In reality, the whole of the south-west of Western Australia was occupied, and had been for a very long time. It was home to the Noongar, an Aboriginal ‘nation’ with at least fourteen distinct language groups. Noongar boodja (country) extended north beyond Jurien Bay on the western coast, east beyond Esperance on the southern coast, and included almost all land south of a line joining the two.
The Katanning district was unusual, being at the junction of three traditional Noongar domains. The lands to the north, including present-day Wagin and Dumbleyung districts, were home to the Wilmen language group. The lands to the west and south, including Kojonup and Cranbrook, were home to the Kaneang. Similarly, the Koreng ranged south and east to Gnowangerup, the Stirling Ranges, Bremer Bay and beyond.
These traditional territories were characterised not by hard boundaries but by overlapping ranges and crossing paths. For the most part the different groups coexisted peacefully, even interacting socially in seasons of plenty. Their dialects were distinct, but a common core of language made for easy communication. A quick glance at any modern map of the Great Southern reveals one important difference of Noongar dialect. From Katanning to the north, Aboriginal placenames typically ended in –in or –ing, which was the Wilmen suffix denoting ‘place of’. In this direction we find Moojebing, Woodanilling, Nairibin, and Nyabing. For both the Kaneang and Koreng the corresponding suffix was –up. Thus to the south-west of Katanning we find Kaneang names Kojonup, Jungalup and Muradup. To the south-east we see places once home to Koreng: Tambellup, Gnowangerup, Ongerup and Jerramungup.
A curious consequence of this difference is that in the shared lands around Katanning, many places carried two near-identical names: one ending in –up, the other in –ing. For one visiting group, a place might be “Dyliabing”; to the next, it might be “Dyliabup”. Katanning itself was subject of this variation. Daisy Bates, in her ethnological writings, noted four variations: Ke’-taning, Ke’-tanup, Ke’tungain, and Ke’tungup.
It should be noted that all of these placenames are English-language approximations of Aboriginal spoken words. The first white settlers found the rapid staccato of Aboriginal speech difficult to hear, and quickly learned that some Aboriginal sounds have no exact counterparts in English. Inevitably, phonetic spellings vary widely.