General Information

Yolngu Matha is the official name given by linguists for the languages of the Yolngu (Yolŋu), the indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. (Yolŋu = people, Matha = tongue, language). It is part of the Pama-Nyungan genus of the Australian family of languages. There are around 8,000 speakers as of 2004 (Australia par 3). Yolngu Matha comprises about thirty clan varieties and about twelve different dialects, each with its own Yolngu name. Even though there exists a large variation between all these dialects, there is for the most part mutual intelligibility between them, and so most linguists now group these under the Yolngu Matha name. Linguistically, the situation is still quite complicated, for all of the roughly 30 clans speak a named language variety.

Most linguists now believe that all the native languages of mainland Australia are related, though as contrasted with the Indo-European languages, for example, the concrete evidence for this hypothesis is not nearly so solid. The languages as a group show little to no affinity with the language families in Southeast Asia or Pacific islands. In some areas of Australia a few of the dialects do show some contact with neighboring peoples, specifically along the Arnhem Land coast. There the Yolngu had well established trade relations with Macassan fisherman for several centuries.

There are no written records of any kind surviving from before the advent of European settlement. It is speculated that the Aborigines form a race that is wholly unique and developed over many thousands of years. If that is the case, it would be the merest speculation to suggest that there is any kind of linguistic link to languages outside their native land. As time goes on, archaeologists are establishing earlier and earlier dates for the original Aboriginal settlement and now assert that the first Aborigines settled there even before there was any migration into Indonesia.

When Europeans first began arriving on the Australian continent there were about 300,000 native people living there, by most estimates. The number of languages spoken at that time is not certain, but estimates range anywhere from 150 to 650. The problems that arise when attempting to ascertain the number of languages lie in the fact that there is both a lack of exact information attainable from the past and that the people groups themselves have lived in close proximity for centuries. It is still debated as to whether it is dialects or languages under consideration among the native peoples of Australia.

A conservative estimate of the languages now, given a very wide qualification for dialect variations to be counted as belonging to a single language, would number at about 250. Of these languages, only about 70 are still spoken by 50 people or more. Only 5 languages have in excess of 1000 speakers.

The future for most of these languages is not very secure at this point in time. Many of the native languages are extinct already, with more surely to follow as the older generations die. It is estimated that, due to efforts of state government and other groups such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), that about 25 languages have a decently good chance of surviving.

Aboriginal languages are now in use in both governmental and private school and pre-schools in many areas of Australia, though there are none where only Aboriginal languages are spoken. There are many bilingual programs installed which aim to preserve the native language while teaching fluency in English, the aim being to give future generations the tools in which to compete in modern-day Australia.

A Yolngu Matha language course is taught at Northern Territory University. Michael Christie, and Waymamba Gaykamangu, senior lecturer in Yolngu studies, teach Gupapuyngu, one of the Yolngu dialects. They chose Gupapuyngu because most of the educational materials for Yolngu Matha are in this dialect.

In addition, institutes such as the School of Australian Linguistics (SAL) and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) are heavily involved in promoting Aboriginal languages. The SAL itself was established with several united goals in mind: training native speakers so that they could make a career in the study of their own language and contribute not only to linguistics in general but, more specifically, to educational programs for the Aboriginal languages. Many universities now have scholars who are familiar with one or more of the native languages, though courses offered generally concentrate on Aboriginal languages in general rather than a specific language. Charles Darwin University has an excellent site on Yolngu Studies:

An Overview of Yolngu Matha Language Characteristics

The only detailed examination of Yolngu Matha morphology was made by Frances Morphy, and published in "The Handbook of Australian Languages" in 1983. To do this, Morphy looked at Djapu, one of the Yolngu Matha dialects, as a representative example.

Djapu has 19 consonants and, like most Australian languages, three vowels. Words must begin with a consonant but can end with either a vowel or a consonant, and stress is primarily on the first syllable.

Djapu utilizes verbs, adverbs, demonstratives, personal and interrogative pronouns, and nominals. Nominals are divided into humans and higher animates, and lower animates or inanimates. There are singular, dual and plural number personal pronouns in the first and third person, but in the second person there are only singular and non-singular. Interrogative pronouns and determiners inflect to convey ergative or absolutive case, while personal pronouns are nominative or accusative.

Here are some sentences in Djapu:

dhuwal guya luka-nha-mirr
this fish eat is able
this fish is edible

guya-puy dhuwal dhäwu
fish-is about this story
this story is about fish

dhuwal miditjin wapiti-wuy
this medicine stingray-is for
this medicine is for [curing] stingray [wounds]

Djadaw’marama is a word that literally means to make the sun come up, but its actual meaning is to staying up all night.

Yolngu Matha has an SOV word order. It lacks front rounded vowels, glottalized and uvular consonants, and fricatives. Yolngu languages are suffixing and are isolated from other Pama-Nyungan languages by the Aboriginal peoples of the surrounding areas that speak prefixing languages of other Australian genera.

Yolngu Matha exhibits reduplication - the morphological phenomenon of repeating the full or partial root of a word in order to convey grammatical information, like plurality, or to create new words. When this phenomenon occurs frequently throughout the language, linguists call this "productive" usage.

Yolngu Matha has dependent-marking in clauses and possessive noun phrases. Grammatically, dependent marking is the mark that shows how different parts of a phrase will be put on the modifiers as opposed to the heads. The head of a phrase is the main noun. The dependents are the adjectives, articles, and possessives.

Here is an audio file of a story being told in Yolngu Matha:

Yolngu History and Culture

The Yolngu people had trading contact with Macassans from Indonesia for at least 100 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In return for the Yolngu allowing them to gather pearls and trepang, the Macassans provided the Yolngu with various goods including knives, canoes, metal, tobacco, and pipes. In the 19th century, the Yolngu came into occasionally violent conflict with the white Australians regarding the Malanga (white people) desire to use the Yolngu land for cattle grazing. A major international incident occurred in 1932 when several Japanese trepangers were killed by Yolngu men after the Japanese allegegly raped some Yolngu women. Donald Thomson, an anthropologist, was sent to investigate, and lived with the Yolngu people for several years. It is through his influence that a special Yolngu military unit was created to repel Japanese invaders on the north coast during World War 2.

For the Yolngu people, culture is a manifestation of their ties to the land and the supernatural world that resides there. The focus of the spiritual life of the Aboriginal people is “The Dreaming”, a reality beyond the everyday world, a reality that brings moral order to the cosmos. Through stories of supernatural beings and ancestors that lived long ago, the Aboriginal peoples learn how the laws of social and religious behavior came about and, more importantly, how to maintain harmony between humans and the natural universe.

The stories of the Dreaming are sometimes widespread but more often regional and even residing in individual families. Individuals often inherit rights to depict specific Dreaming stories and thereby to communicate the religious meaning of those stories to the world at large. With the subjugation of the Aboriginal peoples by European colonizers beginning in 1788 and the recent rejuvenation of Aboriginal culture and civil rights, there has been a resurgence of pride and interest in the stories of the Dreaming. The Yolngu people, in their art, music, and dance have been prominent in this Aboriginal cultural renaissance.

There is evidence of rock paintings in Arnhem Land from as early as 50,000 years ago. But bark painting, using the bark of eucalyptus trees, has been more prominent in Yolngu art in the last 200 years and, in particular, among contemporary artists keeping the ancient tradition alive. David Malangi, perhaps the best known of Yolngu bark painters, has devoted much of his work to the story of Gunmurringgu, The Great Hunter. Gunmurrungu camped under a tree after killing a kangaroo and then was bitten and killed by a giant snake. Malangi’s paintings depict the death of the Great Hunter and the funeral rites that followed, including the reburial ceremony, when the bones are placed in a log coffin. Here are examples of his Gunmuringgu paintings (Click on the links for further information about the paintings):

In 1988, when Australians celebrated 200 years of European settlement, Yolngu artists seized the opportunity to present a response from all Aboriginal peoples. The result was "The Aboriginal Memorial," a collection of 200 hollow log coffins, one for each year of European settlement. The coffins are painted with the designs and Dreamings of the individual artists. The exhibit, now residing at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, is a strong statement by Aboriginal artists that their stories, values and perspectives are relevant to the non-Aboriginal world. Here is a link to the exhibit:

Here is a panoramic view of the exhibit (mouse on the picture to move around the room):

Yolngu music also has a long tradition and, as for Yolngu art, has taken up the challenge of responding to threats to that tradition by contemporary Western culture. Yothu Yindi, the most famous Aboriginal band, hails from Arnhem Land and sings in a mixture of English and Yolngu. Its name means “child and mother” and its home web site states that one of its main goals is the “building of bridges between the cultures that share this land.” Yothu Yindi’s songs and videos both showcase traditional music and protest exploitation of Aboriginal peoples. “Treaty” is a demand that a promised treaty between the Australian government and Aboriginal peoples not be delayed (“words are easy, words are cheap. . . treaty now!”):

Djapana (Sunset Dreaming) is a tribute to Yolngu values (“don’t be fooled by the Balanda [white man’s] ways”):

In addition to its musical endeavors, Yothu Yindi helped found the Yothu Yindi Foundation, an organization which promotes Yolngu culture and sponsors the annual Garma festival in Arnhem Land, in 1990.

When we think of Aboriginal music, we think of the didgeridoo, which the Yolngu call the yidaki.

The yidaki orginated in Yolngu land and, according to the Garma Festival web site, “the Yolngu people have long recognized the healing powers of the yidaki. Sound transfers peaceful vibrations that penetrate the mind and create inner spiritual oneness in an individual or group.” To play the yidaki or didgeridoo, one must learn circular breathing. Here’s how it’s done:

Sources and Work Cited

AUSTRALIA: The challenges of indigenous broadcasting. Small Island Developing States Network. March, 2004.

Caruana, Wally. Aboriginal Art. Singapore: Thames and Hudson, 2003

Djapu. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.

Morphy, Frances. "Djapu, a Yolngu dialect." Handbook of Australian Languages, Vol.3. ANU Press, Canberra, 1983.

Yallop, Colin. "Australian Aboriginal Languages." Andre Deutsch Limited. 1982