As we lose our ability to articulate the landscape, so the landscape begins to lose its meaning.

The idea of a world-encompassing glossary of natural terms is ambitious, but the value in its attempt cannot be understated. In Australia, approximately 250 indigenous languages were spoken at the time of colonisation, including 40 in Victoria alone; across the country, this comprised 600 dialects. When the colonists arrived, the English language was not adequate to articulate the country, leading to frustration. A ‘hideous blank’, declared one white settler, chronicled by Macfarlane: ‘everywhere the same dreadful, dreary, dismal desert’.

Over the years, as the colonists began to find ways to express their awe of the ‘sunburnt country’, indigenous languages began to disappear. In less than two centuries, more than 150 languages were lost and today, all Australian indigenous languages are in a critical state. How many ancient, apposite terms to describe this unique country have already vanished in the scope of a much greater tragedy?

Australia must answer the call for a linguistic return to the wild. In 2007, the world’s urban population overtook the rural population for the first time in Earth’s history; three-quarters of Australians live in the country’s urban centres. If cat comes more readily to our tongues than quollmyna before galah, how long before we cease to consider these animals altogether? Without these words in our collective vocabulary, it is only a matter of time before they are lost from our collective consciousness.

Today, Victoria is a place of great linguistic diversity. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages promotes the revival and documentation of languages for the benefit of the Aboriginal community. Italian is the second most spoken language in Victoria after English, followed closely by Greek, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. Each distinct speaker of a language is finding new ways to express their country. As old place-terms are salvaged and rediscovered, so too can new words be collected and stored beside them.

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

"Glossary X": an opportunity for readers to add their own place-terms. Photo: Alex Mullarky

The final chapter of Landmarks is ‘Glossary X’. These blank pages are left for the reader to fill with his or her own terms for the world around them. It is time to begin filling that blank space. Let Dorothea MacKellar’s ‘stark white ring-barked forest’, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s djilawurr, Banjo Patterson’s ‘wild-hop scrub’, Judith Wright’s ‘blue leaves’ and ‘paperbark swamps’ and Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s ‘dark lagoon’ populate its pages.

Landmarks is a life’s work, but it only begins to scratch the surface. It is an accomplished piece of nature writing and a fascinating examination of the place-terms of Britain, but its greatest value is in its role as a manifesto. Language is an instrument of our connection to the landscape: lose the language, and the connection will be broken.

Banner image courtesy of Emma Walsh