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 and jump to 2:19 on each of them, you'll hear a tennis update from when young Aussie Nick Kyrgios unexpectedly defeated world #1 Rafael Nadal at this year's Wimbledon. 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. [Edit (31/7): the reports have unfortunately expired and are no longer available. Recent reports can be heard via the Soundcloud widget on the right side panel of the blog.]

[02:19] 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.

[02:19] 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.

July 01, 2014

ABC News now in Warlpiri and Djambarrpuyngu!

Today is Territory Day and while I am a proud Territorian in many ways, it's a challenging place and there is lots going on here that I don't particular like or value. Any long-term readers of my blog will probably notice that I've become increasingly jaded over the years and am now thoroughly disillusioned with many things that happen in the NT, like the Government's poor record of education delivery in remote communities and the increasing push for mining development that undermines environmental concerns and Aboriginal relationships to country. My list of gripes is pretty endless.

A constant on that list is the neglectful treatment of Aboriginal languages and failure of so many to value the amazing linguistic diversity found in the Northern Territory, which has been diminishing unabated for decades now. Official language policy in the NT fits nicely within what gets described as a 'Laissez-faire policy' where Aboriginal languages aren't explicitly denigrated, just forgotten about and left to wither:
Laissez-faire policies mean that the languages of power and prestige will eventually take over in all situations of contact. Benign neglect …[is] always de facto support for the language of the group that is already dominant. - Wright (2004: 187). Quoted in Sallabank Julia & Austin Peter K., Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, 2011.
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 (hence I keep banging on about the importance of bilingual education). They're used in various levels of government, maybe in courts too.

Another crucial domain is media. Which is why I am absolutely over-the-moon to learn today that the ABC is trialling the provision of a news service in two NT languages: Warlpiri and Yolŋu Matha (or more specifically, Djambarrpuyŋu). All of a sudden, I have something to be very proud of on Territory Day! Good on the ABC for this initiative and also to the NT Government's Aboriginal Interpreter Services for getting the language content together.

Symbolically, this means a lot for the status and vitality of these languages. Communicatively, I really hope the reports find an audience and result in better dissemination of news. There are several thousand speakers of both Warlpiri and Djambarrpuyŋu, spread across a number of decent-sized remote communities. I note that the ABC is encouraging localised remote broadcasters to rebroadcast the reports and I hope they do. I wish the ABC and all involved good luck with the venture. The gesture and effort is already greatly appreciated by this renewedly-proud Territorian!

June 25, 2014


I think I have a different definition of what 'inertia' means than most people. It seems like most people use it to mean 'do nothing' as in 'be inert', whereas I understand it to mean to continue going along the same path unabated, and if it so happens that nothing was happening originally, then nothing will keep happening.
So, I might say,
(1) 'I switched the telly over to Wimbledon and my inertia led me to sit on the couch all night watching the tennis'.
And that seems to fit both definitions. But if I say:
(2) 'the inertia behind Abbott's campaign to scrap the Carbon Tax ensured it became an eventuality'
Then I think most people would understand (2) as 'Abbott did nothing about the scrapping the Carbon Tax and so the Carbon Tax continued to exist', whereas I could easily read it as 'there was so much momentum behind repealing the Carbon Tax that it got repealed anyway, despite it becoming an increasingly unpopular move'.
What say you?

June 20, 2014

Today at the bank

This morning in the line at the bank in Katherine:
Teller serving Aboriginal customer who was ordering a new card. Teller spoke to her loudly and abruptly. Customer didn't sound like English was her first language. Part of the exchange went something like this:
Customer: "It's a debit card?".
Teller "Yes. It's a debit card. What colour do you want?"
"What colour do you want? You can have black, blue or pink."
"Oh. ahhh... black?"
"Ok, black."
"Oh, no it's a debit card. Blue."
"It's too late now. I can't go back. It's black now." and so on...
No friendliness. Didn't seem to go out of her way to be helpful or provide extra service.
Tellers next two customers were white. Teller appears to know them and was friendly, chatty, laughing and helpful.
While there could easily be more to the story, based only on what I saw, the inconsistency in the service this teller provided was extremely noticeable and the most obvious attributable factor appeared to be race. I felt bad and ashamed and I can only imagine how an Aboriginal person seeing that would feel.
Yet this is so common and ubiquitous in Katherine. I was feeling sufficiently confident this morning, so before it was my turn to be served I'd resolved to say something. I didn't get served by the teller under discussion, but instead got the other one who seemed to be providing consistent service. I still told her about the difference in service provision I'd noticed and she said she'd mention it. I hope she did. At the very least, I was happy I said something. And even if she didn't pass on my concern maybe that teller is a bit more aware that at least some customers care about providing good service to *all* customers.

And are prepared to whinge about it on the internet if they see something they don't like. Oops! 

May 28, 2014

The subtle devaluing of Aboriginal languages

I just had a small talk conversation with a stranger that went something like this:
Me: I'm a linguist and I work on Aboriginal languages.
Them: Oh cool, what languages do you speak?
Me: Well I know bits of all the languages around here (i.e. Ngukurr) but Kriol is my strongest language apart from English.
Them: But do you know other languages too?
Me: Oh well yeah I know a bit of German and I was an exchange student in Iceland so I learned Icelandic a long time ago...
Notice that when I tell them I know Aboriginal languages, it doesn't satisfy or fully answer their question? They want to know more: what other languages do you know, as in what real languages do you know. I've had this conversation many times. Enough to recognise it as a clear sign that Aboriginal languages aren't seen as equal to foreign languages.

This subtle devaluing is revealed in other ways too, such as when Average-Jos refer to Aboriginal languages as 'dialects' in casual conversation. Here's another dialogue I've had many time before:
Me: I work on Aboriginal languages
Them: Oh, there are heaps of dialects, aren't there?
Me: Languages. They're distinct languages, actually.
As Ruth Singer pointed out in the comments of her and Rachel Nordlinger's very excellent recent article:
... Indigenous languages are affected by a general prejudice pertaining to Indigenous cultural assets. I find that people often refer to them as 'dialects' perhaps because this term does not imply anything with as much status as a 'language'.
These are such subtle put-downs that denigrate Aboriginal languages that you'd barely even notice. And I also find that people who talk like this are almost always well-meaning. When I tell people that I know Icelandic, I can see the gleam in their eye that I've given them a great answer and I feel validated or a bit special. "Wow, how did you learn that?" The flipside though is that I feel rotten that telling someone that I know some Marra and speak Kriol fluently is insufficient and I don't know what else... obscure, irrelevant, a waste of time?
I'm sorry to any readers who recognise themselves talking like this. I don't mean to make anyone feel bad. This way of speaking about Aboriginal languages is incredibly widespread and common so I would never hold it against anyone. But I do hope that I've demonstrated that even friendly conversations reveal that it's very common for Aboriginal languages to be subtly devalued and not afforded the same status as foreign languages.

April 30, 2014

"This is a story about the language I lost"

I didn’t speak our lingo. We weren’t allowed at school. The white men got the idea we were abusing them. They couldn’t understand us, so they said you have to speak English, son. I find it better to communicate in English now. But to put both languages together would have been much better. I still feel that way, a strong feeling wishing to speak my lingo, my own language. 
My father was from the Wulngarri clan and my mother was from across the river. What my father want[ed] to see was for me to get a better education, from the whiteman. I don’t think he thought about teaching me the lingo. When he started to get old, he started saying he wished us youngfellas had learned our language. He wanted us to learn both ways – the whitefella way and the blackfella way. 
When I came back to Ngukurr, the only language was my mother’s. Straight after 1968 I came back. I was around 14 years old. You lose your identity if you lose your language. Your identity is connected to your land and your clan. And if your clan doesn’t have a language, then you feel like nothing. If you have a clan that has a language, then you are somebody. Being somebody is important. This is a story about the language I lost.
These are some of the spoken word lyrics on the track "Across The River" from the 2004 album Blues Across The River by the Yugul Band. The lyrics - I assume written by singer Dan Thompson - are a fantastic insight into how people from Ngukurr of his generation (who grew up in the last decade or two of the mission) experienced language loss and what that meant for personal and social identity. He mentions aspects such as his parents' generation wanting their children to acquire English and that there was discrimination towards those who spoke traditional languages. Those two aspects are certainly linked, although the link is not made explicit in the song. He also talks about the personal ramifications of not knowing his heritage language and I love the simple affirmation at the end that 'being somebody is important'.

It's also a really great rambling blues track. Definitely worth a play while you read Dan Thompson's wonderful lyrics:

March 25, 2014

Kevin Rogers talking up strong and the ignorance of Munanga

Old Kevin Rogers at Ngukurr is lovely, clever, skinny old man. (Not OLD-old, but old enough for me to call him in 'old man' in that Aboriginal term-of-respect type way). If a Munanga visited Ngukurr today, they might easily overlook him and probably never realise that he is a university graduate and former principal of Ngukurr School.

An article of his, 'Blekbala Kaltja at Ngukurr Community School', was published in 1991 in a volume called "Aboriginal Pedagogy: Aboriginal teachers speak out". It contains this great quote:
Some Munanga working in Aboriginal Education have a one-sided view of curriculum. They feel that Munanga knowledge taught and structured in a Munanga way is more important than Blekbala knowledge. They undervalue Blekbala knowledge and when training Blekbala teachers they try to force them to have a Munanga pedagogy. They understand very little about Blekbala Kaltja and their attitudes of superiority make them oppressors of our culture (Rogers 1991: 149)
When I first lived in Ngukurr in 2004, times were different. It was pre-Intervention. ATSIC had only just been dismantled. School council still had discretionary funding (called ASSPA) and a handful of local qualified teachers still worked there full-time. You needed a permit to visit and the community still ran the local council. Along with that went the regular community meetings where everyone would gather at the council office around a crackly PA and debate whatever issue was the hot topic of that week.

I really feel that thesedays - especially post-Intervention - the idea that remote Aboriginal people have the knowledge and authority to shape and control their own lives is fading among Munanga. The prevailing attitude is increasingly that we know best and that remote Aboriginal people somehow need saving from themselves. In the self-determination era, Munanga tried much harder to simply support Aboriginal people to get to where they wanna be. Now we (Munanga) are much more dictatorial and the wants and desires of Aboriginal people are more easily rendered irrelevant. The problem that old Kevin identifies in his quote above has become much worse.

But I digress somewhat. Going back to Kevin's original point in his quote above - that Munanga undervalue Blekbala Kaltja and our attitudes of superiority make us oppressors - I can recall a perfect example of what he's talking about:

A couple of years ago, I was on a bush trip with old Kevin. He was taking a bunch of Munanga to see some spectacular places. On the trip, he was telling us about what his surname should be, if missionaries hadn't have given his family the surname Rogers. The name was a clan name from Numbulwar area - a long name, I think it was Numamurdirdi. In response, a Munanga who worked full-time for the Education Department (and had been in Ngukurr for a couple of years had opportunity to learn a thing or two), then said something like 'Oh well I'm glad you've got the name Rogers then!'. She thought she was being funny and cute, referring to how intimidating the name 'Numamurdirdi' was to her. But to me it was a perfect example of the ignorance of some (many?) Munanga that old Kevin had written about twenty years earlier.


Rogers, Kevin. 1991. "Blekbala Kaltja at Ngukurr Community School". In Aboriginal Pedagogy: Aboriginal teachers speak out. Geelong, Deakin University Press. 144-150.