Yanyuwa language

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Native to Australia
Region Northern Territory
Native speakers
70 (2005) to 130 (2006 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 jao
Glottolog yany1243[2]
Macro-Pama-Nyungan languages.png
Yanyuwa is the patch of yellow on the northern coast, between the orange and the green.
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Yanyuwa is the language of the Yanyuwa people of the Sir Edward Pellow Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria outside Borroloola. (Yanyuwa burrulula) in the Northern Territory, Australia. Walu may have been a dialect.

Yanyuwa, like many other Australian Aboriginal languages, is a complex agglutinative language whose grammar is pervaded by a set of 16 noun classes whose agreements are complicated and numerous. Yanyuwa is ergative.

Yanyuwa is critically endangered. Still, the anthropologist John Bradley, who has worked with the Yanyuwa women for three decades and also fluently speaks the female Yanyuwa language, has produced an enormous dictionary and grammar of the language along with a cultural atlas in collaboration with a core group of senior men and women so Yanyuwa's impending extinction may not be permanent.


Yanyuwa is extremely unusual in having 7 places of articulation for stops, compared to 3 for English and 4–6 for most other, Australian languages.


Peripheral Laminal Apical
Bilabial Front
Dental Alveolar Retroflex
Stop b (b) ɡ̟ (yk) ɡ̠ (k) (j) (th) d (d) ɖ (rd)
Prenasalised stop ⁿb (mb) ⁿɡ̟ (nyk) ⁿɡ̠ (ngk) ⁿḏ (nj) ⁿd̪ (nth) ⁿd (nd) ⁿɖ (rnd)
Nasal m (m) ŋ̟ (nyng) ŋ̠ (ng) (ny) (nh) n (n) ɳ (rn)
Lateral (ly) (lh) l (l) ɭ (rl)
Rhotic r (rr) ɻ (r)
Semivowel w (w) j (y)


Front Back
High i (i) u (u)
Low a (a)


Noun classes[edit]

Yanyuwa has 16 noun classes, distinguished by prefixes. In some cases, different prefixes are used, depending on whether the speaker is a male or a female.

Yanyuwa Noun Classes
# prefix class example
1 rra-/a- female (human centred) rra-bardibardi "old lady"
2 nya- (women's speech) 0- (men's speech) male (human centred) (w)nya-malbu (m)malbu "old man"
3 rra-/a- feminine a-karnkarnka "white bellied sea eagle"
4 0- masculine nangurrbuwala "hill kangaroo"
5 ma- food (non-meat) ma-ngakuya "cycad fruit"
6 na- arboreal na-wabija "digging stick"
7 narnu- abstract narnu-wardi "badness"
8 possessive pronominal prefixes body parts nanda-wulaya "her head", (w)niwa-wulaya (m)na-wulaya "his head"
9 0- familiar kinship kajaja "father, dad"
10 various pronominal prefixes formal kinship for close kin angatharra-wangu "my wife"
11 various pronominal prefixes formal kinship-grandparent level karna-marrini "my daughter's child"
12 various pronominal prefixes/suffixes formal kinship-avoidance rra-kayibanthayindalu "your daughter in law"
13 rri- dual and li- plural human group li-maramaranja "dugong hunters of excellence"
14 rra-/a-, nya-. 0- personal names rra-Marrngawi, (w)nya-Lajumba (m)Lajumba
15 rra-/a- / 0- ceremony names rra-Kunabibi, Yilayi, rra-Milkathatha
16 0- place names Kandanbarrawujbi, Burrulula, Wathangka


(w) women's speech, (m) men's speech, 0- no prefix used.

rra- is a more formal female/feminine prefix often used in elicitations, and a- is the informal everyday form. There is only one word in Yanyuwa, rra-ardu "girl", in which the rra- prefix is always used. That distinguish it from the men's speech form ardu "boy" for which women say nya-ardu.

Male and female dialects[edit]

Yanyuwa is unusual among languages of the world in that it has separate dialects for men and for women at the morphological level. The only time that men use the women's dialect is if they are quoting someone of the opposite sex and vice versa. An example of this speech is provided below:

(w) nya-buyi nya-ardu kiwa-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kanyilu-kala nyikunya-baba.

(m) buyi ardu ka-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kila-kala nyiku-baba.

The little boy went down to the river and saw his brother.

Speech styles[edit]

In Yanyuwa, certain words have synonyms used to replace the everyday term in certain cultural situations.

Avoidance speech[edit]

Avoidance speech is speech style used when talking to or near certain relatives: one's siblings and cousins of the opposite sex, one's brother-in-law, sister-in-law, father-in-law and mother-in-law, and one's nieces and nephews if their father (for male speakers) or their mother (for female speakers) has died. Occasionally, avoidance speech takes the form of different affixes to usual speech, but generally, it is simply a change in vocabulary.

For example, a digging stick is usually referred to as na-wabija, but when talking to one of the above relatives, the word used is na-wulungkayangu.

An example of avoidance speech is given below:

Avoidance: Ja-wuynykurninji ki-bujibujilu runungkawu ma-wulyarri.

Normal: Ja-wingkayi ki-buyukalu wubanthawu ma-ngarra.

He is going to the fire to cook food.

Ritual speech[edit]

Another set of vocabulary is used during ceremonies and other ritual occasions. Many of the words used in ritual speech are sacred and kept secret.

For example, a dingo is ususlly referred to as wardali, but during ritual occasions, the word used is yarrarriwira. That is one ritual term which is known to the general public, as are some other terms for flora and fauna.

Island speech[edit]

When on the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands, which is part of Yanyuwa territory, another set of vocabulary may be used to replace the terms used when on the mainland. There is more variance about the usage of island speech than the other speech styles.

For example, on the mainland, fishing is referred to as wardjangkayarra, but on the islands, the word used is akarimantharra.


Dixon (2002), who rejects the validity of Pama–Nyungan, accepts that Yanyuwa is demonstrably related to Warluwara and languages closely related to it.



Yanyuwa-dpeakers have actively engaged in making a number of films, and more recently have begun a project to animate important stories and songlines. These include three important films, all of which have extensive narratives in Yanyuwa, with subtitles:

  • Kanymarda Yuwa – Two Laws,
  • Buwarrala Akarriya – Journey East,
  • Ka-wayawayama – Aeroplane Dance.


Singer Shellie Morris released in May 2013 a song album Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu – Together We are Strong, with songs in Yanyuwa.[3][4]


  1. ^ a b Yanyuwa at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Yanyuwa". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Music from home – Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen (91.7 ABC Coast FM programme).
  4. ^ CD Launch "Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu — Together We are Strong".

External links[edit]