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Spotlighting Australia's languages: Anindilyakwa

We Australians don't know much about the languages spoken in our own country - so Fully Sic is here to help! Over the coming months, we'll be featuring a series of posts about languages spoken around the country. Today, James Bednall tells us about Anindilyakwa.

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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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10 thoughts on “Spotlighting Australia’s languages: Anindilyakwa

  1. Rosie Sitorus

    Great article, James! Obviously I’m biased (aren’t we all, one way or another?) but it was really very informative. I’m certainly not jealous of having to work with a polysynthetic language, but a whole island of first language speakers, how exciting!

    This country is so wonderfully linguistically diverse, I pity people who don’t see and enjoy the benefits of it. I’m also thankful for those who understand that celebrating, embracing and using linguistic diversity to diversify other things – say, like educational outcomes or employability – is part of our national success, not a hindrance to it. Barndiba nyinda!

  2. James

    Norman, it’s also not clear to me you’re referring to in your comment? As wamut has mentioned, and as I explain in the article, Anindilyakwa is spoken as the first language of everyone in the community on the Groote Eylandt archipelago, and has been spoken there long before Europeans ever reached Australia, so there’s certainly no reliance on recordings by Europeans or the ‘patch[ing] together’ of language, for people speaking Anindilyakwa in this community.

    In terms of eduction and ‘maximising [students’] opportunites’, it’s actually important that we understand better and learn more about this language (and other Indigenous languages), as this can then help us to identify why students may be having particular difficulties in learning English, for example. And by using a language like Anindilyakwa as a medium to educate students, and to teach English to them through this first language, we are enabling students to be able to gain access to the English language competence they require in order to work and access opportunities in the wider Australian society, as well as being able to retain and continue to use their first language.

    And thanks Ian, I’m glad you found the article informative! 🙂

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Wamut, I’m absolutely certain you’re “Not sure what (I’m) referring too (sic).”
    When you show you understand what was said will be the time it’s worth bothering to explain more to you, won’t it.

  4. wamut

    “patch together remnants” Norman? Not sure what you’re referring to. Anindilyakwa is spoken fully fluently by people of all ages on Groote Eylandt. With over 1,200 speakers (as the article says … did you miss that bit?) it’s not a remnant of anything. *scratches head*

  5. Ian

    Great article James: thanks for the information. Great to correct my ignorance.

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    Unfortunately, much of time spent trying to patch together remnants of languages which to a significant extent depend on what’s been recorded by Europeans in the past doesn’t always help already disadvantaged students maximise their opportunities in the current world, even if emotively-blinkered ‘educators’ have their hearts in the right place.

  7. James

    Yeah, I think that’s similar to the case on Groote and Bickerton. The ladies at the language centre go into a couple of the schools and do some activities/story telling/ etc. with the kids in Anindilyakwa sometimes, but it’s not a regular program or anything yet. So anything that is happening in terms of Anindilyakwa in the school appears to be community-driven, and isn’t very stable. But as I say, I need to check it out further!

  8. wamut

    Cool James, good luck with it. I believe that Yirrkala is running a full bilingual program and Numbulwar School is funded to run a language revitalisation program (Wubuy isn’t learned by kids anymore sadly, unlike Anindilyakwa). None of the schools on Bickerton or Groote are designated two-way schools, but maybe there’s some local level stuff happening? Or maybe it’s like schools where kids speak Kriol – virtually all teachers are outsiders and just have so few opportunities to learn about Kriol and incorporate it into their programming so the kids’ language ends up being virtually sidelined most of the time.

  9. James Bednall

    Cheers Wamut!

    Yeah, there’s a stack of material in the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages on Anindilyakwa, which is great. I haven’t been through it in a lot of detail yet, but it’s on the to-do list!

    Unfortunately, nothing much is happening with Anindilyakwa in any of the schools on Groote or Bickerton at the moment. My last trip fell during school holidays, so I wasn’t able to get much info from teachers, etc., so I’m hoping to have more contact with the schools next visit. Do you know if there’s any language education going on in Numbulwar? Or Yirrkala? I think I’ve heard there’s some kind of language program present in the school there?

  10. wamut

    Good story James 🙂

    You probably already know that the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages has a bunch of Anindilyakwa materials on their website. Good for schools and kids and free to access and download: http://laal.cdu.edu.au/browse/language/450787/?smode=map&o=pa

    Any info on whether Anindilyakwa is being incorporated into school education on Groote and Bickerton?

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