Category Archives: Yan-nhaŋu

Australian of the Year

Often when you open the newspaper the news is full of doom and gloom, but today there was a story that put a permanent smile on my face. Laurie Baymarrwaŋa has been given the Senior Australian of the Year award. Baymarrwaŋa* is the senior custodian of the Crocodile Islands, off Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.

When she was born, the number of Europeans who had been to Arnhem Land could probably be counted on one hand. When the Milingimbi mission was established, it was supplied by a barge that came once or twice a year. Now there are daily flights, a weekly barge, TV, and a few years ago, Milingimbi got 3G internet and phone reception. Murruŋga’s got a public phone too. There’s a picture of Baymarrwaŋa in Donald Thomson’s photo collections from the early 1930s. She’s standing in a stone fish-trap, looking at the camera a bit skeptically.

My yapa has been active in community development and cultural projects since the 1960s. She established Murruŋga outstation on Yan-nhaŋu country, where Yan-nhaŋu kids can learn about all sorts of things, Yolŋu and Western, in a traditional environment. I met Baymarrwaŋa first in 2004, when I started work with her and some of the other Yan-nhaŋu women on a documentation project. Before that, she had been working with Bentley James, a teacher at Milingimbi school. Working with the Yolŋu women was quite different from other fieldwork I’d done. They knew exactly what they wanted to get out of the work, what they wanted to contribute, and what they expected from me. It was very exciting for me not to be in charge of the project, to take direction from the people who were the experts in the language. I was there to provide some structure to the project, but right from the start it was far more collaborative than anything else.

The still centre of that project was Baymarrwaŋa. She’s one of these people who “knows everything”, who always knows the answer to any question, who has an extraordinary patience and determination. While I worked with her on Yan-nhaŋu, her main language, she is also a true Yolŋu in that she’s also totally fluent in Dhuwal, Burarra, and Ganalbiŋu, and quite happy in Gumatj, Gunwinygu, and a few other languages too. The newspaper reports say she doesn’t speak English, but I asked her about that once and she said that with all these other languages, if White people couldn’t be bothered to learn even an easy language like Dhuwal, it wasn’t her job to do all the work of communicating. We worked in a mixture of Dhuwal, Yan-nhaŋu, and English, and as you can imagine, someone with that attitude to language is a wonderful person for a fieldworker to work with.

She’s been concerned for some time about the fragility of knowledge, and was careful to make sure that it was “backed up” on paper, not to be put in a museum, but so that it would be available for Yan-nhaŋu people to come. She has also been keen for others to learn about Yan-nhaŋu language and culture, and to recognise that there are still custodians of the Crocodile Islands. For example, when we were recording information about women’s business, my instructions were to play those tapes to the female students in my classes, because they deserved to have that knowledge shared too. Some of the Yan-nhaŋu materials are available. There’s a learner’s guide to the language, and a dictionary is in progress.

It’s wonderful that Baymarrwaŋa has been recognised for her hard work. The committee really got it right with this award. Buḻaŋgitj mini, yapa, nhunu mana yindi djäma binmunu. Gatjpu’yun nhämayini lima gurrku, ŋarra roŋiyirri  Murruŋgali ga nyena rrambaŋi lima gurrku ga waŋayini yänmurru. Dhäpirrk, marrkapway ditya. 

*This is her Yolŋu name. Many Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land have an English name like “Alison” or “Margaret” and a Yolŋu name. For official forms, the Yolŋu name is a surname, but it’s the name that’s often used when talking about people. (In other Yolŋu areas, people use their Yolŋu name and a clan name. For example, Mandurrwuy Yunupiŋu’s last name is a clan name, not a Yolŋu first name.)

Yan-nhaŋu on wikipedia

Rebekah Dimond, one of the students in my Australian languages class this semester, did a ripper job on a final project creating a Wikipedia page for Yan-nhaŋu. It’s up now. Enjoy!

Languages and ‘new words’

One of the recurring supposed arguments against the widespread use of Aboriginal languages in the curriculum is that “they don’t have a word for X” (an ironic twist on the exoticism argument that such languages also have Ywords for snow/trees/animals/etc).

There are three or four ways that languages get new words. One is by borrowing from neighbouring languages. English didn’t have any words for koala, wombat, pindan, kangaroo, etc, and so the early settlers to Australia borrowed these words from Dharuk, Bardi, Guugu Yimidhirr, and other Aboriginal languages. (More than 50% of current English vocabulary comes from other languages originally.) Sometimes the word itself isn’t borrowed, but the meaning of a word is translated (this is called a calque). The Icelandic word for computer is tölva, which means basically ‘counter, reckoner, computer’.

A second means for expressing new meaning is by extending the meaning of an existing word. So in English when we burn a CD we aren’t putting it on a fire (the earlier meaning of ‘burn’ – speakers have extended the meaning of the verb to cover new actions). Highways and freeways and commons all originally meant something different from what they mean now.

A third way is to coin a new word out of existing resources in the language, such as by making a compound (e.g. baby-sit) or a blend, or an acronym. A fourth is to make up a word from scratch (although these seem to be pretty rare in my experience).

What do speakers of Aboriginal languages do when they want to make up new words? All of the above, just like speakers of other languages! Here are some examples from Yolŋu Matha.

Borrowings: daybul ‘table’, banikin ‘cup, pannikin’, djorra’ ‘paper’ (from Arabic via Makassar)

Extension of meaning:mukthun ‘be quiet’ (also used for when the power goes off; e.g. giṉiŋgarr mana mukthun ‘the power’s off’ giṉiŋgarr is another example of this). Bulunydjuma ‘rub out’ (e.g. erase something from a blackboard) is another example of this.

Coining new words: e.g. maŋutjibu ‘glasses’ (lit ‘something for the eyes’); waḏapthanaraway ‘soap’ (lit stuff used for washing’)

[link via Hoyden about town]

NWAV 0: my paper

I went to NWAV this weekend and had a fabulous time. I have a few posts in progress so you’ll get the serialised highlights over the next few days.

Here are the slides from my paper on Arnhem Land clan variation. It’s a 3.8mb file with some embedded sound files.

Comments are welcome as always.

Yan-nhaŋu glottals and LaTeX

This post will probably be of interest only to the (rather small number of) people who use LaTeX to typeset Yolŋu Matha. Yolŋu Matha uses a symbol for the glottal stop which is basically an apostrophe ‘ without smart quotes turned on (it dates from the days before smart quotes). These days there is a small movement amongst Yolŋu typesetters to distinguish quotation marks from the glottal. This turns out to be surprisingly hard to do in LaTeX. Prime symbols won’t work, the verbatim environment doesn’t work, the IPA primary stress mark doesn’t work. What does look ok, however, is the tipa vertical bar accent with some space fudging.

{\textipa{\hspace{-1.5pt}\textvbaraccent{}\hspace{-1.5pt}}}

to be precise.

Yet more from the archives

A final day of archival work. I got copies of the vocabularies that R H Mathews recorded (from various languages), as well as trying to sort out some more about Ngumbarl (the topic of a talk I gave at ANU last week). It’s pleasantly confusing. More on that in another post.

I spent the time with three people’s work: Jeff Heath’s Dhay’yi and Ritharrngu notes, Bronwyn Stokes’ Nyulnyulan materials and the Mathews vocabularies.

I like looking at other people’s notes and seeing what they do. Bronwyn’s are extremely impressive: legible, copious and there’s lots of interesting stuff in there for Nyulnyulanists. I hadn’t realised she’d recorded as much Bardi as was there. She used one notebook after another, numbered all the pages consecutively (over 1300 I think) and used both sides of the notebook page. They are dense with fairly minimal glossing. There’s a lot of information there but I’m glad there are other sources (and dictionaries) for these languages. The Bardi looks very reliable except for vowel length, which seems not to be marked, and there’s a lot more Ngumbarl than I thought. It looks somewhat similar to the “Ngumbarl” in Peile’s recordings (which I wasn’t sure if it was Ngumbarl or Jukun), so maybe that mystery is more solved than I thought it was.

Today’s field award definitely goes to Jeff Heath though, for immaculate notes. My typed notes aren’t as neat as his first-up handwritten ones!

Aboriginal Languages Fortnight

Quite by chance I came across a book published at Milingimbi in 1986. It’s stories in Yolŋu Matha and English by 6 Batchelor college students. It’s incredibly cool for all sorts of reasons.

  • There’s sociolinguistic information about similarity and difference between Yolŋu varieties.
  • It’s produced entirely by Yolŋu adult language/literacy students.
  • It’s mostly in Yolŋu Matha. Where there’s English too, it complements the YM, it doesn’t translate it. You have to read YM to follow it.
  • It’s in several varieties of YM.
  • They talk about codeswitching and give a bunch of examples.
  • It’s impressively done. It’s a nice book in its own right.

I wish there were more books like this, produced by community insiders for themselves, not by outsiders.

I’m pleased to say that a fair number of the participants are still active in language work at Milingimbi.