Yolŋu languages

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Yolŋu Matha
Northern Territory, Australia
Linguistic classification: Pama–Nyungan
  • Yolŋu Matha
Glottolog: yuul1239[1]
Yolŋu languages (green) among other Pama–Nyungan (tan)

Yolŋu Matha is a cover term for the languages of the Yolngu (Yolŋu, Yuulngu), the Indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. (Yolŋu = people, Matha = tongue, language).

Yolngu languages have a fortis–lenis contrast in plosive consonants. Lenis/short plosives have weak contact and intermittent voicing, while fortis/long plosives have full closure, a more powerful release burst, and no voicing.


Yolŋu Matha consists of about six mutually intelligible languages divided into about thirty clan varieties and perhaps twelve different dialects, each with its own Yolŋu name. Put together, there are about 4600 speakers of Yolŋu Matha. While there is extensive variation between these dialects, there is generally common mutual intelligibility, hence the umbrella group of Yolngu Matha. The linguistic situation is very complicated, since each of the 30 or so clans also has a named language variety. Dixon (2002) distinguishes the following:[2]

Bowern (2011) adds the varieties in parentheses as distinct languages.

In popular culture[edit]

The films Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie's Country (2013), both directed by Rolf de Heer and featuring actor David Gulpilil, feature dialogue in Yolŋu Matha. Ten Canoes was the first feature film to be shot entirely in Australian indigenous languages, with the dialogue largely in the Ganalbiŋu variety of Yolŋu Matha.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is a popular Australian singer who sings in the Gumatj dialect of Yolŋu Matha, as did the Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi.

Dictionaries and resources[edit]

Dictionaries have been produced by Beulah Lowe, David Zorc and Michael Christie. A public-domain version of Beulah Lowe's dictionary is available as a pdf file.

There are also several grammars of Yolngu languages by Jeffrey Heath, Frances Morphy, Melanie Wilkinson and others.[3]

Words and expressions[edit]

  • Gakal = skill, talent, ability
  • Gapumirr = with water(bucket with water), watery.[4]
  • Manymak = Good, OK
  • Yow (pronounced 'Yo') = Yes
  • Yaka = No


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yolŋu Matha". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Cambridge University Press. p. xxxvi. 
  3. ^ ARDS Language Publications
  4. ^ Trudgen, Richard, 2000, 'Thirteen years of wanting to know', Why warriers lie down and die, Adoriginal Resource and Development Services, Inc. Darwin, pp. 97-112