Yan-nhangu Dictionary, Bentley James PDF Print E-mail

Young Boys on the Crocodile IslandsYan-nhangu is a language spoken by about 15 people in the Crocodile Islands, off of the coast of the Northern Territory. The Yan-nhangu language belongs to the Yolngu Matha language group of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The Yan-nhangu Language Team, which consists of both linguists and native speakers, is working to compile resources, including a dictionary, for the description of Yan-nhangu culture and the revitalization of Yan-nhangu language.

Senior traditional owner and nonagerian Laurie Baymarrwanga affirms the wisdom of linking Yan-nhangu language and local knowledge to the imperatives of global change and modern technology in support of diversity for the future of Australia and the Crocodile Islands;

"Nhangu dhangany yuwalkthana bayngu bulanggitj Yolngu mitji marnggimana dhana gayangamana mayili mana dhangany wanggalangabu mana limalama ganatjirri wulumba (maramba)".

"We continue to pass on the stories of our land and sea country for the good of a new generation".

The Yan-nhangu Dictionary is part of a family of programs in support of appropriate life education and employment opportunities in various contexts across the Crocodile islands. Yan-nhangu speaking Yolngu people have started these initiatives to enhance linkages between biological and linguistic diversity as a basis for sustainable culture based livelihoods, management of natural resources and wellbeing for future generations3. These include practical projects like the emerging Crocodile Islands Ranger (CIR) program, the development of a Web-based Yan-nhangu Ecological Knowledge (YEK) database, and it is hoped eventually, a Yan-nhangu encyclopaedia. The Yan-nhangu 'Language Nests' project also linked to the Yan-nhangu Dictionary, seeks to provide pre-school aged children access to audio-visual language learning materials. These are part of an ongoing project to support the intergenerational transmission of this unique local marine knowledge. The purpose of these on-country projects, run by us as volunteers is to bring the old and young together to re-emphasise the knowledge, skills and language of the islands.

The 2003 Yan-nhangu Dictionary project in part grew out of a desire by Yan-nhangu people to tell their stories to a wider community. In the ensuing years this desire has not diminished and the hardships faced by the Yan-nhangu people have increased dramatically4. The knowledge, language and cultural artefacts of the Yan-nhangu are in a precarious position given the historical legacy of government neglect, belittlement of bilingualism, and decapitalisation of their homelands - in short denying their basic human rights. Denial of government support for Yan-nhangu people's homelands continues to put their children's cultural and linguistic futures at risk5. The Yan-nhangu Dictionary is part of our initiative to raise awareness of the need for support of opportunities to live on country and protect cultural, natural and linguistic resources.

The Dictionary project attempts to capture and record the rich and vibrant ritual, linguistic and ecological knowledge linked to the sacred ancestral sites of the seas and islands. The Yan-nhangu language is a vehicle for, and repository of this rich cultural and biological knowledge of the sea; the reward of generations of intimate coexistence with the marine environment. The project provides data about the linguistic and ecological diversity of the islands which feeds into the YEK database and the work of the CIR. This is knowledge for a future generation of Yan-nhangu children walking in the footsteps of the ancestors. Here in the original introduction to the Yan-nhangu dictionary 1994-2003 is signified the continuity of Yan-nhangu purpose to continue as custodians of their ancestral sites and language in the face of ongoing colonialism.

 mackeral  cod  turtle

This dictionary was produced to help make Yan-nhangu language more accessible to a wider community. It is an attempt by Yan-nhangu people to make their voice heard and understood. Yan-nhangu people are the traditional custodians of the sea and islands of the area now called the Crocodile Islands. This dictionary is composed of words from many sources including contemporary and traditional Yan-nhangu myths, historical texts, oral histories and written stories. Many Yan-nhangu words have important multiple or hidden meanings. Only the most everyday meanings are recorded here. The Yan-nhangu language contained here is the endowment of Yan-nhangu ancestral spirits. These words are therefore an embodiment of their ancestral power. Howard Morphy says 'Ancestral power (marr)... comes from the ancestors though the songs, paintings, dances and land forms that are the visible manifestations of its being' (Morphy 1991:103). Similarly the power of Yan-nhangu language derives from and in effect embodies the ancestral beings and parts thereof it represents (cf. Munn 1973: 185-6). Language reveals the footsteps of the ancestors, bestowing a 'direct contact' with ancestral powers (Keen 1978. 183). Yan-nhangu language is the language of the seas and islands of the Yan–nhangu people, describing an indissoluble attachment of people to place, through a vast body of myths, rituals, songs and stories. The two words, Yan, (literally tongue) meaning language, and nhangu (proximal demonstrative) the word for this/here (Schebeck 1969:29), together, literally and symbolically signify the language of this place. Yan-nhangu is the language of the Crocodile Islands. At the everyday level language is a powerful signifier of group identity. Yan-nhangu people want to express this identity by sharing their place in the history and future of the Crocodile islands.

An older generation of Yan-nhangu people are troubled by a growing lack of care and awareness in the wider society of their culture, language and world-view. This dictionary in part, is an expression of concerns by Yannhangu custodians that the Settler State has neglected to recognise their continuing struggles to maintain cultural, linguistic and ecological diversity for the benefit of all. An inexorable push within the wider society, for modernisation and economic rationalism, has increased pressure on Yan-nhangu people to turn away from their economic, linguistic and cultural values. A state of 'progress for progress's sake' exists, wherein customary laws, traditional wisdom and human rights are ignored. Older Yan-nhangu are asking 'whose interest is this progress serving in the long run?' and 'Who, or what, will control this progress in the future?' This dictionary is part of a process of socialising the wider society into a Yan-nhangu discourse, a discourse in sync with its environment. Yan-nhangu people hope that this dictionary will help people outside to understand a little more about their history and traditions. This is a gift for the future. The Yan-nhangu Dictionary team. (Yan-nhangu Dictionary 2003: V)

 The Yan-nhangu dictionary project continues to emphasise the inter-generational transmission of a positive valuation of linguistic, cultural and biological resources as imperative for appropriate livelihoods on country, and for a diversity of human-environment relationships. Over and above the contribution this knowledge bestows to multilingualism, valuable life skills and psychic resilience, it helps sustain homeland residence and authentic livelihoods in the language of the country. Yan-nhangu people ask you to join with us in partnerships to enhance biological and linguistic diversity and support livelihoods on country for a real future.

For more information about the Yan-nhangu Dictionary project go to archanth.anu.edu.au/staff/mr-bentley-james

Footnotes for ‘Yan-Nhanyu Dictionary’
1Over ninety years old.
2Yan-nhangu is a Yolngu socio-lectal designation for six patrilineal ba:purru (clans) comprising Walamangu, Malarra, Gamalangga, Gurryindi, Bindarrar and Ngurruwula groups originating in the Crocodile Islands (See also Yaernungo, Yanango, Yarenango, Yann[h]angu, Jarnangu, Janjango, Jan:angu, Jaer-nungo, Janango)
(James 1999, 2003, 2009).
3Yolngu is the term now used to describe an (Aboriginal) person throughout many of the northeast Arnhem Land languages collectively called Yolngu-matha (lit: people’s tongue) and referring to a population of some 6500 people (Keen 1977, Morphy 1977, Williams 1986). Earlier anthropological literature has referred to these people as Murngin (Warner 1937), Wulamba (Berndt 1951, 1952, 1962) and Miwuyt (Shapiro 1981).
4Recently the estimated 560 outstations/homelands/communities of less than 100 people in the N.T comprising approximately 10,000 people have been denied their human right to live on their land by policy makers in the Northern Territory (Growth Towns) and have further disadvantaged another 40,000 people residing primarily in larger ‘townships’ in the region (Altman 2006, Altman et al 2008: 2).
5A recurring theme in Indigenous affairs draws tension between maintenance of Indigenous culture and the achievement of socioeconomic ‘equity’: essentially ‘self-determination’ versus ‘assimilation’. Implicit in this tension is the view that attachment to traditional culture inhibits ‘mainstream’ economic goals. Dockery (2008) found conclusively that Indigenous culture should be viewed as part of the solution to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia, and NOT as part of the problem (Dockery 2008:2 my emphasis)