Language name: Anindilyakwa

As a linguist working with Indigenous Australian communities, its been my privilege to experience first-hand some of the rich cultures, stories and traditions of several communities in Australia, and to be exposed to just a slither of the incredible linguistic diversity that exists in our country. One group that I’m currently working with are the Warnindilyakwa people, on their language: Anindilyakwa.

Anindilyakwa text from Groote Eylandt Linguistics. 1993. Eningerribirra-langwa jurra ‘Book about all sorts of things’. Angurugu, Australia. p.96

Anindilyakwa is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken on the Groote Eylandt Archipelago, a group of islands located off the east coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Until recently, this language was classified as a language isolate, due to the significant differences it shows from its neighbouring languages; however, some now argue it belongs to a larger language family, called the Gunwinyguwan language family, along with some other Arnhem Land languages such as Wubuy, Ngandi and Bininj Gun-Wok.

These distinctive characteristics of Anindilyakwa and the striking differences it shows from its neighbours provide a great demonstration of how diverse and wide-ranging Aboriginal languages are; a fact that is still often misunderstood by many Australians, where misguided notions (like there existing just one Aboriginal language) continue to be heard all too frequently.

In order to consider some of these interesting traits of Anindilyakwa further, let’s look a bit closer at the language. When we examine Anindilyakwa, it is noticeable straight away how differently it is structured to that of a language like English. Whereas in English we tend to have sentences consisting lots of relatively short words, in Anindilykwa we instead find that it’s common to have very long words which can express the meaning of entire sentences in English. We can take, for example, the Anindilyakwa word nirukilyuwakajungunima meaning ‘he is going around and around in circles’, and we see that the word consists of different parts: ni-ruki-lyuwaka-jungu-nima, with the meaning ‘he-body-circle-to.oneself-non.past.tense’. Languages like Anindilyakwa, with these long, complex words composed of many internal parts, are called polysynthetic languages and are common across the top end of Australia, as well as in other parts of the world such as the Americas, Siberia and Papua New Guinea.

An interesting property of Anindilyakwa, which helps it generate these very long words, is a process called ‘noun incorporation’, where a noun can be taken into the verb. So for a word like ningenilyangbarra ‘I hit him on the head’, the noun ‘head’ –lyang– is incorporated into the verbal complex. We can’t really do this in English, but it’d be a bit like saying ‘I’m head-hitting him’. Anindilyakwa can also express the same sentence without incorporating the noun, like is normal in English: ningeningajama enilangumanja aringka ‘I hit him on the head’, where ‘head’ aringka now stands alone as its own word (although the form of the word is different, aringka rather than –lyang-). The meaning of both these sentences is very similar; however, the incorporated version is more commonly used by speakers. The unincorporated form might be used to add emphasis or make something more explicit. This noun incorporation process is very prevalent in Anindilyakwa and many other languages of northern Australia, and it can be a difficult feature for non-speakers of the language to get their head around!

Unlike the majority of Australian languages, Anindilyakwa is one of the few that is still relatively widely spoken, with over 1,200 speakers, and children still acquiring it as their first language. It is spoken by all age groups and used in all contexts of life and in all types of conversation, from talking in the street, to on the phone, at the shops, or at work. However, despite the current dynamic state of this language, it’s certainly not in a safe position. As Nick Evans says, Australia is ‘the continent currently experiencing the most rapid and drastic effects of language loss’, with only 13 (from over 250) Indigenous languages classified as ‘strong’ (down from 18 in 2005). It’s vital that more work is concentrated on language documentation, maintenance and revitalisation efforts, in order that the fate of Anindilyakwa does not follow the more than 100 Aboriginal languages which are no longer spoken today.

James Bednall is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the Australian National University.

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