The above link is to a 1989 publication entitled “Singing the Land,  Signing the Land” by Helen Watson,  the Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers.

Their theme is the difference between Aboriginal and European knowledge systems and the interaction between them,  the latter described as being guided by the spirit of ganma1.  The authors’ work was with a Yolngu community and they recognize the degree to which extrapolation to other aboriginal communities may not be valid.  However their work throws an interesting perspective on the degree to which European thought (and linguistic expression) may be said to have been “corralled” into disciplined lines of measurement, categorisation,  logic and media.  Yolngu expression and thought appears to focus more on the linkages among items and their connection to the environment.

To illustrate their thinking they examine texts “concerned with one plant, the Cycad, a Palm-like tree that occurs in eucalypt forests around most of the coastal perimeter of Australia. Yolngu people produce texts about cycads in several forms: dance sequences, songs and graphic representations. Westerners produce scientific texts about cycads”.

Not only is the method of expression different but the occasion for expression is also.  To quote again from the book “ the most important texts in Yolngu life are produced as part of buŋgul, a term which is loosely translated into English as ‘ceremony’ or ‘business’”.

The book “Disputed Territories, Land Culture and Identity in Settler Territories” (Hong Kong University Press, 2003) contains a chapter by Neville White (who is well known to the writer and has worked with the Yolngu since the early 1970’s)  entitled “Meaning and Metaphor in Yolngu landscapes, Arnhem Land, northern Australia”. Inter alia White discusses (page 188/9) the differences between the two cultures in the understanding of nature and human perception,  seen separately in the European knowledge system but as an indivisible whole by the Yolngu.  White discusses the resulting problems in expressing concepts of land and environment in the two systems.

Both these works illustrate further a point made during this course,  namely the degree to which achieving understanding between European and Aboriginal culture is made more difficult by the inherently different conceptual frameworks but at the same time the way in which better understanding of “wholeness of the environment” inherent to aboriginal thinking is important in a continent in which the environment has been placed under heavy strain by the activities of its newer inhabitants.

Note 1.  Ganma is a Yolngu expresson referring to the meeting and mixing of two streams and applied here metaphorically to the two knowledge sytems.  It is described more fully in the paper

Peter Duncan LING566

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Exposure to Australian Languages through Place Names

Sophie Verass has recently compiled a list of well-known Aboriginal place names and their meanings for NITV/SBS: Indigenous meanings of Australian town names

Although on the surface it’s a mildly interesting article which provides some insight into Australian cultural and linguistic history, it goes a bit further and briefly discusses some of the cultural and linguistic contact of indigenous and white Australians.

The article exposes trends of naming conventions, such as the fact that many place names are actually variations on ‘place’. What especially interests me is the interaction of English with Australian Languages, with some names being created from the English mispronunciation of aboriginal words but also the other way around, like in the case of Toowoomba.

It’s a long article that covers a lot and doesn’t go very in depth but still manages to bring up some interesting linguistic concepts which would hopefully pique the interest of readers enough to have them look further.

Alex McKinlay

Verass, S. (2016)  Indigenous meanings of Australian town names. Retrieved from website:

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Maths and Storytelling

I came across this article on ABC News today and thought it was relevant to this unit given how we have discussed the ways in which Aboriginal languages have not traditionally contained words for many mathematical concepts and numbers.

While the lack of vocabulary for mathematical concepts demonstrates that mathematics just isn’t an important facet of Aboriginal cultures, not having the vocabulary must make it challenging to learn and understand mathematics in the early years.

Because of that, I believe that this initiative is an innovative way to harness the strength of storytelling and dance within Aboriginal cultures in order to help Aboriginal children who are struggling with mathematics.

I think perhaps the concluding quote sums up how language and culture interact to help or hinder the way in which children learn:

“We all carry our own cultural understandings and I think if you allow kids to be creative within that they can actually bring that to the table.”

Cassandra Winter

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“Off track, off beat, and now online.” BLACK AS

Production Credits: A Rebel Films Production financed by Screen Australia in association with Screen Territory. Director,Writer and Producer David Batty. Executive Producer,David Noakes. ABC Executive Producer sally Riley.

My title is an excerpt from the Trailer of this fabulous series, which is about a group of Yolngu Boys who grew up watching a previous series about Bush Mechanics, and had already produced their own version with a short self-made film. They sent it to the producer of the previous show, who travelled to Arnham Land  and produced this series, which was released this year and is now on iView. It consists of 24 short (5minutes each) videos, showing the boys, all Yolngu boys, but one , Joe, is Caucasian, having been adopted by a Yolngu family, initiated into the tribe and living with them; a blood brother.The series depicts the boys hunting, fishing, eating bush food, making do with any equipment they can find to take them on adventures. The most often used tools for mending cars, boats, trailers, etc, are axes, hammers and their own bare hands and energy.

I was interested to see a group of indigenous “brothers”, and how their everyday behaviour  played out the life-style I had been reading about in this course, mainly, how they organised themselves to get work done, for example, as they have this aversion to taking or giving orders to any other person. I found it very interesting. Certainly, the group seemed to be self-starting. ” I’ll get wood”. ” Let’s make a fire.” “Leave this and Let’s go fishing.”  But the presence of the non-indigenous person plays around with this autonomy  idea, because Joe is very bossy, and is also the experienced Bush Mechanic. Tensions rise sometimes and on one occasion, having found a billabong and cooling off ,after a stressful walk in the bush with no water, and everyone blaming everyone else, Joe and Jerome give every appearance of a real fight in the water. On the sidelines Dino calls “You’re only playing, aren’t you!”  But they emerged from the water, a quick embrace, “Blood Brothers!. “We’ve made peace, now let’s make a fire!”

I read that nothing is scripted, except for a couple of sit-com examples for comedic effect, but all the language spoken is Yolngu, with English translations. Another point I noticed is that they all quite naturally fell into sign language. They were roaring across the Arafura Sea and the boat was making lots of noise. The English translations kept coming along the screen, all the hands were fluttering , but no voice sounds. I simply assumed that they were using sign language, but I’d be interested to know if I’m right.

Also from the ‘series trailer’  I heard that there is no didactic purpose in the series. They are not trying to prove anything except ,perhaps, to their fellow indigenous brethren, that life can be a lot of fun, out in the bush, using the traditional methods of getting food and using whatever they can find to make that hunting and fishing easier. eg clapped -out  cars and trailers.One up for Indigenous Comedy!

Deirdre Benson


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Aboriginal Language Revival

In reflecting on language loss, maintenance and revival from week 5, I was curious how to find out which Aboriginal languages have been documented and which ones need to be studied further. Given the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, there are bound to be many that need further research.

The best place to start is always the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and on the AIATSIS site I found a fantastic resource called AUSTLANG: the Australian Indigenous Languages Database.

The AUSTLANG database is a wealth of information about confirmed and unconfirmed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. It gives information such as classification (Pama-Nyungan/non-Pama-Nyungan), language relationships, location and number of speakers. You can look up languages by name, state or by using the interactive map.

AUSTLANG also has information on and references to grammars and dictionaries written and on programs that teach or use each language, as well as names of individuals and organisations that have researched the language extensively. It also provides a documentation score based on word lists/dictionary, texts and stories, grammar and audio.

The research information gives a good indication of which languages have had research attention and the languages that have not. From a well-researched language, you could easily locate a related (or unrelated) unstudied language and contact some of the related researchers to find out more.

I also found some resources on the Our Languages site on how to start a language revival project. They refer to a NSW Board of Adult Education resource It’s a hard road to hoe but you gotta start somewhere, which was designed as a course to help in planning language revival projects.

One final resource, bringing this all home for me, is a current AIATSIS language revival research project: the Ngunawal language revival project. Having lived in Canberra for 8 years now, I had no idea that Ngunawal language was at risk of language loss.

This language revival project group is made up of members across many organisations and is working to not only revive the Ngunawal language but to also develop a primary school language program, with the ultimate goal of Ngunawal language being part of the ACT curriculum.

Looking at the disparity and scarcity of resources in Aboriginal language projects and the rapid rate of language loss, drastic action is needed to preserve these languages. Reviving and documenting Aboriginal languages at risk of language loss, and including those languages in school curriculum across the country is a fantastic way to ensure Aboriginal languages and culture are maintained into the future.

Anyone for a PhD?

Jennifer See

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The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages

The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AusSIL) provides online access to dictionaries for eleven Indigenous languages (Burarra, Bilinarra, Djinang, Gurindji, Iwaidja, Maung, Tiwi, Walmajarri, Warlpiri, Wik Mungkan, and Kriol). This is a highly useful resource for this unit as these dictionaries are easy to access and simple to use.

Week 8 is focused on Aboriginal English and Kriol. The Kriol dictionary is an excellent additional resource for this topic. The Kriol dictionary makes it easy to locate the meaning of English-sounding words; for example, ‘mama’ which sounds like ‘mother’ to an English speaker, but in Kriol means ‘fruit’.

The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AusSIL) website can be located at:

The Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AusSIL) online dictionary for Kriol can be found at:

Warren Bell

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Teaching Indigenous Languages in primary schools

Hi everyone,

I thought I’d share these news articles which relate how some primary schools have introduce their local Indigenous language and is taught to all children of the school and town. Even though Indigenous Language in Education is in week 9, I chose to share these articles I found before I forgot where to find them (I had a hard time finding them a second time :-)).

Wiradjuri in Dubbo, NSW. (Which I just realised Erin Hopkins has already introduced).

Yawuru in Broome, WA.

Teaching these languages in schools, especially primary schools, contributes to the language revitalisation throughout the community. In addition to that, though, it also demonstrates the changing perceptions of Indigenous culture and their language. It works at subverting the previous held (false) belief that the Indigenous language was inferior; that is, by teaching the two languages side by side in schools, they are given equal status. Furthermore, white culture will be sharing Indigenous culture and incorporating these ideas into their own identity, becoming a part of Indigenous Australia instead of being separate.


Laura Oneale

LING366 (T2, 2016)

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