April 25, 2015

Lest we forget: warfare in our own region

No one in my close family has been to war, so I've never felt like international conflicts were that close to my life. So for me, domestic conflicts have more immediate relevance.

The traditional languages of the Katherine and Roper regions aren't endangered just because parents decided their kids didn't need to know their language anymore. There are huge social and historical forces at play. The warfare that occurred when Europeans first came to this area is one of those major factors. The stories are there - in books, newspapers and oral histories. They're not hard to find. It's just that most people aren't ready to know or want to know.

I was surprised and impressed to see Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels' entry to 2014 Katherine Prize called Olden Days, depicting a scene of local warfare. I'd never seen them paint this theme before. It's a wonderful painting about our awful and very close-to-home unofficial wars. Lest we forget.

Olden Days (detail) by Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels. 2014.
Olden Days. By Wally Wilfred and Jill Daniels. 2014.

April 17, 2015


This is a bit random, but I had to share. I've been lolling and beating my fist on the table all night at this video (yes, literally). I had no idea a 17 second cutaway on a TV show could be so LOL-worthy. It really tickles my fancy ... the idea of this cruel gameshow called "Homonym":

The cleverness of 30 Rock is only just dawning on me, about 10 years too late. But my appreciation went up a whole nother level when I saw they'd gone all multilingual on the idea and done Homonym in Farsi (Persian)! It's gold:

I love that the presenter is just as cruelly funny in Farsi and the Farsi-speaking contestant is brilliant too. I'm very glad that someone put a translation on YouTube. It's goes like this:
Presenter: The next term: milk/tap/lion (all pronounced شیر  'sheer' in Farsi - a triple homonym)
Contestent: Sure. "شیر". Like a large cat?
Presenter: No, the other one.
Contestant: Go to hell! (Literally "soil on your head" as in entombed, or simple "die")
Presenter: [Maniacal laugh]

February 18, 2015

Ten years of blogging!

Ten years of blogging? How did that happen! Well this is how... revealed in a long, extremely self-indulgent post that hopefully has enough reflection and self-awareness to not make you vomit into your hat.

Here's where it all began: http://munanga.blogspot.com.au/2005/02/oh-my-ive-got-blog.html

I started this blog in 2005 in pre-Facebook days when the main ways of keeping in touch with friends and family was phone, email or snail mail. The beginnings of this blog were very innocuous - a way for friends/family to read about what I was up to (I'm a crap emailer and letter writer). At the time I was a few months into my only major stint of living remotely, spending around three years in Ngukurr as a community-based linguist. It was a tough job and I was on a steep learning curve very much out of my cultural comfort zone. I soon found that blogging was a good way for me document and process the interesting and challenging experiences I was having. There were also a group of friends and colleagues doing the same thing and we formed a nice little blogroll together. That was when my blogging was most prolific and if you read over those old posts you'll see lots about the day-to-day life of being a remote linguist. For example, here's a short post on a nice exchange I had with a young neighbour (maidi sta bin buldan) and here's me getting a bit worn out and discussing some of the work issues I would face daily (reluctant).

A few years into my blogging, I unexpectedly found out that it had the potential to be a bit of a voice for advocacy. I had thought that it was only my friends and a few language nerds reading my musings, but then during my last year in Ngukurr we had the Intervention. I was already burning out and in hindsight, the extra trauma of the Intervention put the nail into the coffin and I moved back to town not long after. After attending the first major community meeting about the Intervention, I had a burning desire to get the story off my chest. I had no choice - my head and heart was racing and I needed to express it. That post was later picked up by a former Queensland senator (for the Democrats... yep... that's how long I've been blogging.. the Democrats were still a thing!) who used it as a source of info and anti-Intervention sentiment and suddenly I'd reached a whole new audience.

Then my blog got quiet. I was living back in Katherine, life was less tumultuous, and the Facebook era was in full swing. With Facebook, I had a much more immediate and interactive way to keep in touch with friends and family, so the blog was not quite as functional anymore. But it floated along with occasional posts and then kinda got a boost again in 2010 when I started my PhD and started spending a lot more time in Ngukurr again. I had exciting things to share again and things that required a bit more detail than a Facebook status update could give. For example. this was me after finding out that young people in Ngukurr say 'gijal' instead of 'gija' (crazy katz) and here's one of the cool things I learned about Marra while I was working with the old people.

Around the same time another significant thing was happening. A bunch of postgrad students started up a language blog, Fully (sic), on the Crikey news website and I jumped on board. This really helped get my blogging mojo back. Despite being a regular contributor to that blog, I kept up the blogging here too, to talk about things that were more personal or localised, like my traumatic wet season trip from Ngukurr to Katherine or about translating Facebook into Kriol. Meanwhile, on Fully (sic), my writing skills were developing and I started to gain confidence in my writing. I'd never thought of myself as a decent writer. I don't enjoy writing. I don't do a lot of it really. But now I was writing on this blog, on Crikey, and getting stuck back into academic writing and I was doing okay at it. What a revelation! The Crikey stuff was awesome and I wrote some things I'm very proud of, one of the first being my list of Top Ten Moments In The Sun for Indigenous languages. So many people read it and enjoyed it! Another piece I like was when I mansplained why the Australian Financial Review got it wrong by using the word 'blacks' in their headline and was totally chuffed when none other than First Dog On The Moon tweeted about what a good headline "Why Muriel Heslop is not as dumb as the Australian Financial Review" was. I was also very proud to actually be the first person to break the story that the NT Government had finally dropped the awful policy of teaching in English for the First Four Hours of each school day. That story was later reported on by quite a few other media outlets.

So it was about here that I started getting bolder with my blogging. I criticised a journalist from the Australian for adhering to a deficit discourse when it came to reporting on Indigenous education. As if that wasn't a big enough target, I later bagged out McDonald's and suggested that an advertising campaign they ran was kinda racist. I don't think I overstepped the mark with those pieces, but I really am not sure about whether the piece I wrote about Marion Scrymgour for New Matilda was a good idea. It was strongly worded, venting years of frustration I'd felt in the face of unsuccessful lobbying to get the First Four Hours of policy removed and the stubbornness of Scrymgour and others to stand by it. My article resulted an instant rebuttal that named me numerous times as being out of line. I still have no perspective on this - was I being bullied? Was I just naive in thinking that little old me could write whatever I like and no one would pay any attention but actually was way out of line? I still don't know. But as a minor compensation, I still enjoy the line that I was "a member of a sophisticated, well-organised, and influential lobby group". That really does make it clear as day how perceptions differ. At my end, all I do is send a few emails, chat to others and blather on about stuff on blogs. I had no idea that that could be construed as being sophisticated, organised and influential!

Not long after that episode came another very difficult piece that I wrote after watching a controversial AFL grand final. The match had ended abruptly when the all-Indigenous team from Ngukurr were called off the field by their coaches before the final siren in protest of the umpiring and conduct of the mostly or all non-Indigenous Katherine-based team. It was a traumatic event to witness and the aftermath was also shocking, where so few of my Katherine-based friends were sympathetic to the Ngukurr team's behaviour (the Ngukurr coaches were also sent to the AFL tribunal over it). I composed a lengthy piece to provide a viewpoint that differed from the majority but got caned for it. The negative comments came think and fast (as well as plenty of positive ones) and a random angry phone call from a player on the Katherine-based team made it all become too real. I took the post down.

Since then I've had a lot more anxiety about blogging and tried to return to nicer and safer posts and topics. I wrote lighter stuff on Fully (sic) that I'm proud of like advocating that 'totes' should be spelled 'toats' and a look at the multilingual AFL commentary gimmick of a few years back. But the compulsion to raise issues and criticise seems to be ingrained. I've always been this way I think. In Year 12, I got a letter to the editor published in the Courier Mail complaining that Channel 10 had edited the lesbian kiss out of a rerun of a Roseanne episode. Ha! My sister reminded me of a late drunken night in the Valley in my early 20s when I was annoyed that the ATM was out of action due to scheduled servicing right when I needed cash to get my drunken arse home. I marched right over to a payphone and rang the bank to complain. What a brat. And don't worry, if you find it annoying that I'm constantly getting worked up about issues (which always inevitably pass... I know I don't always need to bother), I find myself annoying most of the time too. I apologise. I do try to keep it light sometimes.

But I just can't help myself. This time last year I was on a mini rampage when Indigenous education was reviewed in the NT by a clueless numbskull. I vented directly to him at a public meeting and then vented on my blog. The piece, Northern Territory's Draft Indigenous Education review (Part 1) is now my 2nd most read article on here. (Still working on that part two though!). Days later I blogged again about how appalled I was with the very kind appraisal of a notorious NT historical figure in an exhibition at the NT Library (Whitewashed: The Northern Territory Library's disturbing commemoration of the life of Paul Foelsche). This issue was actually picked up by local ABC so I must have been on to something.

Last week, I had an interview for a fancy job at a very nice university and they asked what publications I'm most proud of. As I bumbled through my answer ("I don't actually like this piece... Well, I mean I like it, but it was just difficult to write and it was a full on experience to go through..."), I talked about the time I took on the multi-million dollar marketing campaign of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (first on the present blog, then on Fully (sic)). I complained that they were using a false statistic in their marketing and pandering to a negative portrayal of remote Aboriginal kids. The boss of this influential charity took issue with what I'd written and I took issue back. It was a very stressful week. My bark is a lot bigger than my bite. I'm typically a pushover and not very assertive in real life, so episodes like this make me very anxious. It's probably my lack of interpersonal assertiveness that makes me a good candidate for being quite vehement (at times) on the internet. I know at least one fellow PhD student who knew my blogging before they knew me remarked that the real life me was not what they'd expected at all. Ha!

And that's the story of my ten years of blogging. Again, apologies for the long self-indulgent post. But it has actually been quite a significant part of my life, so why not reflect on it properly? My blogging has helped to clarify my thoughts about many issues and events. It's made what I do and what I care about more widely known and understood. I like to think I've helped to promote Aboriginal languages and made them better understood, as well as those who speak them (or have been denied that opportunity via history). And for me personally, it's really helped me develop as a writer. I've gone from an incredibly reluctant writer who thought nothing of my writing abilities, to now being a confident writer who believes that writing can do pretty cool things when you do it well or get it right. This blog has documented many parts of my professional and personal life over the past ten years and I've really enjoyed sharing it with whoever happens across it. Thanks for reading.

If anyone has actually read this far, I'd love to hear your open thoughts if you have any to share: on my blogging in general, or any specific posts, on the issue of balancing the sharing of online opinions/views with maintaining real-life relationships, or on being a 'keyboard warrior' and advocating and raising issues online in media like blogs - is it worthwhile? how hard do you push? The past ten years of blogging have been quite a rollercoaster and I'm still figuring it out.

October 19, 2014

What's in a word: dinggal

Fun fact: In Kriol, dinggal is a verb meaning 'limp' or 'walk unevenly'. In Marra and Warndarrang, dinggarl-dinggarl refers to a weed that produces fruit like this:

Notice a connection?

I only just noticed it yesterday when I was trying to suss out where the verb dinggal comes from (obviously not English). You can see the verb dinggal described (at 1:10) in this video (courtesy of the ever helpful and brilliant Kamahl and Dwayne):

As for those spiky little spurs? They're found across a lot of Australia, not only on on the ground, but embedded in thongs, feet and tyres, all over remote Australia. According to Heath's Warndarrang and Marra dictionaries, the species name is Tribulus cistoides. I'm not sure but it might be the nasty weed known as caltrop (can anyone confirm this?). Obviously, treading on those awful bindi-eyes will make you limp and walk strangely. The link between the plant name in Marra and Wandarrang and the verb shown on the video above is pretty obvious.

But there's more the story of the etymology of dinggal. See, it seems quite unlikely for a noun to switch over and become a verb when it transfers into a new language. Most other Kriol verbs that come from a traditional languages were verbs in the original language. It seems to be the norm that word classes stay the same. And when I scouted around, I did find examples of dinggal as a verb in other languages:

Margaret Sharpe's Alawa dictionary lists dinggal as a coverb with the meaning 'be lame' - not quite the same as limp, but definitely shares the meaning of being somehow incapacitated. And when Ruth Singer re-jigged Heath's Marra dictionary in 2002, the old ladies she worked with must have told her dinggal was a Marra coverb too, because it ended up in Ruth's dictionary with the meaning 'to go with a stick, to walk with a limp’. (It wasn't in Heath's original Marra dictionary).

But the clues don't end there. Up in Central Arnhem Land where Ngandi country is, they say gu-dheng for foot (gu- is just a noun class marker - the bit that really means foot is dheng). When Ngandi people make verbs, they can do something that Marra, Alawa and Warndarrang people can't in their languages which is to insert a noun in the middle of the verb (this is known as "noun incorporation" to smarty-bum linguists).

Ngandi has a verb root -galiyn- meaning 'to hang up, suspend'. And when the word for foot gets incorporated into that verb, a new verb is created: -dhingh-galiyn- which Heath defined as 'to have or put one's foot on top'. This verb is now reminiscent of the Kriol meaning of dinggal too. And when we get rid of the Ngandi sounds that you don't get in Kriol (like the 'dh' and the glottal stop 'h') then -dhingh-galiyn- ends up as '-dinggaliny-'. Drop the -iny and you have a match with Kriol verb.

And that's what I've learned (so far) about the possible origins of the Kriol verb dinggal. (And... bragging rights: it's not even in the Kriol Dikshenri so I might be the first person to document dinggal as a Kriol verb at all!)

But was it a verb or a plant name first? And in which language? Maybe the Ngandi verb was first and it became the Marra and Warndarrang name for the weed. Or did the plant name come first? Or was it just a coincidence that the Ngandi word for foot created a verb that was reminiscent of words in Marra, Alawa and Warndarrang and then they all reinforced each other and then when Kriol developed, hey presto, let's keep using the word dinggal?

Who knows? I don't. Happy to hear your theories and speculations though!

By the way, this is stuff I've been writing in my thesis which is neeeeaaaaarrrrrrllllly done - still a few months away but getting close now. If you found this interesting, you can read about a stack of other examples when my thesis is finally completed.


Heath, Jeffrey. 1978. Ngandi grammar, texts, and dictionary. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Heath, Jeffrey. 1980. Basic materials in Warndarang: grammar, texts and dictionary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Heath, Jeffrey. 1981. Basic Materials in Mara: Grammar, Texts and Dictionary. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Lee, Jason (ed.). 2004. Kriol-Ingglish Dikshenrihttp://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/ASEDA/docs/0739-Kriol/index.1.html.

Sharpe, Margaret. 2001. Alawa Nanggaya Nindanya Yalanu rugalarra: Alawa-Kriol-English Dictionary longer edition. Adelaide: Caitlin Press.

Singer, Ruth and Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation. 2002. Marra Picture Dictionary. Katherine, NT: Diwurruwurru-Jaru Aboriginal Corporation.

September 01, 2014

Bunjee. We gotta go now.

Wide-eyed and well-educated. That was me, supposedly.

That was me when I first camped in an Aboriginal community. I was there to learn about “the other”. Except now, I was “the other”. If the community was a billabong that never dried up, I was a fisherman. Transient. Sitting on the bank, optimistically dangling a line, seeking a gift, a prize, some sustenance.

But on this day – the day I got my simplest and most effective Kriol lesson ever, I wasn’t a lone fisherman. Me, and - “them” - were an awkward “us”. A handful of people lining a creek, at 100 foot intervals, semi-hidden from each other, each in our own quiet space and solitude. Optimistically dangling that line.

Except my line was tangled and taut with my own anxiety. I was the outsider, observing “the other” yet being “the other”. How do I act here? How do I speak to these people? How are they gonna accept me? How do we interact? Can I keep my feet on the ground, outta my mouth?

I kept fishing, kept that line in the water, kept my fears tightly wound round the cheap plastic handreel inside my own self-consciousness. I waited for a bite.

The sun sank. There we were. A handful of people and a watercourse, whose relationships were bound by a history older anything I’d ever encountered before.

My fears, I discovered, were unfounded. I found them willing to fold me into their world, ever so slowly. Fold me in like an origami artist making deliberate creases on expensive paper. The sun sank and it was time for a Kriol lesson.

The instruction. ‘Yu jingat yu banji jeya’ – call out to your newly-adopted brother-in-law over there.

And no further meta-discussion, just a demonstration: ‘BANJI! WI GARRA GU NA!’
‘Bunjee. We gotta go now.
‘Nomo lagijat’. – not like that. ‘BANJI!’, yu la…
And that was my lesson. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t grammar or vocab. It was intonation. Prosody. And what us linguists call pragmatics. It was an essential lesson. A basic lesson: how to speak to someone who is far away.

In my culture, I was shouting. A sign of anger, distress. In their culture, it was purely pragmatic. Greater distance = greater volume.

This was a lesson absorbed very easily, and very permanently. Catch of the day on my day of fishing.

But that lesson was 10 years ago. And that riverbank is far away in space and time. Traded in for town. K-Town. Woolies. Commerce, business, retail. Small talk, pleasantries, acquaintances. Dinner parties and the detritus of Facebook gossip. And what they like to call ‘antisocial behaviour’. The us and them that fosters and festers when shared experiences aren’t experienced.

Why can’t they behave? Why are they so noisy? Why can’t they be more like us? Why can’t they keep their voices down? Keep their voice down. They They They. Why Why Why.

The ‘they’ of ‘our’ rhetoric, of our pronominal problem… ‘they’ are just fishermen and fisherwomen. Disrupted by the sinking sun. Needing to move to escape the impending darkness, but no longer sure where to go.

[The above is something I wrote for a little Open Mic Night we had in Katherine last weekend. The occasion was a visit by the brilliant Omar Musa who was travelling around launching his first novel 'Here Comes The Dogs' (spectacular website, btw). 

I decided to try my hand at some writing that's more creative than my usual blogging and thesis writing. Oh, and then stand up in front of 40 or so people and say/perform it. Definitely a first for me, but I enjoyed the exercise.]

August 13, 2014

Bla olgamen

Today is the first anniversary of the passing of Mrs F. Roberts, the old lady who taught me more Marra than anyone else in the world. She was awesome. I miss her and it makes me so sad that the world is a lesser place without her in it. 

She was born c1930 at Limmen Bight and passed away August 13, 2013 surrounded by family at Ngukurr. She arrived at the Roper River Mission as a young girl speaking only traditional languages, including her own language Marra. She went on to become a senior health worker at the local clinic and worked there for decades. After she retired, she started doing more language work and I started working with her in 2005. Her knowledge of Marra was spectacular and she could read and write it well too. She also spoke Yanyuwa and Nunggubuyu. I loved working with her and feel so priveleged to have learned some Marra from her. She was absolutely integral to my PhD research. She was the last person in Ngukurr who is a fully-fluent first language speaker of Marra. Without her around, the Marra language has become even quieter, to an even more heartbreaking degree. May she rest in peace and her language and legacy live on forever. Below are a few words I gave at her funeral:

Ai nimin sabi dis olgamen wen imin helth weka ba yumob. Ai bin oni sabi im afta imin ritaiya en imin stat weking la Langgus Senta. Bat imin so humble det olgamen, ainimin sabi streitawei det imin sabi im langgus, Marra, rait thru. Ainimin sabi hau speshul dis olgamen was.

Antil wandei, wan important olmen from Darwin bin gaman. Im neim Ted Egan en imin Administrator blanga NT. Imin wandi jidan garrim dis olgamen en irrim im stori. Det olmen Ted bin askim im ba tok olawei burru Marra.

Ai nimin sabi det taim, det dis olgamen im yiligarri ba langgus. Bat ai bin gedashok wen imin tok Marra rait thru en dalim det olmen lilwan stori bla im laif. Dijan na sambala wed imin tok la det olmen:

Gana ginya n-Marra gana ngarl-ngamanji: ngina, gana ginya n-daway.
            Ngula na-munanga gana… girlg-nan.gay marluy.
            Bigana nimbirr-jangani wala wul-agagurr.

En det wed im min: dijan Marra mi toking, bla main langgus dijan iya. Munanga kaan digidawei, najing. Dumaji mi dalimbat ola biginini.

From det dei, wen imin tok lagijat la Ted Egan, ai bin sabi hau speshul dis olgamen is. Det yiya bin 2006, seven years ago.

En didei aim jis very happy det ai bin get to know dis olgamen en det ai bin abu tjens ba len lilbit Marra burru im. Imin duwum lorra wek bla langgus. Imin gu la skul titjimbat Marra. Mela bin oldei hambag la im, bobala, ba tok burrum Marra, pudumdan najawan stori. Wi bin rekodim lorra stori bla im, so im langgus im gin kipgon.

Bat stil, ai sabi wi kaan faindim natha olgamen laik im. En mi so sad didei, ba tok wan las taim la im: guda mingi.

Translation: I didn't know this old lady when she was your health worker. I only knew her after she retired and started working at the Language Centre. But she was so humble. Initially, I didn't realise that she spoke her language Marra fully fluenlty. I didn't realise how special she was. 

Until one day, an important man from Darwin came. His name was Ted Egan and he was the administrator of the Northern Territory. He wanted to sit with this old lady and listen to her story. Ted Egan asked her to speak only in Marra. 

At the time, I didn't know that this old lady was a Marra expert. I was taken aback when I heard her speak only in Marra and tell that old man (Ted Egan) a short story about her life. Here are some of the words she said to him:
Gana ginya n-Marra gana ngarl-ngamanji: ngina, gana ginya n-daway.Ngula na-munanga gana… girlg-nan.gay marluy.Bigana nimbirr-jangani wala wul-agagurr.
And those words mean: This here is Marra I am speaking: it's mine, this language. Europeans can't take it away from me, no. Because I'm teaching the children.

Since that day, when she spoke to Ted Egan like that, I knew how special this old lady is. That was in 2006, seven years ago.

And today, I'm just very happy that I got to know this old lady and had the chance to learn some Marra from her. She did a lot of language work. She taught Marra in the school. We would always bug her, poor thing, to speak Marra and record another story. We recorded a lot of her stories, so her language can continue.

But I know we won't find another elder like her. And I'm very sad today to say to her one last time "guda mingi" (goodbye).

July 06, 2014

A closer look at ABC's Indigenous language news

This week I got rather excited upon hearing that the ABC is trialling an Indigenous language news service in two NT languages: Warlpiri and Yolŋu Matha. It's such a great initiative and got a bit of attention when it started, which made me think that it'd be nice to offer a beginner's guide to the languages and a closer look at what reports in the languages actually look like, as I guess most people who heard about the service know little about the languages involved. It's also slightly unfortunate that despite the launch of the Indigenous language news service getting some great attention some of the communications failed to make a distinction between separate Indigenous languages, e.g.:

ABC tweet with Warlpiri newsreader Vaughan Hargraves Jampijinpa

This is a minor problem in that it may perpetuate common misconceptions that Indigenous languages are just closely related dialects. Some people still think there's only one Indigenous language. So I thought I'd start off this guide with a closer look at the actual news reports, to give a sense of how distinct the two languages are. 

If you listen to the reports below, you'll hear a tennis update from when young Aussie Nick Kyrgios unexpectedly defeated world #1 Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships. Those of you who know me know that I'm tennis mad and that I get just as passionate about tennis as I do about Aboriginal languages. Yet they are two worlds that very rarely collide... until last week, that is. I nearly fell off my chair, grinning ear-to-ear, when I heard tennis news reported in Warlpiri and Yolŋu Matha. It was like a dream come true! Here are the recordings and below is a transcript of the tennis reports. See if you can follow them - the sprinkling of familiar words should help.

Nyampu jaru, jintakari yikarnanyarra yimi-ngarrirni, 19-year-old wati, Australia-wardingki, yirdiji Nick Kyrgios Wimbledon-rla kuja beat-i-manu Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon tennis championship-rla. Nyampu, Rafael Nadal, number one, World number one, kujaka nyina, nyampuku tennis player, world- world-rla wirijarlurla. Kuja play-jarrija, mungangka kutukari, mungangka kuja - manyu-karrija Nick Kyrgios, fourth round-rla, Nick Kyrgios beat-i-manu, Rafael Nadal 7-6 5-7 7-6 6-3. Nick Kyrgios ngulaju ka(rla) manyu-karri jintakarikilki, quarter-final-rlalku. Nyampuju ABC News, Warlpirirli ABC News and Aboriginal Interpreter Service kujalu jinta-jarrija, jintaku ngurrjumaninjaku.

Dhuwanydja dhäwu', nineteenmirr dhuŋgarramirr ḏirramu dhipuŋur Australiaŋur, yäku Nick Kyrgios ŋunhal Wimbledonlil ŋayi djuḻkmaram Rafael Nadalnha, ŋunhal Wimbledon tennis championshipŋur. Rafael Nadaldja dhuwal world number one. Ŋayi murrŋinydja mirithirr tennis player dhiyal worldŋur, yurru barpuruny ŋayi buḻ’yun Nick Kyrgiosnha, fourth round matchŋur. Nick Kyrgiosdhu djuḻkmaram Rafael Nadalnha, 7-6 5-7 7-6 6-3, ga Nick Kyrgiosdhu ŋunhalyun(??) buḻ’yun, quarter finalsthun. Dhuwanydja ABC News, Yolŋu Mathakurr

Big thanks to David Nash and Bree Blakeman for providing the transcripts and also to Claire Bowern for further help with the Yolŋu Matha. Good stuff hey? And also great work by the interpreters and news readers too!

Now that you've heard some of the two languages and seen it transcribed, what follows is some basic information about the two languages. Now, I'm not an expert on these languages but I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with people who speak them as a first language and with linguists who've studied these languages. The info below gives some basic details on the languages and plenty of links for you to learn more.


How many speakers? According to the last census 2,553 people spoke Warlpiri at home. But the actual figure would be higher - say 3,000-5,000 - if you include those who speak it as a 2nd or 3rd language.

Where is it spoken? Central Australia. Traditionally across a large area north-west of Alice Springs and in the Tanami Desert. Now, it's the primary language of four remote communities: Yuendumu (or more accurately: Yurntumu), Nyirrpi, Willowra (aka Wirliyajarrayi) and Lajamanu. You'll also hear it around Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and several other places. 

Is it a written language? Yes. Although Indigenous languages like Warlpiri weren't written before Europeans came along, big languages like Warlpiri now have a literacy tradition spanning decades. Check out some of the books they used in schools when Warlpiri communities had bilingual programs and kids were taught to read and write in Warlpiri: http://laal.cdu.edu.au/browse/language/450808/

What alphabet is used for Warlpiri? It uses the Roman alphabet but uses it more cleverly than English does. Each unique sound in Warlpiri has a one-to-one correspondence with a letter or digraph (two-letter combination). The Warlpiri alphabet, and hence all the unique sounds in Warlpiri, is: a i j k l ly m n ng ny p r rd rl rr rt u w y

Handy words and phrases? yapa (YAH-pah) means Warlpiri person or Aboriginal person. Non-Indigenous people are called kardiya (GAR-dee-yah). 'See you later' is ngakarnangku nyanyi. Junga (TJOONG-ah) means 'really?' or 'true'. And you can find a bunch more helpful words and phrases here

What are some interesting things about the language itself? 
  • All Warlpiri words start with a consonant and end in a vowel.
  • Some Warlpiri words undergo a process called vowel harmony where the letter u sometimes changes to i to match other i-s in the word. For example: kurdu means child and when you add -ku and say kurdu-ku it means 'for the child'. But to say 'for the man', you say wati-ki. Notice that the -ku changes to -ki because of the i in wati.
  • Other suffixes change depending on how many syllables are in the word it attaches to. There are two suffixes that mean the same thing: 'at' or 'on'. If the main word has two syllables, you use the suffix -ngka, as in pirli-ngka 'on the rock'. If the main word has three or more syllables, then you use a different suffix -rla, as in Wimbledon-rla heard above, meaning 'at Wimbledon'
Who are some well-known Warlpiri speakers? A couple of ex-AFL players speak Warlpiri - Liam Jurrah and Liam Patrick. Bess Price is a member of the NT Parliament and her first language is Warlpiri. And then there's the Bush Mechanics!

Where can I learn more? Nothing beats finding out more about Warlpiri language, people and culture from Warlpiri people themselves, but these resources are very useful too:

Yolŋu Matha

What's that funny looking n? I like to call it 'n-with-a-tail'. It stands for the sound 'ng', like the 'ng' in 'ringing'. If the word 'ringing' was written in Yolŋu Matha, it'd look like this: riŋiŋ. Conversely, when the word Yolŋu is written in English, it's written with the 'ng': Yolngu. 

But what's the point of ŋ? Firstly, it makes the written version of the language stand out a bit more which helps with strengthening identity through language. The other reason is a practical one: it helps you read the language better. So a word like wäŋa (home) you know sounds something like 'WAAHNG-ah' but the word gunga (pandanus) doesn't use that letter, so you know it should sound like 'GOON-gah'

How many people speak Yolŋu Matha? The short answer is several thousand. The long answer is that Yolŋu Matha is actually a cover-term for a whole bunch of different languages spoken by people who all call themselves Yolŋu. So we should really be considering each language individually. At the last census 2,971 people said they spoke Djambarrpuyŋu at home. Another 2,447 said they spoke Yolŋu Matha. Other Yolŋu languages mentioned include Gumatj (183), Gupapuyŋu (158) and Gälpu (146) but this is where the Census starts to become unreliable because it struggles to capture the complexity of the language situation in Arnhem Land. I've heard others mention that the ABC reports are in Djambarrpuyŋu, but I don't know enough about the subtle differences to be able to tell myself.

Where is it spoken? Arnhem Land. In particular, the communities of Yirrkala, Galiwin'ku, Gapuwiyak, Ramingining and Milingimbi plus lots of other outstations and other communities in the area, plus you'll find plenty of Yolŋu Matha speakers in Darwin, Nhulunbuy and elsewhere (including Katherine and Ngukurr). 

It's a written language too then I guess... Of course! The spelling system was refined over 50 years ago most notably by the missionary Beulah Lowe who did great things for language development while at Milingimbi. It's since been used to write bible chapters, deliver bilingual education and in the liner notes of Gurrumul's CDs, among other places.

What alphabet is used for Yolŋu Matha? Like Warlpiri, it uses the Roman alphabet but it uses different letters because the language has different sounds to Warlpiri. I've already mentioned the most distinctive letter: ŋ. The full alphabet is: a ä b d ḏ dh dj e g i k l ḻ m n ṉ nh ny ŋ o p r rr t ṯ th tj u w y ' where each letter or letter-combination represents a unique sound occuring in the language. 

Handy words and phrases? Nhämirri nhe (NAAH-midi nee) means 'how are you?' to which the usual answer is manymak (MUNN-muck). Yolŋu don't call white people 'kardiya' like Warlpiri people do, but rather balanda (BAHL-ahn-dah) or ŋäpaki (NGAAH-pah-ghee). I already mentioned the word wäŋa (WAAHNG-ah) which means home, camp, place, homeland etc. but don't confuse it with waŋa (WAHNG-ah) which means talk. 

Murrŋiny (shovel spear)
What are some interesting things about the language itself? 
  • Yolŋu languages are actually more closely related to Warlpiri than to the other languages spoken around it in Arnhem Land. It's just one of those things I suppose, like how Hungarian is related to Finnish but not any languages neighbouring Hungary.
  • Like any language, Yolŋu Matha has lots of great idioms and metaphors and there's one in the tennis report given above. They used the term murrŋinydja mirithirr tennis player dhiyal worldŋur to describe Rafael Nadal. Murrŋiny is literally a shovel spear, or more specifically, the blade of the rather dangerous shovel spear (see pic). I was told that murrŋiny also means sharp as in deadly, awesome and also has an element of danger. So the phrase murrŋinydja mirithirr tennis player dhiyal worldŋur isn't about a spear, but rather means 'one of the world's most dangerous/awesome tennis players'. 
Who are some well-known Yolŋu Matha speakers? That list could go on quite a while, starting with two former Australians of the Year, Galarrwuy Yunupiŋu (1978) and Dr. M Yunupiŋu (1992). Fellow educator Dr R. Marika. Actors like David Gulipilil. Musicians like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupiŋu and the band Yothu Yindi. AFL player Nathan Djerrkura. Even a non-Indigenous Yolŋu Matha speaker, Michael Christie, was named NT's Australian of the Year a few years back.

Where can I learn more? There aren't many formal Indigenous language courses available but for Yolŋu Matha students, you've got it good. You can enrol in tertiary courses to study Yolŋu Language and Culture through Charles Darwin University or Open Universities Australia. Other places to learn and listen more:
So that's my little beginner's guide to the ABCs new Indigenous language news service. Hopefully you found some of this interesting and useful. Please support the news service too. It's only a 12-month trial but the significance of it shouldn't be underestimated in terms of ensuring the long-term health of the few viable Indigenous languages we have left. As I wrote in my last blogpost
For a language to have a good chance of survival, more needs to happen than just having it spoken at home and learned by kids as a mother tongue. Healthy languages are found in many more domains than that. They're used in the marketplace and in commerce. They're used in artistic expression. They're used in schools as a tool of education. ... Another crucial domain is media.