26. Australia’s indigenous wordscape

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Nicholas Evans
Australian National University


Australia is a predominantly monolingual country with a deep multilingual past, located at the epicentre of the world’s linguistic diversity. During its first forty to fifty millennia, indigenous cultures developed a mosaic of over three hundred languages in which high levels of multilingualism were the norm and which evinced great interest in language in all its forms, and grammars of formidable grammatical sophistication – Kayardild weighs in with twenty cases (to Latin’s six), the same freedom of word order that classical poets could exploit, and a terseness that allows one to express something like ‘(watch out), lest it get away from the one belonging to your opposite-sex sibling’ in a single word, kularrinkarranmulanharranth.

The phrase ‘epicentre of linguistic diversity’ is not chosen lightly. Of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages, a fifth are spoken in the southwest Pacific — some thousand on the island of New Guinea, 250–400 in Australia depending on the measure (and these are languages, not dialects — counting the latter sends the figure much higher), over 130 in Vanuatu (the world champion in Gross Linguistic Product at close to one language per 2,000 speakers). And among the world’s top dozen countries measured by number of endemic languages, half are in the neighbourhood — #1 Papua New Guinea, #2 Indonesia, #4 India, #5 Australia, #10 Philippines and #12 Vanuatu. The linguistic prodigality on the island of New Guinea alone is comparable to that of Eurasia as a whole, from Ireland to Japan, from Siberia to Sri Lanka — a statement that holds up whether one counts the number of languages, the number of language families, or the amount of ‘disparity’ in language structures. Languages like Iau (in West Papua) with nine tones sit cheek by jowl with others with no tones at all, and the language with the largest sound inventory in the western Pacific (Yélî-Dnye on Rossel Island) is just a couple of hundred kilometres from that with the smallest, Rotokas on Bougainville Island.

This voluptuous linguistic landscape is one reason for the thriving linguistic scene in Australia. For many linguists working here, however, there are other more personal motives — a wish for a more authentic view of who we are in this part of the world, grounded in the intricate and diverse cultural products of fifty millennia of human occupation and the mosaic of world-views these have elaborated. Add to this the fact that so many nonindigenous Australians grow up with an aching sense of unconnectedness to their land, stemming from the invisibility and inaudibility of Aboriginal culture and the peremptory way its insights were briskly swept aside by the British colonisation process. This makes linguistic research — and one day, I hope, the broader cultural and educational awareness that grows from it — an opportunity to create a type of culture that so far we have failed to nourish in this country.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the bush around Canberra, whether after school in the bush behind Campbell or on long camping trips. Nonetheless, I am probably typical of non-indigenous Australians in the shallowness of what I learned about my environment, and in the mismatch between my monoglot English upbringing and the inchoate feelings I held for my surrounds. In northern Australia, on other hand — where I was lucky enough to have a ‘second childhood’ under the welcoming instruction of my many indigenous teachers — almost every plant and bird now bears a vivid charge. Not only have I carefully been taught their names, in Dalabon or Bininj Kun-wok or other local languages, but also their uses, what their flowering says about the availability of food resources, and a whole rich panoply of myth.

The web of life, in languages like this, is mirrored in the web of words, from different verbs for the distinct hopping gait of every different macropod species, male, female and child, to retriplicated nouns for ecozones dominated by a particular plant (e.g. Kunwinjku mi-djoh-djo-djo ‘mixed scrub with wattle, acacia difficilis, dominant’ from an-djohacacia difficilis’). This is mingled with a rich affective lexicon for the sensations and emotions the landscape brings out — words such as, from Dalabon, karddulunghno ‘smell of first rains’, or from Iwaidja, angmarranguldin ‘change in environmental conditions, bringing back memories and inspiring longings for an absent person or place through the recollection of the smell of the sea or of a dying bushfire as the wind turns.

There is also the intriguing phenomenon of ‘sign metonymies’, which signal the fact that one natural phenomenon is a guide in space or time to the presence of the other — e.g. in Gun-djeihmi alyurr denotes the Leichhardt’s grasshopper (Petaside ephipigera), two herb species which it eats (Pityrodia jamesii and Cleome viscosa ) and whose location is thus the best way to locate these grasshoppers, and the lightning spirit, which starts to manifest itself in the first monsoonal storms at the same time as the herbs are ready for these grasshoppers to eat. At the time of the first monsoons, Leichhardt’s grasshopper is said to don its sumptuous orange and blue outfit and go looking for the lightning. Local cave paintings depict lightning spirits with axes on their heads – the grasshopper’s antennae. A central place in Yolngu symbolic thought is held by likan, literally ‘elbow’ but also ‘joint, connection’ — close to what would be called tropes in the Western tradition. ‘Likan names’ are used, in contexts of art and ceremony, to indicate more allusive readings to the culturally knowledgeable.

Alyurr: Leichhardt’s grasshopper, herb and lightning man

These examples illustrate how indigenous languages contain a vast network of knowledge about the natural world, but also how the cultures that nourished them were fascinated by language and developed a range of metalinguistic terms, practices and products.

Few aspects of indigenous culture better illustrate the intellectual sophistication of indigenous Australian traditions than the special auxiliary linguistic systems they created. Many of these were linked to initiation rites, making clear that the passage to adulthood was not just a matter of physical trials and self-discipline, but also of attaining a new understanding of how language articulates with the world.

Take the problem of antonymy. Giving ‘up’ as the opposite of ‘down’ or ‘tall’ as the opposite of ‘short’ are trivial. But semantic textbooks remain mute on the question of where antonymic oppositions stop — an errant omission in a world seeking to decompose all representation to binary code. What is the opposite of ‘mother’ — ‘father’, or ‘child’? Or of ‘kangaroo’, or ‘countryman’, or ‘(s)he’? The antonym of ‘deaf’ is evident, but what about ‘see’? The special register known as Jiliwirri, learned by Warlpiri initiates, is as far as I know the only case in the world’s intellectual history of a thoroughgoing investigation of antonymy applied to the entire lexicon. To speak it, you must replace all lexical items (though not grammatical affixes other than pronouns) with their opposites. As the following example shows, to convey the proposition ‘I am sitting on the ground’, you use a Jiliwirri utterance which would translate literally into everyday Warlpiri as ‘someone else is standing in the sky’. Jiliwirri has been used to investigate antonymy in Warlpiri lexical semantics, including such nonobvious issues as whether the perception verbs ‘see’, ‘hear’ etc. have antonyms, and how one determines antonyms for natural species names like ‘red kangaroo’.


Even more spectacular is a special initiation register known as Damin, which was taught to Lardil men on Mornington Island as part of their initiation as warama (second degree initiates). Damin is said to have been created by an ancestor known as Kaltharr (Yellow Trevally fish), and has a rich inventory of sounds, supposed to echo what ‘fish talk’ would sound like. In fact, its phoneme inventory is unique among the world’s languages and employs types of sound not found anywhere else, such as the ‘ingressive lateral fricative’. There are also a range of click sounds, like those found in Southern Africa. Because grammatical affixes are simply taken over from everyday Lardil, it is only the lexical roots that display these special sounds, as can be illustrated by the following sentence equivalents from everyday Lardil (2a) and Damin (2b): Damin substitutes ŋ͡!aa for ngada, didi for ji– and m͡!ii (with a clicked m) for werne, but leaves the grammatical suffixes intact.


But it is the semantic structure of Damin which represents a true tour de-force in metalinguistic analysis. Since the time of Leibniz philosophers and semanticists in the Western intellectual tradition have been seeking an ‘alphabet of human thought’ which would allow all meanings to be decomposed into a small stock of elements. Damin comes close to achieving this goal — out of nowhere in terms of prior philosophical traditions, and without drawing on any tools of written logical notation. It maps the thousands of lexical items of everyday Lardil onto around 200 words by a combination of highly abstract semantics, extended chains of meaning extensions, paraphrase, and supplementation by hand signs.

Thus in the above example, ŋ͡!aa does not simply correspond to ngada ‘I’. Rather, it can denote any group including ego. Now everyday Lardil has eight ways of translating English ‘we’ — given by the three-dimensional binary matrix of ‘inclusive’ (i.e. we, including you) vs ‘exclusive’ (we, but not you), ‘dual’ (two) vs ‘plural’ (more than two) and ‘harmonic’ (referents in even-numbered generations with respect to each other, such as siblings, or grandkin) vs ‘disharmonic’ (odd-numbered generations such as parent and child or great-grandkin). This exuberant semantic specificity in the everyday language is mapped onto the sober, highly abstract Damin word ŋ͡!aa ‘I, we, here’, opposed to ŋ͡!uu ‘you, (s)he, they, there’. Integration with gesture is an important part of what makes communication possible in Damin — as well as ‘there’, ŋ͡!uu can also mean ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’ in Damin. The distinction between these is indicated by pointing in the appropriate direction while uttering the word — in the process giving a valuable insight into how a type of language functions in which the communicative load is more evenly distributed between speech and gesture.

As another example of how Damin semantics works, the rich particularity of verbs in the everyday language are mapped onto highly general designators in Damin, reminiscent of attempts at semantic decomposition of verbal predicates which linguistic philosophers began experimenting with in the 1960s. Thus the Damin verb didi takes in, among many other correspondents, jitha ‘eat’, but also all actions producing a physical change on their object, such as barrki ‘chop’, betha ‘bite’, bunbe ‘shoot’, and kele ‘cut’. Another word diidi, which sounds similar but has a long vowel, includes all actions of motion and caused motion, such as waa ‘go’, jatha ‘enter’, murrwa ‘follow’, jidma ‘lift’, and kirrkala ‘put’. Sometimes the motion is to be understood metaphorically, such as a change in possession (wutha ‘give’, wungi ‘steal’), a transfer of information (kangka ‘speak’), or the movement of food from outside to inside the body (jitha ‘eat’). The net effect is to produce a totally indigenous analysis of the semantics of the entire vocabulary into a small number of elements, and Hale justifiably refers to Damin as a ‘monument to the human intellect’. Elsewhere he has drawn attention to the fact that its association with rituals outlawed by the missionaries in power on Mornington Island meant that its transmission was interrupted well before the transmission of everyday Lardil, as well as to the invisibility of this achievement to the outside world:

The destruction of this intellectual treasure was carried out, for the most part, by people who were not aware of its existence, coming as they did from a culture in which wealth is physical and visible. Damin was not visible for them, and as far as they were concerned, the Lardil people had no wealth, apart from their land.

It is a task for our times to make awareness of such intellectual wealth widespread. Never before in human history have we been losing languages so fast, but never before have we had such a dawning realisation of their value, or the means – conceptual, human, technological – to do something about it. In writing this article, I hope that Catalan readers, who have so valiantly maintained their magnificent tongue against historical odds, will be inspired to join the growing number of people who see the conservation of the world’s wordscape as one of the great quests of our time.


This is an abridged and modified version of Evans, Nicholas (2017).
Ngurrahmalkwonawoniyan. Listening here. Humanities Australia 8:34-44. The reader is referred to that publication for bibliographic references