A wordsmith, a lexicologist, in the purest sense
John McEntee is an enigma. When I rang him on the satellite phone to get directions to his property, Erudina, en route to Lake Callabonna, he sounded like the archetypical Outback grazier, speaking in drawn-out words that came disguised by a thick back-country accent.
But John’s delivery was almost digestive and, as I found out an hour later when we met up with him, not caused by the satphone messages passing through the ether.
His unusual voice delivery probably has much to do with the fact that John McEntee is a wordsmith, a lexicologist, in the purest sense. As well as being well versed in at least two Aboriginal languages and the co-author of two books on Aboriginal flora and fauna names, John understands word meanings from dozens of global languages, modern and ancient.
John’s interest in Aboriginal languages was born during his school days in Adelaide. He searched out word lists and went to the old Aborigines to learn the phonetics. I threw some Aboriginal words at him in what I thought was my best, authentic accent and, following a deprecatory intake of breath, he corrected my pronunciation.
“I don’t do the conversational thing very well,” said John. “The phonetics and grammar are more my interest.”
After a hard day in the vast drought-blasted paddocks that make up Erudina Station John comes home to play Baroque piano music that he taught himself. John’s musical ear was tuned from a hand-made ‘guitar’ he built as a youngster, using tennis racket catgut for strings and a plywood sound box around the racquet frame.
John is also deeply involved in the history of the northern South Australia region and anything you need to know about the successive Dog Fences John can provide.
If you really want to pick around in the mud for long-dead diprotodons John McEntee knows where they are, but you’ll need South Australian Museum permission first.
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