Yolŋu languages

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Yolŋu Matha
northeastern Arnhem Land, including Elcho Island, Crocodile Islands, Wessel Islands, English Companys Islands, Northern Territory, Australia
Linguistic classificationPama–Nyungan
  • Yolŋu Matha
SubdivisionsSigned form:
Yolŋu Sign Language
Yolngu languages.png
Yolŋu languages (green) among other Pama–Nyungan (tan)

Yolŋu Matha, meaning the "Yolŋu tongue", is a linguistic family that includes the languages of the Yolngu (Yolŋu, Yuulngu), the indigenous people of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The "ŋ" in Yolŋu is pronounced as the "ng" in "singing".

Yolŋu 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 languages, some mutually intelligible, 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 languages. Exogamy has often meant that mothers and fathers speak different languages, so that children traditionally grew up at least bilingual, and in many cases polylingual, meaning that communication was facilitated by mastery of multiple languages and dialects of Yolŋu Matha. The linguistic situation is very complicated, given that each of the 30 or so clans also has a named language variety. Dixon (2002) distinguishes the following:[2]

Dhangu-Djangu language Nhangu language Dhuwal language Ritharngu language Djinang language Djinba language
Wan.gurri Gamalaŋga Gupapuyngu Ritharngu Yirritjing Ganhalpuyngu
Lamamirri Gorryindi Gumatj Wagilak Wurlaki Manjdjalpuyngu
Rirratjingu Mäḻarra Djambarrpuyngu Djardiwitjibi
Gaalpu Bindarra Djapu Mildjingi
Ngayimil Ngurruwulu Liyagalawumirr Balmbi
Warramiri Walamangu Guyamirlili Djuwing
Mandatja Dhalwangu Marrangu
Djarrwark Murrungun

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 /ɻ/
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.

Dr. G Yunupingu was a popular Australian singer who sang in the Gumatj dialect of Yolŋu Matha, as did the Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi.

Baker Boy, from the community of Milingimbi in North Eastern Arnhem Land released the song "Cloud 9" in 2017, in which he raps in Yolŋu Matha.[5] As Young Australian of the Year in 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and with two of his songs in the 2019 Triple J Hottest 100,[6] he raised the profile of Yolŋu Matha in mainstream media as well as giving people at home pride in their language.[7][8][9]

Dictionaries and resources[edit]

Dictionaries have been produced by Beulah Lowe, David Zorc and Michael Christie. 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.[10]

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.[11]
  • Manymak = Good, OK
  • Yol (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.[12]


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Yuulngu". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  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. ^ ABC News
  6. ^ "1-100: Hottest 100 2017 - triple j". ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). 11 November 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  7. ^ Reich, Hannah (25 January 2020). "Baker Boy ends his tenure as Young Australian of the Year by taking Yolngu language and dance further into the mainstream". ABC News (ABC Arts; Stop Everything!). Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  8. ^ Kelly, Barb (25 January 2019). "Baker Boy is named 2019 Young Australian of the Year" (video). ABC News. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  9. ^ Newstead, Al (28 January 2018). "Baker Boy brings Indigenous language to the Hottest 100 top end". triple j. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  10. ^ ARDS Language Publications
  11. ^ Trudgen, Richard, 2000, 'Thirteen years of wanting to know', Why warriors lie down and die, Aboriginal Resource and Development Services, Inc. Darwin, pp. 97-112
  12. ^ 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.


Further reading[edit]