[Update (Oct 2012): go here for a more recent post and video about pronouncing Ngukurr]
Before I came to Ngukurr, I already had a good idea how ‘Ngukurr’ should be pronounced (because I’m a clever linguist). I remember laughing at a story I heard long before I came here of a white person who called this place ‘Nagooka’. That’s the worst mispronounciation I’ve heard of.
Less worse, but still wrong, is what the majority of munanga say, which is ‘Nooka’. I hear some munanga say, ‘oh the g is silent’. The g isn’t silent, it’s there – it goes with the n. The ng is the same ng you get when you say ‘singing’. But in English, you don’t get the ng sound at the beginning of words, so most munanga have a very hard time hearing and saying the ng.
Secondly, the two us in Ngukurr are pronounced the same – like the u in ‘put’. But most munanga turn the second u into an ‘ah’ sound.
Lastly – the double r. It’s not silent. It’s a rolled r, we don’t get that in English either, and lots of munanga can’t roll their rs.
So even though this place is known throughout the white part of the NT as ‘Nooka’, really, it’s proper name is pronounced Ngukurr, just like it’s spelled – ng- u- k- u- rr.
I never thought about it much until last year when the principal at the school made a point of saying that munanga should show respect by trying to say Ngukurr properly. Before that, to me it was just one of those things – everybody says ‘Nooka’ and that the way it is.
But I started to take notice.
Firstly, I noticed how whenever local mob are talking to munanga, they will say ‘Nooka’, because that’s what munanga know and understand, even though everyone here knows that not how it’s really pronounced. I started to realise that this was a bit sad – the local mob are changing the way they’re speaking on white people’s behalf, and mispronouncing the name of their own community! But the reverse isn’t happening, munanga keep saying Nooka in ignorant bliss.
Secondly, I keep noticing how important it is to local mob to use and maintain the real placenames and their correct pronounciation. Last year we went camping at Lumayirrima. On the maps this place is called Lomarieum Lagoon – obviously a total bastardisation of its actual name. I jokingly suggested we graffiti the sign there to correct the name, but to my surprise the response was serious – yes, we should, it should have the proper name there.
Then the other day we were editing a story we’d written. The author had written two local placenames with their more common, but incorrect names. I wrote up the story on the board for editing and when I asked if they wanted these names or did they want the correct names to response was clear – yes, put the proper names there, properly spelled. And so ‘yellow water’ became Yawurrwarda and ‘wadjalai’ became Ngujulayi.
It seems that it is important to people here that placenames are used correctly, it’s just not being asserted.
And so lately, I’ve started saying ‘Ngukurr’ instead of ‘Nooka’, to white people as well as the Ngukurr mob. And I’m finding the response interesting. Over the phone, when I’ve said ‘Ngukurr’ to a white person, the response is always ‘where?’, and I’ve had to repeat myself and say ‘Nooka’. No wonder this mob just say Nooka, they get misunderstood enough as it is. But I’m gonna try and persist... I no longer work at the Nooka Language Centre, I’m at the Ngukurr Language Centre.