Frequently Asked Questions
Our aim is to investigate the history, meaning, and motivation for use of each name ever current for a topographic feature or inhabited locality in Australia, and to make public the results of these investigations. These cultural aspects of placename study have never formed an area of systematic research in Australia, and the Survey aims to remedy this deficiency.
A comprehensive record and study of our placenames is important to give us a full understanding of our history and culture. Placenames are the symbols of our socio-historical past, and their study involves many academic disciplines, including history, geography, linguistics and sociology. The fascinating cultural history of our Indigenous and introduced placenames is being lost with the passing of the generations, and Australia lags behind other countries with a comparable level of educational and research sophistication and cultural awareness in documenting this basic part of our history.
The rich tales behind our placenames need to be recorded now, and the ANPS is a rare opportunity for members of the Australian community with experience in a wide range of disciplines and with a variety of interests to work together on a project of great scientific and cultural significance.
Each state and territory has a nomenclature authority responsible for the technical aspects of toponymy, i.e. determining which placenames are to be in official use and the exact location of the places designated by them. These authorities all maintain databases of placenames within their jurisdiction, some of which are available online. For links to their websites please go to our Resources page.
With limited staffing and financial resources, these authorities are not able to comprehensively research the history, origin and meaning of all current official placenames within their jurisdiction, still less document all names previous used and all variant forms to be found in historic sources. These cultural aspects of toponymy are the work of the ANPS.
All the state and territory nomenclature authorities, as well as various Commonwealth authorities that also have responsibility for placenaming, are members of the Committee for Geographical Names in Australasia. CGNA was founded in 1984 as the Committee for Geographical Names in Australia and in 1998, with the joining of Land Information New Zealand, became the Committee for Geographical Names in Australasia. The ANPS also became a full member of CGNA in 1998 in order to help foster close links between our complementary activities.
In 1993 CGNA became established within the Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping. With the support of the National Mapping Division of Geoscience Australia, the Committee is responsible for maintaining the Gazetteer of Australia, available online.
The Australian landscape is overlaid by two distinct networks of placenames, the Indigenous and the Introduced.
It must be recognised that before the arrival of Europeans every place of significance to the existing inhabitants was already named. In many parts of Australia this living network of Indigenous placenames has been disrupted beyond recovery; in others it has not yet been fully documented (and in many cases elements of the network form 'secret', sacred knowledge).
On top of this comprehensive Indigenous placenaming network there has been superimposed, since colonisation and settlement, a much less organic Introduced naming system. All present-day official names of topographic features and settlements form part of the Introduced system, although in some cases names from the Indigenous network have been incorporated within it in more or less mutilated forms.
The ANPS recognises a difference between Indigenous placenames as used by Indigenous communities presently or formerly, such as Kudnya-tyura-apukanha in the Arabana country of South Australia or Ngalti-nnga recorded in the Adelaide region in the 1830s, and placenames of Indigenous origin within the Introduced network, such as Wahroonga, Ballarat, and Coolgardie.
At this stage it is not possible to do more than guess at this. In the J.P. Thomson Oration delivered to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Qld) in 1990, John Atchison hazarded the guess, 'If we adopt as an initial hypothesis the traditional European average of one place name per square mile plus a lost or obsolete list of one quarter again our heritage of geographical names could be four million.'
The 210,000 names of the Gazetteer of Australia, derived from the features named on the 1:100,000 National Topographic Map Series will form a more manageable starting point! It must be stressed, however, that the ultimate aim of the Survey is the study of all Australian placenames, including those later replaced by other names, those of now depopulated locations, and hitherto unrecorded Indigenous toponyms.
In the Indigenous network of placenames, which formally covered the whole of Australia and named every significant locality, 100%!
Within the Introduced network of present-day official names, varying estimates have been made of the proportion that are of Indigenous origin—a figure recently calculated is a little over 25%. Smaller topographical features such as creeks more commonly bear names of Indigenous origin adopted by early settlers than do the major rivers and lofty peaks, predominantly named by early European explorers in honour of the great men of their culture.
No name of a settlement can be derived directly from the Indigenous network, since such features were not part of traditional Aboriginal culture, but a form of the name may once have belonged to a nearby topographic feature—or it may be a generic word meaning 'spring' (such as Brim in Victoria) or even 'go away' (the Ballarat suburb of Wendouree).
The ANPS aims to investigate and record such information as: WHEN a place was first named, WHO named it, WHY it was so named, and any previous names, name changes, nicknames and changes in spelling.
The ANPS is just beginning to record details of placename pronunciations; it is hoped to expand our coverage of that aspect quite significantly in the future.
The Survey covers the names of topographical features (hill, creeks, bays, headlands); habitations (towns, suburbs); other features associated with settlement and land use (stock stations, paddocks, waterholes, lines of road); and administrative divisions (states, local government areas, electorates).
Historical and previously unrecorded names are also included. The names of railway stations and post offices are of importance as their establishment is often a key datable event in the formation of a settlement. In due course coverage will extend to take in the names of undersea features within Australian territorial waters and the placenames of Australia's external territories.
The names of streets and buildings lie outside the Survey's scope, at least for the foreseeable future.
The procedures of toponymy as a systematic discipline have been well elaborated in the 20th century as a result of the pioneering work since 1923 of members of the English Place-Name Society, and of German and Scandinavian scholars. The essential tasks that must be undertaken as prerequisites to the interpretation of placenames are first the compilation of an accurate register of features defined by both name and location, and secondly the exhaustive collection of name-forms from all available historical documentation, related as closely as possible to the present day locations and names.
Notwithstanding the considerable differences between the European situation and that in Australia, where recorded name-forms are with a handful of exceptions not more than two hundred years old, and the naming processes are to a large extent deliberate rather than organic, these two tasks remain the foundation of any interpretative activity. The resources of the constituent bodies of the CGNA will be indispensable in respect of the first; in respect of the second the involvement of local historical societies and individual local historians will be crucial.
A dimension to the study of Australian placenames which has hitherto received particularly scant attention is the sound analysis of names of Indigenous origin. This linguistic interpretation is hindered by the fact that in most cases the names were first recorded by people with little knowledge of the language concerned, and they have often been altered to conform more closely with English phonology or typical name-shapes. Reconstruction is complicated by the fact that in many cases the languages concerned are poorly documented and no longer spoken. In addition the original referents are unclear and the names may have been transferred across large distances. The close involvement of experts in Australian languages will be needed in all parts of the country. In addition, it will be necessary to work closely with land councils and language centres in regions where Indigenous languages are still current.
All of the research is being done by volunteer Research Friends of the ANPS. Information about Introduced placenames is being collected by interested individuals and members of historical societies all over Australia. 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 descendents.
Find out how to become a volunteer participant in the Survey.
Several decades at least! The Survey of English Place-Names published its first county volume in 1925; and preliminary completion of its geographical coverage is projected for around the time if its centenary in 2025 -- after that there will be a second round of filling in the gaps and adding to the detail. In the United States the Geographic Names Information System (a register only, comparable to the CGNA gazetteer) has been under construction since 1982 and is scheduled for completion in 2005.
The principal resource of the Survey will be a substantial database in electronic form. Once this reaches an appropriate stage of readiness it will be available to interested parties over the Internet. In addition, sections of the data will also be distributed in both multimedia and printed formats. A substantial program of publications, both academic and popular, will be developed in collaboration with one or more commercial partners.
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.
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