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.



The basic consonant inventory is common across Yolŋu varieties. However, some varieties do differ.[3]

Peripheral Apical Laminal Glottal
Bilabial Velar Alveolar Interdental Retroflex Palatal Glottal
Lenis b /b/ g /ɡ/ d /d/ dh/d̪/ /ɖ / dj /ɟ/ ' /ʔ/
Fortis p /p/ k /k/ t /t/ th/t̪/ /ʈ / tj /c/
Nasals m /m/ ŋ /ŋ/ n /n/ nh /n̪/ /ɳ / ny /ɲ/
Rhotics rr /r/ r /ɹ/
Laterals l /l/ /ɭ/
Approximants w /w/ y /j/


Front Central Back
Close i /i/, e /iː/ u /u/, o /uː/
Open a /a/, ä /aː/

A three way vowel distinction is shared between Yolŋu varieties, though not all Yolŋu varieties have a contrast in length. In the varieties that do have a length contrast, long vowels occur only in the initial syllable of words.[4]

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. A free, web-based searchable dictionary created by John Greatorex was launched in February 2015 by Charles Darwin University.

There are also several grammars of Yolŋu languages by Jeffrey Heath, Frances Morphy, Melanie Wilkinson and others.[5]

A Graduate Certificate in Yolŋu Studies is offered at Charles Darwin University, teaching Yolŋu kinship, law and the Gupapuyŋu language variety.

ABC Indigenous News Radio broadcasts a news program in Yolngu Matha and also in Warlpiri on weekdays. The Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) broadcast live radio in northeast Arnhem Land, Darwin and Palmerston and provide recordings of past programs on the internet.

Words and expressions[edit]

  • Gakal = skill, talent, ability
  • Gapumirr = with water(bucket with water), watery.[6]
  • Manymak = Good, OK
  • Yow (pronounced 'Yo') = Yes
  • Yaka = No
  • Yothu = Child
  • Yindi = Big
  • Yothu Yindi = denotes the link between two different entities which is characterised as a mother-child relationship[7]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yuulngu". Glottolog. 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. ^ Wilkinson, Melanie (2012). Djambarrpuyŋu: A Yolŋu Variety of Northern Australia. Muenchen: Lincom Europa. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-3-86288-360-8. 
  4. ^ Wilkinson, Melanie (2012). Djambarrpuyŋuː A Yolŋu Variety of Northern Australia. Muenchen: Lincom Europa. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-3-86288-360-8. 
  5. ^ ARDS Language Publications
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Christie, Michael J. (2013). Yolŋu language and culture: Study Notes. Darwin, Australia: Yolŋu Studies, Charles Darwin University. p. 40. ISBN 978-1-921576-20-1.