Languages of the First Nations Peoples of Australia

GPSA acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional and current custodians of the land upon which we work. We respect that this land always was and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. Sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has never been ceded.

We pay our respect to Elders past and present, as well as all Aboriginal people who have fought, and continue to fight, for equality, self-determination, culture, Country and community.

Language is more than a way to express an idea.

Language is a means of communicating culture built on a unique vision of the world.

The growing vocabulary we share here is the work of Greg Stehle, a member of the GPSA team who has an affiliation with the Yolŋu people, whose perception of the world expressed through words forms just one of the many languages of the First Nations peoples of Australia.

We invite you to help us build on this vocabulary and develop a better understanding of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities view this land we are so blessed to share. Please contact Jane with your suggestions.

Yolŋu Matha Word of the Day

Today’s word is rarranhdharr which is the current Yolŋu season, often referred to as the buildup, pronounced rah-run-dhar.

Rarranhdharr is one of the 6 Yolŋu seasons as seen in the calendar below. Whilst most people often just refer to the wet or the dry season, the Yolŋu calendar below takes its cues from slight changes in the environment at different such as the wind direction and what fruits are in season or animals are good to hunt.

For instance in rarranhdharr it is a good time to collect guku (wild honey or sugerbag) and go hunting for nyumukuniny burrugu (small sharks) and nyumukuniny marranydjalk (small stingrays). It is good to hunt for marranydjalk at this time because the water is usually still and clear, making it possible to see more easily the dust that marranydjalk stir up from the sand at the bottom of the water.

Growing Our Vocabulary

The Yolŋu Matha word warrakan meaning animal pronounced wuh-ru-kun.

This is a generic term used for all animals. In Yolŋu matha, to make things plural, you add -mala to the end. So, animals would be warrakan mala. This word is sometimes used as cultural naming for white people, who fly into a community, poo around the place, and take off again. Cultural naming is a major problem in terms of “othering” people and is often based on misconceptions. e.g., Using the term “hunter-gatherer” to describe Yolŋu people from the past, when they were in fact using traditional farming practices, or the term “nomadic” when most Yolŋu people used to live their entire life on their clan estate, moving seasonally to different areas of the estate, but staying in the same broader geographic area. Talking about early Yolŋu culture as “primitive” is likewise problematic when they were the first inventors of controlled unmanned flight (the boomerang) and invented some traditional farming practices before the rest of the world. The more we can see each other simply as Yolŋgu (people) without falling into misconceptions and cultural naming, the more we can share our problems, dreams, and ideas.

The Yolŋu Matha word bawalamirri meaning anywhere, anytime, or crazy pronounced bow-u-la-mirri.

This word has a few different meanings and uses. It can be used in conversation when for example someone asks What time should I return? (nha walu ngarra rongiyirri?) A typical reply to this might be bawalamirri, meaning anytime.

If someone is talking about someone and says they are bawalamirri, it means they have mental health issues. It does not carry a great connotation with it. It is a bit like saying someone is crazy. A variation of this word is babalamirri which basically means the same thing.

The shorter form of this word bawala or babala means wrong, or by accident or unintentional.

The mirri attached to the end of the word is a common suffix (bit on the end of the word) used in Yolŋu Matha. The mirri suffix roughly translates as “with”. Yolŋu Matha is a suffixing language and has various things added to the end of words, but not to the front. Another example of the usage of the mirri suffix would be if someone is pregnant to say yothumirri or with (mirri) child (yothu).

The Yolŋu Matha word djorra meaning book or paper pronounced jaw-rra.

There are very few djorra (books) written in Yolŋu Matha language. Most of these are childrens books used in the school setting. The most substantial book in Yolŋu Matha language is the Djambarrpuyngu New Testament translation of the bible. This translation was an epic undertaking by the Galiwin’ku bible translation team over about a thirty or forty year period. Djambarrpuyngu is a dialect of Yolŋu Matha that is most commonly used, as it has become something of a lingua franca for Yolngu languages. The translators who worked on this project are the most qualified Yolŋu translators around and I have worked closely with all of them, including collaborating on design of the cover for the New Testament.

Whatever your religious persuasion, it can’t be denied that this translation project changed the way that Yolŋu languages are used and recorded. The approach of the Methodist missionaries in north-east Arnhem land was to value and learn local languages, developing language learning tools that form the basis of the Yolŋu Studies course at Charles Darwin University which I attended. No other languages have such great language learning resources, since Catholic missionaries in other regions had a different approach, denying people the use of their own language. The foremost linguist involved in the development of language learning resources was Beulah Lowe, a missionary in the 60’s and 70’s whose language learning materials are still in use today.

Here is video of the launch of the Djambarrpuyngu New Testament in 2008 featuring some of the great translators I have worked with.

The Yolŋu Matha word bamburuŋburuŋ meaning brain, pronounced bum-booroong-boorong.

There is some conjecture amongst Yolngu over who is the leader of the body, the bamburuŋburuŋ or the doturrk (heart).

Here is a video I made with one of my long time collaborators Sylvia Ngulpinditj, a wonderful woman who has gone on to direct her own movies. This video talks about early childhood brain development in a cultural context, also explaining how the impact of violence can negatively impact brain development in young children.

The Yolŋu Matha word bakthun meaning broken pronounced buk-thoon.

My mutika (car – pronounced moo-ti-kah) didn’t start this morning and is bakthun.

If you want to see some Yolŋu guys who are used to dealing with broken down cars, check out the Black As series filmed around Ramingining.

The Yolŋu Matha word lipalipa meaning canoe.

This is one of many Yolŋu words that have derived from the Macassan language reflecting the longstanding trade relationship that Yolŋu had with Macassan people well before British settlement. Some other words include rrupiya (money) and balanda (derived from Hollander and used to generally refer to white people). This was quite a huge trade, with Macassan staying and working with Yolŋu to harvest and process Trepang, which is like a sea slug sold as an aphrodisiac in China but having no use as food or other purpose for Yolŋu. Pearls were also a major trade, with Yolŋgu seeding oysters to support this trade. In return, Yolŋgu received metal items, guns, fishing hooks and many other things they traded on.

When this trade was stopped by Australian authorities (who didn’t like the prow ships coming into Darwin harbor as they were not wind cutters and had difficulty getting in and out) Yolŋu people were devastated and left stone messages at Macassan beach saying they were still there, trying to contact their Macassan friends. 

For more information on Yolŋgu trade history, you can also read this article.

The Yolŋu Matha word gaŋga meaning carefully, Gradually or a Little Bit (pronounced gung -gah).

When yolŋu people are faced with the standard greeting Nhamirri nhe? (how are you) they will normally say manymak (good). Sometimes, however, the response might be “gaŋga manymak”a little bit good. Perhaps there is cause for grief within the community, or some other problem they are struggling with. While the literal translation to English might not warrant concern, it is important to note the spirit of these people is such that, no matter how bad things are, yolŋu people rarely respond with “yaka manymak” (not good).

So when someone says they are “gaŋga manymak”, this should probably be seen as a blaring warning sign, like Dr Glaucomflecken’s “Farmer pain scale“! 

The alternative application of gaŋga is using the meaning “careful”, for example telling a toddler to be more careful and gentle with their new baby sibling.

The Yolŋu Matha word ŋurringitj meaning charcoal pronounced ngoor-ing-itch.

This word has a special significance in Yolŋu rom (law) and culture representing foundational principles. It has been described to me in this way by a Yolŋu friend:

“When you are walking along through the bush and you see charcoal there from a place where someone has stayed and had a fire, it is a sign to you that this is a safe place, that somebody found comfort and warmth here. It also reminds us of our forefathers, who may have made this fire, and the principles of law that they lived by. In the charcoal lies the essence of our foundations, our law and where we came from.”

I once made a video called Ngurringitj: leaders for the future in Ramingining, which was about trying to develop young people as leaders using foundational principles of law, represented by Ngurringitj.

The Yolŋu Matha word minytji, meaning colour pronounced mint – je.

This word also means painting, and there are only a few colours which are traditionally made from natural pigments. Dhuni (ochre colour) is usually made from grinding stones, as is miku (red). Gapan, or white clay is mostly used for funerals and ceremonies. Each colour is affiliated with different clan groups. One interesting way I saw colour being made was digging up the roots of the Great Morinda tree, otherwise known as stinky cheese fruit. The roots are a vivid yellow colour inside. These are boiled up to make a yellow colour. To turn this colour to a deep red, dry eucalyptus leaves are burnt to make white ash. Mixing the white ash in the colour makes it go red or brown, depending on how much ash is added. I documented this process used for dying pandanus as the backdrop for an Annual Report I put together in this link. 

Below are common names of some of the main colours:

miku – red

gapan – white clay

buthalak – yellow ochre

mol – black

dhuni – ochre

borpul – purple

The Yolŋu Matha word Bäru meaning crocodile pronounced Bah-roo.

This word is one you don’t want to hear if you are swimming around the NT: bäru.

The Rangers at Ramingining community have just opened up a crocodile farm which took years to pull together. Here is a video of the opening with some bungul (traditional ceremony) at the end. Great to see this happening as a business for the local community run by the rangers there.

The Yolŋu Matha word rakun meaning debt pronounced ru-koon.

This word is part of the intellectual language of Yolŋu Matha languages called Gurrangay Matha. This is a bit like doctor speak and is the language of trade, commerce and science. Sadly, this form of language is being lost and is used mostly by elders. In other places where variations of Creole are used, which are a mish mash of English and local languages, the intellectual language is taken away, making it hard to communicate terms related to commerce and law etc. For example, I have heard Creole interpreters interpreting in a court room. When they come to complex terms such as guilty, they say the English word. To a first language creole speaker, this would be heard as: Are you blah or not blah?

On a side note, I witnessed an amazing repaying of a debt between two clans in the form of a ceremony (bungul) one time. Whilst most bungul nowadays is associated with funerals or initiations, this one was more of an entertainment to repay a rakun. In this bungul, people hijacked the middle of a dance and men pretended to be women and did women’s dances and old women pretended to be young men doing men’s dances. It was hilarious, and everyone was laughing.

The Yolŋu Matha word Raypirri meaning Discipline pronounced ray-pi-ree.

One of the ongoing consequences of the Intervention into NT Communities, which is still ongoing, but rebranded as Stronger Futures is that parents of children are afraid to discipline their children in any way, fearing that they will be labelled as child abusers. This is a contentious area, and relates to the idea of ethnocentrism, or judging another culture by the standards of your own. For example, one practice of disciplining children who spoke badly of other people or swore in Yolŋu culture was putting hot ash on a child’s tongue. To our culture, this seems like a very harsh punishment, but in Yolŋu culture this was an accepted practice. Since the intervention, such practices have been abandoned, as well as less harsh disciplining such as smacking a child on the bum. Whatever your thoughts on this topic, it is hard to judge coming from our cultural standpoint.

The result of parents feeling that they cannot discipline their kids in any way is evident to see in Yolŋu communities nowadays, with children staying out all night, getting involved in things such as petrol sniffing and drinking home brew made from fruit juice and yeast. Parents and elders feel quite disempowered and unable to control the situation often. These results are directly at odds with the initial intention of the intervention and put children in harms way in other ways. I previously made a video called Djamarrkuli Raypirri (Children discipline) which shows elders talking about these issues and their approach to remedying the situation. 

The Yolŋu Matha word marrngitj meaning doctor or clever person pronounced marrn-gitch.

This word is used both for traditional healers and western doctors, reflecting an acceptance of western medicine by Yolŋu people.

Yolŋgu medicine is not really accepted by western medicine in any meaningful way however. At Galiwin’ku clinic, there was a traditional healer woman named Guymun who worked at the clinic for many years to be around caring for sick people, but her healing skills were never recognised. She can be seen in the following video I made years ago about 1 minute in, explaining some of the Yolŋu traditional medicines. In later years, the clinic recognised some of her value in delivering complimentary medicine.

There is a long way to go in creating some meaningful dialogue and recognition of traditional medicine. There are undoubtably therapeutic benefits of traditional medicine, not the least of which would be getting out on country and building cultural inclusion. Moving towards recognising traditional medicine in some way is one way in which we can Close the Gap in reverse by moving towards recognising traditional knowledge and the rich understandings that lie therein.

The Yolŋu Matha word wämut meaning eagle or one of the skin names or Mälk, pronounced waah-moot (note the long ä).

Wämut is my adopted skin name or Mälk, and it uses the ä character, one of a number of special characters used in Yolŋu Matha. ä denotes a long a sound.

This skin name is part of the Mälk System, which gives every yolŋu person one of 16 skin names, which is like a calling name on top of your normal name. These are divided into dhuwa and yirritja moiety (a bit like the yin yang concept).

Below is a list of the Mälk names divided into these two moieties with their male and female equivalents. These names are used when talking to people in general conversation. Actual yolŋu given names underneath this are used far less frequently, only when there might be some confusion about who you are referring to, and people don’t usually call people by their actual yolŋu given name but by their Mälk. Your Mälk is inherited from your mother.

Yirritja Mälk. Dhuwa Mälk

Male: Gotjuk. Balaŋ – Female: Gotjan Bilinydjan
Male: Ŋarritj. Gamarraŋ – Female: Ŋarritjan. Gamanydjan
Male: Baŋaḏi. Burralaŋ – Female: Baŋaḏitjan. Galikali
Male: Buḻany. Wämut – Female: Buḻanydjan. Wamuttjan

The Yolŋu Matha word is ŋalapal meaning elder or old person pronounced ngul-u-pul.

There are many inspiring ŋalapal mala (elders) I have met over the years who are driving forces in their community. This is Keith Lapulung Dhamarrandji, a great friend and inspiring speaker who is one of the elders from the MIlingimbi community. He is also lead singer of the Wirringa Band and driving force behind the Gattjirk Milingimbi festival which I filmed several times. Here are highlights of a video from 2016.

Many of the ŋalapal mala in Arnhem land are overburdened, with visiting government officials and service providers always wanting a piece of their time each week, on top of the burden of trying to manage their extended families. However, leaders such as Lapulung pull the community together and help to bring about change in their communities.

The Yolŋu Matha word gurrutu meaning family pronounced gurrootoo.

This word like many Yolŋu words has the rolled r sound which many people find tricky to pronounce. If you find it tricky, you can just pronounce it like the dd in the word “udder”.

Gurrutu is probably the most important thing to most Yolŋu people. Whereas most people in mainstream society first ask: Where do you work? Most Yolŋu will first want to know how you are related to them.

This is why the process of being adopted into a Yolŋu clan is important so that Yolŋu people have a way of knowing how to refer to you as brother (wawa), uncle (ŋapipi), sister (yapa), auntie (mukul-bapa), grandfather (mari) or wife (galay).

Sometimes this can be a bit unexpected, like calling a little boy mari (grandfather) or a male calling another male galay (wife). This is because of how they are related to you, not literal in the mainstream sense.

The Yolŋu Matha word gurtha meaning fire, pronounced ger-tha.

With bushfires raging in Greece, and the outlook for a bad bushfire season here, it’s a good time to take notice of how Yolŋu people managed the country traditionally, noting this video from my old mentor Richard Trudgen which talks about how gurtha was used to manage fuel load and prevent major bushfires.

Today, traditional owner groups in some parts of the NT are eligible for carbon credits by burning at the right time of year to reduce fuel load and prevent larger bushfires. There is so much we can learn.

The Yolŋu Matha word djalkirri meaning foot or footprint or root of a tree pronounced djal-ki-ree.

Like many Yolŋu words this word has a far deeper meaning. If you talk about djalkirri rom (rom meaning law), it talks about the foundational law, or the roots of law upon which everything is based. My description of this does not really do it justice, so I will leave it to one of my former co-workers Yinin, who I call dhuway (term for wife of cousin) to explain in this podcast.

The Yolŋu Matha word bäpurru meaning funeral pronounced bah-poo-roo.

With the passing of the most well know Yolŋu actor from films such as Storm Boy, Walkabout, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s country. There is sure to be a yindi (big) bäpurru to honour his passing. Bäpurru often go over many days or weeks during which people sing manikay (songs) and have traditional bungul (dances). Each affiliated clan must sing their manikay and bungul in turn to sing the deceased person back to their country. They are sung in a song cycle to reflect all their related totems and country and interconnected clans. The main clans related to you would be the four clans of your mari pulu which are the clans your four grandparents (mari) come from. Here is an example of some bungul and manikay I filmed once.

Normally the name of the deceased person is not spoken for a period, or their image shown. This comes from the idea that if you say their name or speak their image, they stay in this place instead of moving on to their next destination. After a period of time has passed, usually about a year, although this varies a lot depending on how tragic or not the death was, the family gives permission for the name to be used again. For example, the town of Milingimbi had to be called by it’s other name, Yurrwi, after the death of an elder with a similar name. In the case of the famous actor who died, I believe the family has given permission for use of his name in line with his wishes, but I still feel a bit funny about it. This is an area where culture is shifting a lot, with people now often showing photos of the deceased person at the funeral.

The Yolŋu Matha word nymukuniny buwayak warakan mala meaning small invisible animals, otherwise known as germs.

I guess this is really three, but each word is nymukuniny (small) buwayak (invisible) warakan mala (animals – the mala denotes plural, like adding an s at the end). This is similar to the first word used to describe germs when they were first discovered which was animalcules.

This video I made shows a discovery education approach to explain germ theory, including its historical background. It is important to show the historical background in germ theory education, as it shows that previously, most people believed witchcraft caused sickness. It took hundreds of years since the first discovery of germs for them to be associated with any kind of sickness. Amongst Yolŋu people, galka (witchcraft) is still a strong part of people’s belief system. To describe the process of discovery of germs and relating them to sickness, takes many Yolŋu people on a journey that builds their intellectual understanding of germs, that is not often given in public health campaigns which tell people to just wash their hands. When people get the reasoning behind why, they make their own interventions to avoid getting sick. It is a common mistake in cross-cultural education to ‘keep things simple’ when giving the full picture is what people really need to take control of their lives.

The Yolŋu Matha word Manymak meaning good pronounced main-muck.

This is probably one of the first Yolŋu words most people hear. It means good.

A typical greeting might go like this:
Nhamirri Nhe (How are you? Nhe = You)
Manymak (Good)

Typically, people will respond with Manymak even if they are not good. Very occasionally, people will respond with: Yaka Manymak (Not good)

Another response people might give is Ganga Manymak (a little bit good). This usually means there is something a little bit wrong.

The Yolŋu Matha words
wäŋa meaning meaning home or place pronounced waaa-nga
gäna meaning meaning appearance pronounced gaana
gakal meaning meaning behaviour pronounced guk-all.

There are a few special Yolŋu characters in these words ä is long a sound, ŋ which is like the ng sound in sing, and l which is a normal l sound with a bit more l emphasis.

These three words used together provide a traditional Yolŋu way of explaining about health conditions. To explain a health condition using this paradigm or way of doing things you should explain in the following way:

Wäŋa: (home) where does the disease or sickness exist in the body, what is its home and areas it likes to live?

Gäna: (appearance) What does it look like? Colour or shape or how it appears. This is important information for Yolŋu as they have such knowledge of the natural world and animals. Knowing how these small things like viruses look, builds on the strength of this knowledge, and becomes an extension of their wider knowledge of the natural world. This short video I made about germ literacy shows a way of explaining about germ theory using a scaffolding education approach, moving from the known to the unknown. 

Gakal: (behaviour) How does the disease or sickness behave in the body? Does it have a life course? What are the stages of the disease and what stage is it at currently?

Explaining health concepts to Yolŋu people in this way engages their understanding and interest in their health and ultimately empowers them to create their own interventions. Skirting over concepts such as germs, which are an abstract concept and took the western world hundreds of years to believe caused sickness, without explaining the full background can create a magical belief in things like washing your hands. E.g., Just wash your hands to stop the germs. Without getting the underlying understanding, a little knowledge can be dangerous. For example, condom use. Some people in PNG wear them as necklaces believing their magic properties will protect them from AIDS. Or in Yolŋu communities, where a young man will put on a condom correctly to protect from STI’s, but take it off halfway through, believing that the act of putting it on provided protection, as they have been told “put on a condom to avoid getting STIs”.

The Yolŋu Matha word bala meaning house.

Housing on remote Yolŋu communities is a major problem, mostly due to overcrowding and housing that is not built for the environment.  A bala might house up to twenty people. 

Waŋa is the word for home or place. During the mission era, houses were built by yolŋu carpenters. When they started to be built by fly-in contractors, they were built much quicker and so local people were forced out of the building market and lost these skills. As a result, maintaining these houses now requires tradesmen to fly out occasionally to fix them. This, combined with overcrowding leads to rundown housing. About six years ago, the NT government started a scheme to have all houses built by locals which fizzled out when low numbers of housing were produced. For the government, it sounds better to say 1000 houses were completed, than 100 built using local skills. BUKMAK constructions, a Yolŋu building business supported by ALPA, is starting to change this; but there is a long way to go. 

Having more airflow in houses built for larger family groups rather than smaller houses reliant on airconditioning would also be more suited to the environment and prevent some of the diseases of overcrowding, like Rheumatic Heart Disease and Scabies, which are rife in Yolŋu communities. Whichever way you look at it, housing in remote Aboriginal communities needs a major rethink.

The Yolŋu Matha word yäwulu meaning kind pronounced yaa-wool-oo.

This word, as well as meaning kind, can also mean calm, gentle or placid. If you referring to a person being kind, you would use a different form of the word, so you might say “ngayi yäbulu,” meaning “they’re kind“. If you want to say, “that’s kind,” you would say “dhuwali yäwulu.” One of the goals in traditional law is to retain a state of calmness or equilibrium where everything is in balance. The two moieties, dhuwa and yirritja aim to be kept in balance like ying and yang, so ideally a dhuwa person marries a yirritja person, and these two elements (which categorise all plants, animals, clans and places) are kept in balance in many other ways. So, the double meaning of this word reflects that kindness aims to restore this sense of calm and balance.

The Yolŋu Matha word marŋgi meaning know, aware, informed or having knowledge pronounced marng-ghee.

This word is used commonly in conversation to ask if you know someone or something. For example, someone might ask Marŋgi nhe? meaning Do you know? When used in a learning context the -kum suffix is added so it becomes marŋgikum which means learn or get knowledge. If you don’t know something you might say Yaka ŋarra marŋgi which translates as No I know, meaning I don’t know. This is a particularly useful expression when you are a dhuŋga balanda (dumb whitefella) like myself.

The Yolŋu Matha word Gitkit meaning laughter. 

One of the things I love about this word is that it has a sort of onomatopoeia, where it sounds a bit like what it describes. There are a few Yolŋu words that do this, such as the word waak for crow. You often hear the word gitkit with -thun added to the end so it is gitkitthun. This is one of a number of word endings used in Yolŋu Matha, which is a suffixing language, with letters added to the end of words to change their meaning slightly. For example, gitkitthun would be equivalent to laughter, changing the tense of the word.

Hope you have a manymak (good) week and year filled with dharrwa gitkitthun (lot of laughter).

The Yolŋu Matha word rom meaning law.

This is a particularly important word for Yolŋu most often used when talking about law. People talk about Yolŋu rom and balanda rom as two different things (Yolŋu law and mainstream law). If you’d like a bit of extended reading about this, there is an in-depth explanation here. There has been some attempts to incorporate the two systems of law with regards to sentencing of offenders once a verdict has been reached as explained here, but on the whole, the two systems of law do not really speak to each other.

The main Yolŋu creation story has two sisters, the djankawu sisters arriving at Yalingbura in a canoe. These were the first creators, and they went across the country with their dilly bags dropping them off at different places to create all the different clan nations. The djankawu sisters carried dilly bags that were like the womb of law (rom) and the womb of life to create people. After a while, the men who were created felt they had nothing to do, so they stole the dilly bag of law so they could take charge of Yolŋgu rom (law). This story has strong relevance in the contemporary setting, because the dilly bag of law has essentially been taken away from men by the balanda law system, leaving many men feeling they have a lessened role and leading many to become disenfranchised.

Another meaning of the word rom often used is related to a “way” of doing things. It is reminiscent of Japanese culture and the idea of “the way of the dragon” or the “way of the eagle” idea that you hear about in a martial arts context. On a side note, Yolŋu clans have a very similar idea with their own martial art: spear dodging. A friend was explaining how to train for this, people throw spears at you, with padding on the end. You use your own totemic style to avoid the spears, and break them as they go past. For instance, if your totem was baru (crocodile) you would use baru rom to avoid the spears. Or baṉami (brolga) style, etc. Each totem animal has their own style of doing this. Once you have trained, people throw spears at you and you avoid them and kick or hit them to snap them as they go past. It requires amazing reflexes. Perhaps it was these skills that led Yolŋu to defeat early settlers in pastoral wars when they had guns. These guns took some time to reload and in this time Yolŋu either ran in with a spear or dodged bullets when they came. For this reason, the pastoralists were defeated and didn’t come back, making Arnhem land a truly sovereign nation, that was never ceded, only softly taken over by missionaries.

The Yolŋu Matha word Ngärra meaning a law ceremony.

A Ngärra is roughly equivalent to a meeting of parliament, where all the affiliated clans come together to discuss matters such as trade and disputes affecting different groups. If you are interested, there is a film coming up at Melbourne documentary festival next month which talks about this ceremony and yolŋu rom (law).

This documentary stars Rev Dr Djinyiini Gondarra OAM, who is a Ngärra leader and great man equivalent in my eyes to Nelson Mandela. One of his principal ideas is that Yolŋu land was never ceded, and in fact Yolŋu people won the pastoral wars, driving out pastoralists from their territory. Incidentally, the word Luku means foot in one meaning. In its other meaning it relates to foundational law, in a sense coming from the ground up.

Film screening details here.

The Yolŋu Matha words Dalkarramiri and Djirrikay meaning highest level of Yolŋu leadership pronounced dul-ku-rra-mi-ri and djirr-i-kay.

When we have a federal election, it is worthwhile thinking about the complex system of traditional law and justice which has largely been ignored by western parliamentary systems. The reason there are two names for the one thing, is that dalkarramiri is the Yirritja moiety name and djirrikay is the Dhuwa moiety name. Dhuwa and Yirritja are kind of like ying and yang in Japan, and people, places, plants and animals all fall into another category.

Traditionally, Yolŋu leaders were elected in by clan elders and could also be booted out if they were bad leaders. One of the most respected leaders in Yolŋu clans at the moment and for many years is Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, who I have worked with on many occasions. He is an erudite speaker and I equate him with the Yolŋu version of Nelson Mandela.

If you want to find out more about Yolŋu law and the complex structures that existed, my gutharra (grandchild) James Gurmanngu Gaykamangu gives a good explanation in the article here.

The Yolŋu Matha word baywarra meaning lighting pronounced bae-wurra.

This is a word from the Galpu language, which is my adopted clan, and Baywarra is also the name of a local football team in Gove, as well as the name of one of the central characters in the new film “High Ground.” If you haven’t heard of this new film, here is the trailer. 

You will usually see a lot of lightning in the dhuludur’ season, which is the season at the end of the Dry (especially the hot, humid pre-Wet buildup, when black clouds appear on the horizon, there is distant thunder, and plants develop new shoots).

Baywarra is a Galpu totem, along with the Olive Python (Wititj) which it is strongly associated.

The Yolŋu Matha word madakarritj meaning mad or angry pronounced mud-u-kur-itch.

This morning my son was a bit madakarritj because he didn’t want to go to school. The word madakarritj is particularly relevant if you are talking about bapi (snakes). If someone says it is a madakarritj bapi, that means it is a dangerous or venomous snake. In this context, the word could also mean venomous. If you are wandering around town and there is a madakarritj watu (dog) this is a dog that is acting dangerously and barking a lot. Madakarritj can also mean dangerous.

The Yolŋu Matha word Ŋalindi meaning moon pronounced nga-llin-dee.

This word is also used to refer to a month. Yolŋu people have a popular story about ŋaḻindi the moon.

Originally, he was a fat lazy man (corresponding to the full Moon) for which he was punished by his wives, who chopped bits off him with their axes, producing the waning Moon. He managed to escape by climbing a tall tree to follow the Sun, but was mortally wounded, and died (the new Moon). After remaining dead for 3 days, he rose again, growing round and fat (the waxing Moon), until, after two weeks his wives attacked him again. The cycle continues to repeat every month. Until Ngalindi first died, everyone on Earth was immortal, but he cursed humans and animals so that only he could return to life. For everyone else, death would thereafter be final.

The Yolŋu Matha word rrupiya meaning money pronounced rru-pee-yah.

This word is probably familiar too you if you have travelled throughout Asia, where this word is used in many places. Originally, this word has ancient origins back to Sanskrit.

This is one of many Yolŋu words that have derived from the Macassan language reflecting the longstanding trade relationship that Yolŋu had with Macassan people well before British settlement. Back in those days, Conch shells were used as a form of currency, some other words include lipalipa (canoe) and balanda (derived from Hollander and used to generally refer to white people). This was quite a huge trade, with Macassan staying and working with Yolŋu to harvest and process Trepang, which is like a sea slug sold as an aphrodisiac in China but having no use as food or other purpose for Yolŋu. Pearls were also a major trade, with Yolŋu seeding oysters to support this trade. In return, Yolŋu received metal items, guns, fishing hooks and many other things they traded on.

When this trade was stopped by Australian authorities (who didn’t like the prow ships coming into Darwin harbor as they were not wind cutters and had difficulty getting in and out) Yolŋu people were devastated and left stone messages at Macassan beach saying they were still there, trying to contact their Macassan friends. Here are some pics of the rock

For more information on Yolŋu trade history, you can also read this article

The Yolŋu Matha word rägudha meaning mud mussel, pronounced rha-good-ah. Note this word uses the ä character which is a long a sound. 

Rägudha is a popular type of maypal (shellfish), usually collected in mangrove areas and either thrown on the fire or boiled before being eaten. Walawuny (“long bums”) is a conical-shaped shellfish that’s collected and cooked in the same way. 

One of the types of maypal that takes a bit of getting used to is latjin (mangrove worm). Chopped out of fallen mangrove trunks and eaten raw, latjin can taste like oysters, or, if you get a darker section, even woodchips. Wayanaka (oysters) are also popular, fetched off the rocks.

The Yolŋu Matha word ŋurrtji meaning meaning nasal discharge or snot.

Today I am rerrikthun (sick) and am doing a lot of ŋurrtji’yun (blowing my nose).

On Yolŋu communities, it is particularly common to see young kids with a lot of ŋurrtji coming out their nose. This does not bode well for COVID transmission. In school I have seen in the mornings the whole class has to get a tissue and blow their nose in time to a rhyme. This seems a bit paternal, but there is quite a major problem with kids getting ear infections, often resulting in a perforated ear drum since many do not routinely blow their nose. This hearing damage can have a profound effect on their lives, leading to not hearing the teacher, to being disengaged in school, to dropping out of school and getting involved in problematic behaviour. It is interesting to note that about 90% of Yolŋu people in Berrimah (jail) are thought to have hearing problems, showing the flow through effect of ear damage.

The Yolŋu Matha word makarrata, meaning a peace keeping ceremony used to resolve a conflict.

At Milingimbi, there is a Makarrata ground, where conflicts between clans were traditionally resolved, in the Makarrata ceremony. During this ceremony, the two clans would face each other, and if one person was at fault, a person from the other clan would come and spear them through the thigh, after which the conflict would be resolved. An alternate version of this would be throwing a spear from a long distance, with the person targeted not allowed to move from the spot. An alternative interpretation of the word describes ‘coming together after a struggle.’ The meaning of Makarrata is described in this video I made about an event talking about repatriating artefacts from museums to people at Milingimbi community. After this event, makarrata has been used to describe a treaty process, and was a word used in writing of the Uluru statement of the Heart. 

As we commence reconciliation week, the underlying process of makarrata and the idea of coming together after a struggle, can guide the process of seeking reconciliation through a process of truth telling and working towards common understanding and agreements. View the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which instigated discussions about a Voice to parliament here, to understand the spirit of what the Voice will represent. 

The Yolŋu Matha word gurrupuruŋu meaning poor thing pronounced guru-poo-roongu

It is often used as a sympathetic expression when you hear of something bad happening to someone, almost like an exclamation.

For example, an exchange might go like this:

Person A: My mother has been diagnosed with cancer.

Person B: gurrupuruŋu

This word would often be used in conjunction with another word: marrkapmirr (meaning dear or beloved)

For example, if talking about someone close to you:

Person A: My son just had his tonsils out.

Person G: gupuruŋu marrkapmirr

The Yolŋu Matha word waltjan meaning rain pronounced walt-djan.

With dharrwa waltjan (lots of rain) being around now thought this word was appropriate.
In Northeast Arnhem land, waltjan in huge volumes is much more common in the wet season. With the ground being quite porous, most of this goes away quite quickly however, with some of it fulling up a huge artesian basin that stretches to Papua New Guinea under the sea, from which the town of Nhulunbuy draws its water supply. Similarly, the island town of Milingimbi relies on an underground aquifer, which at times struggles to supply the community. With so much rain in these parts, like eskimos have a lot of words for snow, Yolŋu have a lot of words for rain (though waltjan is most used).

Here are just a few other ones:
dhukumul – rain–heavy, constant
djarra – water–rain (in rock pool)
djiŋ’tjiŋdhun – drip, sprinkle (rain, water)
garrayiwyiw – drizzle, light rain
nyika(‘) – rain–fine misty (light shower of large “slow” drops)
nyikamula – rain-shower
nyirnyir – rain in spots,
“spitting” rain, drizzle
yalumul – rain–heavy, constant

The Yolŋu Matha word gurruṯu meaning relatives or relationship pronounced goo-ru-too.

Since we are likely to be spending a lot of time with relatives this festive season, gurruṯumala (relatives) will play a big part of this time of year. When spending time with your bäpurru (clan/family) I hope you have a manymak walu (good time) this Christmas. Yolŋu communities usually get right into Christmas, with houses around the community covered in Christmas lights. The Methodist missionaries who helped establish the main communities (unlike catholic missionaries in other regions) encouraged the use of Yolŋu languages and created language learning resources for their staff, which are still used today. They also incorporated traditional ceremonies into Christmas ceremonies, with the three wise men represented by three elder hunters coming to give presents. A little bit of the feel of Christmas on Yolŋu communities can be seen in this video

The Yolŋu Matha word gatjuy meaning scram pronounced gut-joy.

This is a word that can be important to prevent you from sustaining a nasty dog bite on communities. Since community dogs don’t really speak English, it is important to know the words they understand to make them go away, particularly when you come across a group of ten community dogs marauding around the street. Another word that you can use is djibay (pronounced ji-bay) which basically means the same thing.

If all else fails and the dog keeps coming, quickly put your hand to the ground and make it look like you are picking something up to throw at them. Even if it is just a handful of dirt, this works every time. Unfortunately, most community dogs are conditioned to respond to this from having things thrown at them.

Whilst you may see community dogs and assume they are uncared for, they usually have owners who call them by relationship terms like wawa (brother) or waku (son or daughter). They are usually a part of someone’s family. If animal welfare workers come in and destroy animals without realising this, there can be big problems. Dogs, which are called watu (pronounced wu-too) or wungan (pronounced woon-gun) occupy a special place in Yolŋu culture, guarding against mokuy (spirits) and used in hunting.

There is a special watu dreaming story I recorded once with the traditional owner of that story I recorded once for a DVD I made once called “Watuwal malangur ga nhina (living with dogs)” which won a national ATOM award for Best Indigenous resource.

The watu creation story talks about two dogs travelling across country and meeting up at one place near Ramingining where the first of the larger doc family were born.

Watu have a deep and long-standing relationship with Yolŋu people which can sometimes be hard to understand when you see neglected animals with mange and rampant tick infestation. The treatment for most things is quite simple, one dose of ivermectin mixed with peanut butter on bread can turn a dog with mange and hardly any hair left turn into a dog with a healthy looking coat again. A video I made years ago with AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities) shows the process (this is an excerpt from a longer half hour video)

The Yolŋu Matha word rerri meaning sickness pronounced rearee.

Thought this word would be relevant given our health focus. One rerri that particularly affects Yolŋu in remote communities is Rheumatic Heart Disease, with Australia having the highest rates in the world in some regions. If you are interested I have produced two videos for RHD Australia about the effects of RHD on pregnant women called Sharing a Heartbeat 1 and 2. These are available here.

The Yolŋu Matha word mälk meaning skin name or subsection, pronounced mahlk.

This word features a special character ä which is basically a long a sound like aah.

My mälk is Wämut and it is a Dhuwa mälk. Like everything in Yolŋu life, things are either dhuwa or yirritja, a bit like the ying/yang idea in Japan, applying to names, places, trees, animals and people.

Below is a list of all of the different mälk names, which are inherited from your mother. Every Yolŋu person has one of these names. They are a bit like what you might call a calling name in the way they are used. People do not usually call people by their actual yolŋu name, but either by one of the skin names below, or by how they are related to them e.g., uncle, brother, sister etc.


Yirritja Mälk

Dhuwa Mälk













If you want some more information about how skin names are inherited from mothers in a cyclical system, there is a diagram on this web page, as well as a great video about Narritj the cockatoo who talks Yolŋu Matha at Galiwin’ku.

The Yolŋu Matha word manikay meaning song pronounced man-e-kay.

This is the word used to describe traditional songlines, as well as another other kind of song.

Songlines basically stores all the intellectual knowledge of Yolŋu people in the same way as books are used. This included knowledge such as maps to travel across country, traditional laws and creation stories. Using rhythm and melody encoding, this is a powerful way of storing knowledge. Think of the old Cottees commercial jingle: “my dad picks the fruit…..” I bet you remember all the rest of the words of this song, even though you don’t really want to. This shows the power of storing knowledge in song. Some studies have compared 100 year old recordings of manikay and found there was no essential difference in the song apart from when the singer took an extra breath. As an example of how long knowledge can be stored in this way, I recorded a song called “Mawurrumbul,” about a large cat. This refers to the Marsupial lion, which became extinct in Australia well over 30,000 years ago, meaning that this song predates the earliest forms of writing in Mesopotamia in 3200 BC.

If you want to hear some manikay, there is a bit in this early short doco I made of my adopted father, Djalu Gurruwiwi.

The Yolŋu Matha word badak meaning still, wait a moment, hold on, pronounced bud-uk.

Note the underlined d which gives the d more emphasis and requires you to curl your tongue a little bit to get the right sound.

This word is quite useful in conversation as a polite way of telling people you will be with them in a moment, you are doing something else. I have also heard it used out hunting when a hunter is approaching his prey and wants those around to keep still. When you are ready to go again, all you have to say is “ma” another useful word which can mean “yes,” “I get what you’re saying”, “let’s go,” or in this case “go on.”

The Yolŋu Matha word dhunupa meaning straight, correct or right (as in direction) pronounced dhoo-noo-pah.

Interestingly, this word has the same connotations and meanings as the word ‘right’ in English. This includes the directional meaning as well as true, right or good. A common expression you might hear is people saying “Dhunupa dhawu?” meaning “Straight story?” to check if someone is telling a true story or just joking or lying. This can be used a bit interchangeably with the word “Yuwalk” meaning “true” in this context.

On a side note, you may notice that the word “true” is one of the most common English words you might hear in the NT in response to people telling a story or some news!

Click here to view a short movie I made as a training exercise with the guys at Galimin’ku CDP about a Djarpi (crooked) spear that is not dhunupa. Djarpi can also mean someone is telling ‘tall stories’.

The Yolŋu Matha word mägaya rom meaning still/quiet pronounced Mah-gi-ya rom.

This morning I went lake Weeroona to take a photo of Belinda with a member of the Monash research team. Looking at the glassy still water I was reminded of a very special Yolŋu Matha concept: mägaya rom.

This term has no direct translation. It has been described to me thus: When you see the ocean lying still and everything is quiet and still, that is like magaya rom.

Rom is the Yolŋu word for law or way or lore. When everything is in a state of balance according to the law, you have mägaya rom. Another way of looking at it is like the Japanese concept of Ying/Yang with these two elements being in balance.

The principles of Yolŋu law are intended to preserve this state of magaya rom. The proper term for official Yolŋu law is Madayin, which is a complete system of law. More info on this system can be found here. 

The Yolŋu Matha word Moiety meaning subdivisions pronounced Mowity.

Moeity is a term for the two subdivisions, that all Yolŋu people, places and animals are divided into. This is very similar to the concept of Ying/Yang in Japan. In Yolŋu society, everyone is either Dhuwa or Yirritja. So, to achieve balance for example, a Dhuwa person must marry a Yirritja person. More info on this concept can be found below:

All Yolŋu people in Northeastern Arnhem Land belong to one of two basic divisions, or moieties, called Dhuwa and Yirritja. Children belong to the same moiety as their father; their mother belongs to the other moiety.

Everything in the Yolŋu universe – Spirit Beings, plant and animal species, clan groups, areas of land and water are either Dhuwa or Yirritja. The Djang’kawu Sisters, the morning star, the water goanna, the stringybark tree, and the land in and around Yirrkala are Dhuwa, while such things as the evening star, stingray, cycad palm, and members of the Mangalili clan are all Yirritja.

The Yolŋu Matha word walu meaning sun or time pronounced wa-loo.

Yolŋu have a special relationship with the sun or walu, as immortalised in the song Djabana by Yothu Yindi 

Djabana is the word for sunset. My wife’s adopted name Rripa is the Wanguri language equivalent. In manikay (songs) such as the morning star manikay, the djaḏaw’ (sunrise) and djabana (sunset) are related to the beginning and the end of life, with the rising of the morning star being the birth of the spirit after death.

Yolŋu have a very different attitude towards walu (time) that takes some getting used to. You can ask for the time by saying nha walu? (what time). Time for an appointment is usually pretty fluid, within the space of a few hours. The best explanation of this sense of ‘unhurried time’ I have head was by my friend Ganygulpa in a video I made about a Makarrata event at Milingimbi. She describes this better than I ever could at 14:01 in this video.

The Yolŋu Matha word Rrambaŋi meaning together pronounced rum-bung-ee.

In the word, I have used the standard tail n character: ŋ
This is a very common letter in Yolŋu Matha languages, and sounds like the ng in the word “sing”.

A common expression used in Yolŋu Matha is “djama rrambaŋi” which literally translates as work together.

The Yolŋu Matha word mari meaning trouble pronounced like the river Murray.

It is used whenever there is any kind of trouble or fight. When referring to a fight, people might say mari djama, which literally translates as trouble work. Whenever there is a fight on community, it is a big attraction for people to go and watch.

Once I was on Galiwin’ku and it literally seemed like the whole town was running in one direction towards a big fight that was happening. Later I found out the fight was about a long running feud that started in Milingimbi over the death of a young boy who was taken by a crocodile in February 2011. It was alleged that a galka man (basically like a witch doctor) had turned himself into a crocodile and taken the boy before turning back into human form. There were some sketchy details about the death, like the body being buried and dug up a few times apparently, so this story may have some basis in suspicious behaviour. Or perhaps it was just some made up pretext, like the trigger for the war in Ukraine, to start a dispute based on clan rivalries. On communities where not a lot happens, a fight often draws people in like a magnet, and one of the most common things you will see Yolŋu teenagers watching on YouTube is fights from their and other communities.

With the word mari, it is important not to confuse with the word märi, which means grandparent. The main difference is the long ä sound. Whereas mari is pronounced like the river murray, märi is pronounced like maah-ri. The relationship between märi and gutharra (grandparent and grandchild) is a very close relationship, often with a kind of jokey relationship, like how you might have a more friendly jokey relationship with your grandparents than your parents, who have to be more involved with discipline day to day.

The Yolŋu Matha word nawi meaning um pronounced now-e.

Someone once asked me what this nawi word meant because you hear it all the time when people talk, and they thought it might be an important word. It is basically just filler while you work out what you are going to say. Can be useful if you are first starting to speak the language. For example, you might say something like nhakun nawi… (like um) and a Yolŋu person might jump to your rescue and say whatever the word is that you don’t know. Similarly saying: nhakun dhuwali nawi…. (like this um…) Someone might help you out and say the word. When my dad first came from Germany and was trying to learn English, he used the word bloody to get around this. Such as “Pass that bloody thing” “Oh you mean the hammer” “Yeah, the hammer.” Words like nhakun (like) dhuwali(this) and nawi (um) can help you to fluff it in the same way.

On a side note, the word dhuwal (shortened version of this) is the name of a group of Yolŋu languages. In all this group of languages you use the word dhuwal for this. My adopted clan used the word dhangu for this and is called the dhangu language. If you are interested, here is a link to a free Dhangu dictionary.

The Yolŋu Matha word djambatj meaning wise or clever pronounced jum-buh-tch.

A few years ago, a video was made called Djambatjthi which translates as ‘becoming wise’, with the suffix added at the end. This video tells the story of a young man returning to his home community after time in a mental health ward and how his community can support him.

The word Djambatjthi basically sums up what GPSA does in supporting GP Supervisors to help registrars djambatjthi and finding out more about specific issues related to GP training through research undertaken.

The Yolŋu Matha word Ganguri meaning Yam pronounced gun-goo-re.

Up in the top end in the dry season, it is the perfect time for looking for ganguri (yam). To find them, you look for a vine growing around that has a heart shaped leaf. It is usually easier to find around this time of year because the leaves go brown, contrasting with the green leaves surrounding them. You then must follow the vine to the ground and dig sometimes quite deep. I have been out doing this with Yolŋu women many times and it is quite a physical task to get them out.

Ganuri is the generic term for yams, but there is also another type called djitama which is a round shaped yam. This video shows the process of preparing djitama which is quite involved and requires leaching of toxins in water in a bag. Normal ganguri type yams are usually just boiled like a potato and taste similar to a potato/parsnip. Incidentally, my adopted Yolŋu name is Gawuki, which is the name of ganguri leaves, which the old woman who gave me this name said, it was a sign of good things underneath.

Date reviewed: 15 September 2023

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