Category Archives: Yan-nhaŋu

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.


Yolngu people are everywhere!

It’s handy to know Yolŋu Matha. BE was going fishing and the guy who picked her up found out I’d been in Arnhem Land. Turns out that he’s from Elcho Island originally, although he’s been here for about 20 years. He’s my dhuway and we had a bit of a chat. So much for trying not to speak Yolŋu Matha and concentrating on Bardi!


[Continuing my clean-out of partial posts in my livewriter folder…]

Girri’ means ‘clothes’ in Yan-nhaŋu; it also means ‘stuff’, as I found out yesterday when we were looking for general terms for the thesaurus. It’s interesting, though, that I’d never come across the context for the more general (and perhaps more focal meaning) during elicitation and conversation. I think there are a few reasons. One is that I did a bunch of elicitation a while ago with ‘same’ or ‘different’ involving dresses and clothes, so it has focal semantics for me through that. Also, I did colour elicitation talking about shirts. Second, though, whenever anyone used a sentence in Yan-nhaŋu involving ‘stuff’ (where I’d say stuff in English), they used ŋumun’ “something” and then a more specific word.

It’s a nice illustration of how language learning can be semantically misleading.


My field posts have now ended, so it’s probably appropriate to sum up what I’ve done in the month or so since I’ve been back. I gave a talk in Darwin and hung out with some friends, and got to see the Telstra Art Award finalists. That was great! I knew four of the artists, including the adopted brother of the teacher I stayed with for the last week or so at Milingimbi, and my mami, who had a fantastic fish trap there, and two elders from the Kimberley.

Since coming back I’ve been working on an article or two, catching up, backing up, doing grant work reconstruction, and migrating the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary to TshwaneLex for final editing [see this post on how I did it, and this post on how it’s going]. I gave a talk at the University of Rochester’s linguistics department and got lots of great feedback on the areal work I’ve been doing with Karnic. At the moment I’m looking into GIS mapping options for the representation of historical data. Wrist issues have curtailed the amount of transcription I’ve been doing, but I have been going through some of the more urgent recordings, like the clan and language discussion I did for the Yolŋu part of the AUSTLANGS database. That produced a bunch of new meanings for a heap of words, hence more dictionary work!


I had a very enjoyable few days in Darwin at the end of my field trip, including a profitable [for them!] time at Charles Darwin University’s bookshop. I got some readers in Nyoongar and a few other languages, a rather nice Garrwa ethnobotany book, Coersive Reconciliation, and Marry Ellen Jordan’s Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land, which I read on the way back. These books will appear on ozpapers soon.

Balanda is definitely written for a white, middle class highly urban audience by a white, middle class, highly urban writer without any experience of community life beyond her year at Maningrida.

This isn’t a new book – it was published in 2002 and got reviewed a bit at the time, mostly by white, middle class highly urban reviewers.

Jordan steps outside her experience; she’s quite a good writer and she knows how to put a story together. However, she has externalised her own assumptions about communities to a very limited extent. That makes it even more of a book more about her than directly about her experiences.

One example: Jordan is critical (implicitly in a few places, explicitly in others) of gambling in Maningrida. She essentially equates it with casino gambling in cities. Many people do this (I’ve had this same conversation many times over the last few months) and it makes sense to do so in a white, middle class urban (protestant) culture where gambling is a ‘waste of money’. However, there are two big differences between a card party on balanda boulevard and going to the Casino in Darwin: 1) community gambling is part of a larger exchange network; and 2) the money stays within the community and the winners are subject to many of the same sharing pressures that wage-earners are. That is, a good percentage of profits made from winning at cards are immediately absorbed back into the community by the people who lost money and others who have a kinship claim on the winner.

Another detail surprised me: Jordan argues that poverty at Maningrida isn’t a problem; there’s money around, because there’s not much to spend it on. That’s a weird thing to say, given the other things she says in the book. As she notes, most of the population is on ‘welfare’ of some sort, either CDEP, pensions, disability, or another scheme. Welfare cheques don’t go very far when you’re feeding big families at community stores. I would like to see a simple analysis of average per capita disposable income in a community like Maningrida. Presumably CAEPR or another organisation has done this.

PDAs and fieldwork

I used mine for data entry with speakers for the first time this most recent field trip, so I thought I would post something about it.


  • It allowed relatively fast data entry, and saved a lot of rewriting.
  • It obviated my need for a printer.
  • Speakers adjusted to the replacement orthography very easily (my PDA cannot display Unicode or nonstandard fonts)
  • people thought it was fascinating.
  • The battery life was fine and I was able to rest the machine on my equipment bag.


  • it is possible to hear the typing on the recording sometimes. The keyboard is quite noisy.
  • It was hard for speakers to see the screen, and for more than one of us to look at the same time.
  • The screen is poorly backlit in bright sunlight, so I also had trouble.
  • There is no Yolngu Matha font, which made it hard to decode what was on the screen sometimes.
  • Space on top of the equipment bag was at a premium because it was the safest place to put equipment.
  • Green ants bite when you try and keep them off the screen.

All in all, I would use it again for work like this, especially when we were just checking items. I think I would also perhaps use a portable database with a scaled down version of the dictionary for data entry rather than a text file. That wasn’t possible because of the age of my PDA. But that would be something to think about for a future trip.

Last day

It’s my last full day here today. I’m leaving on the afternoon plane tomorrow. I’m exhausted (see previous post about the 714 sentences!). I’m having a break from doing the slides for my talk at CDU on Friday, and I’ve caved and put on the air conditioner for the first time this trip. I did a bit of work with someone this morning, then the rest of the day’s been spent with slides, backing up (including taking photos of my dictionary draft with all my handwritten notes on it), chucking stuff out, working out what needs to go to people, and as usual at the end of a trip worrying about how to get all my hand luggage back safely.

At one level, I’m glad to be leaving. It’s been a harder trip than previous ones, with the Intervention, mami not being here, hotter (and now very humid), and a whole heap of endless checking questions, which is always less fun for everyone than telling jokes and getting bush tucker. There’s been criticism and jealousing this time too, and we compressed a huge amount of stuff into the last four and a half weeks. I also want to get back to the historical part of the Pama-Nyungan project, and so something other than transcription and data entry. The food’s also been extremely boring and I’m looking forward to eating something that has a used-by date days or weeks rather than years ahead. Mind you, the M&Ms with a ‘best before’ of 2001 were pretty special.

On the other hand, I’ve spent more time in Milingimbi than in any other part of Australia in the last 4 years. I’ll miss walking to work, getting woken up by kookaburras, and all that. I think that linguists get to see the best sides of communities as well as the worst,  and it’s good to be here to be reminded that the impression given in the new outlets is, for the most part, misleading.