Origin and meaning of RSV Nuyina

'nuyina’ means ‘southern lights’ in palawa kani, the language of Tasmanian Aborigines. It is pronounced noy‑yee‑nah (watch the video above to learn how to pronounce it or listen to an audio pronunciation).

The southern lights, also known as aurora australis, are an atmospheric phenomenon formed over Antarctica that reaches northwards to light up Australian — and particularly Tasmanian — skies. Australia’s current long-serving icebreaker, the RSV Aurora Australis, bears the name of the southern lights, while the first Australian Antarctic ship, Sir Douglas Mawson’s SY Aurora was named after the same phenomenon.

The name RSV Nuyina continues this theme and forms another chapter in the story of connection between Australia and Antarctica, which has played out historically over the past century and geologically over a much longer time frame.

RSV Nuyina recognises the long connection that Tasmanian Aboriginal people have with the evocative southern lights. Tasmanian Aboriginal people were the most southerly on the planet during the last ice age. The adaptability and resilience of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who travelled in canoes to small islets in the Southern Ocean, are qualities emulated by our modern-day Antarctic expeditioners as they travel south.

The word nuyina was first shared by Aborigines with government agent George Augustus Robinson in August 1831, near Ansons Bay in Tasmania’s northeast. He wrote in his journal: 'The natives last night saw an electric spark in the atmosphere, at which they appeared frightened, and one of them told them not to mention it as they would all be sick if they did… the natives of Cape Portland call it noi.hee.ner’.

In October 1837 on Flinders Island he wrote: 8pm saw the southern lights or aurora borealis in the southern aspect of the heavens; streaks of light, white and red and a crimson tint shadowed that part of the heavens; the streaks were vertical. Last night the southern lights were extremely visible; the natives call it… no.hoi.ner’.

The ship name was suggested by Australian schoolchildren through the ‘Name our Icebreaker’ competition, which was designed to engage Australian students and expand their understanding of Antarctica, its environment, climate, history and Australia’s role there.

Aboriginal language was the inspiration for a fifth of all the valid ship names submitted by Australian children. In many of the competition entries, students spoke of their desire for reconciliation and recognition of Australian Aborigines. Using an Aboriginal name for the new ship acknowledges all the children who wanted to recognise the interwoven history of Aboriginal people and the great southern land — Antarctica.

palawa kani is the language spoken by Tasmanian Aborigines today. It draws on extensive historical and linguistic research of written records and spoken recordings, and Aboriginal cultural knowledge. Not enough remains of any of the original six to 12 original languages to form a full language today, so palawa kani combines authentic elements from many of these languages. It flourishes in Aboriginal community life, with three generations of children having grown up learning it, and features increasingly in public life, including in gazetted Tasmanian place names.

palawa kani language workers used a standard process of linguistic analysis to transcribe the two English spellings, recorded in Robinson’s diary, into phonetics, to compare the sounds. In this way they could retrieve as close to the original sounds as possible, and reproduce them in the standardised spelling system developed for palawa kani. And so – nuyina.