Yanyuwa language

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Native toAustralia
RegionNorthern Territory
EthnicityYanyuwa, Wadiri
Native speakers
47 (2021 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3jao
Macro-Pama-Nyungan languages.png
Yanyuwa is the patch of yellow on the northern coast, between the orange and the green.
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Yanyuwa (IPA: [jaṉuwa]) is the language of the Yanyuwa people of the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria outside Borroloola (Yanyuwa: Burrulula) in the Northern Territory, Australia.

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

Yanyuwa is a critically endangered language. The anthropologist John Bradley has worked with the Yanyuwa people for three decades and is also a speaker of Yanyuwa. He has produced a large dictionary and grammar of the language,[3] along with a cultural atlas in collaboration with a core group of senior men and women.


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.[4] Also unusual is the fact that Yanyuwa has no voiceless phoneme, as all its consonants are voiced (vowels are by default voiced, as is the norm in most languages).


Peripheral Laminal Apical
Bilabial Front
Dental Alveolar Retroflex
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ ŋ̟ ⟨nyng⟩ ŋ̠ ⟨ng⟩ ⟨ny⟩ ⟨nh⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ɳ ⟨rn⟩
Prenasalised stop ᵐb ⟨mb⟩ ᵑɡ̟ ⟨nyk⟩ ᵑɡ̠ ⟨ngk⟩ ⁿḏ ⟨nj⟩ ⁿd̪ ⟨nth⟩ ⁿd ⟨nd⟩ ᶯɖ ⟨rnd⟩
Stop b ⟨b⟩ ɡ̟ ⟨yk⟩ ɡ̠ ⟨k⟩ ⟨j⟩ ⟨th⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ɖ ⟨rd⟩
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
Prefix2 Class Example(s) Gloss
rra-/a-1 female (human centred) rra-bardibardi "old lady"
nya-w ∅-m male (human centred) nya-malbuw malbum "old man"
rra-/a-1 feminine a-karnkarnka "white bellied sea eagle"
∅- masculine nangurrbuwala "hill kangaroo"
ma- food (non-meat) ma-ngakuya "cycad fruit"
na- arboreal na-wabija "digging stick"
narnu- abstract narnu-wardi "badness"
possessive pronominal prefixes body parts nanda-wulaya "her head"
niwa-wulayaw na-wulayam "his head"
∅- familiar kinship kajaja "father, dad"
various pronominal prefixes formal kinship for close kin angatharra-wangu "my wife"
various pronominal prefixes formal kinship-grandparent level karna-marrini "my daughter's child"
various pronominal prefixes/suffixes formal kinship-avoidance rra-kayibanthayindalu "your daughter in law"
rri- (dual) and li- (plural) human group li-maramaranja "dugong hunters of excellence"
rra-/a-1, nya-w ∅-m personal names rra-Marrngawi, nya-Lajumbaw Lajumbam
rra-/a-1 / ∅- ceremony names rra-Kunabibi, Yilayi, rra-Milkathatha
∅- place names Kandanbarrawujbi, Burrulula, Wathangka


^w Women's speech.
^m Men's speech.
^1 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 distinguishes it from the men's speech form ardu "boy" for which women say nya-ardu.
^2 ∅- is used to indicate no prefix.

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.

The BBC reported in 2018 that there were 3 fluent female speakers worldwide.[5]

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 usually 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-speakers 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.[6][7]


  1. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics (2021). "Cultural diversity: Census". Retrieved 13 October 2022.
  2. ^ N153 Yanyuwa at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  3. ^ Bradley, John (with Yanyuwa families). 2016. Wuka nya-nganunga li-Yanyuwa li-Anthawirriyarra – Language for Us, The Yanyuwa Saltwater People. Australian Scholarly Publishing. ISBN 978-1925003673.
  4. ^ "Yanuyuwa". UCLA Phonetics Lab data.
  5. ^ Kenyon, Georgina (30 April 2018). "Australia's ancient language shaped by sharks". BBC News. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
  6. ^ Music from home – Shellie Morris and the Borroloola Songwomen (91.7 ABC Coast FM programme).
  7. ^ CD Launch "Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu — Together We are Strong".

External links[edit]