AIATSIS code: 
AIATSIS reference name: 


Thesaurus heading language
Thesaurus heading people
ABN name
ABS name
Horton name
Ethnologue name
ISO 639-3 code
Tindale name
Tindale (1974)
O'Grady et al (1966)
yuul 1239
Other sources
Murngin, Wulamba, Yalnumata, Yuulngu, Yulngu, Miwoit, Miwatj

Yolngu Matha is a group of closely related languages in north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. They are an isolate Pama-Nyungan group surrounded by non-Pama-Nyungan prefixing languages (Wilkinson, 1991:10). Each language group consists of a number of patrilects which are affiliated with particular clans and each clan is affiliated with either the Dhuwa moiety or the Yirritja moiety (Schebeck 2001:14-16; yolngudictionary.cdu.edu.au). Yolngu clans are defined in terms of land - kinship - ceremony - language affiliations. The clan based language varieties (called patrilects) may be different (to varying degrees) from those of other clans within the language group. The classification of Yolngu dialects is challenging, partly due to the high level of multilingualism. This complexity, along with the differing terminology (language, dialect, variety, patrilect) used by different researchers and speakers, obscures the delineation for mutual intelligibility. The difference in world views between Yolngu and western categories of 'language' also come into play. Many anthropologists and linguists have reported the Yolngu dogma that each group had its own particular way of speaking, often referred to by a ba:purru name ... But this ideology was not universal; people of some groups did not claim to possess a distinct tongue but said that they spoke a tongue in common with one or more other groups (Keen 1994).

The language name is relatively recent, 'Yolngu' means 'man' in most of the varieties and 'matha' means 'tongue, speech, words' etc. For Yolngu dialect groups see Dhuwal N198; Dhuwala N199; Dhayi'yi N118; Ritharrngu N104; Djinba N97; Djinang N94.1; Dhangu N192 / Djangu N202; Yan-nhangu N72 and Nhangu N211. Dialect entries list affliliated clans. See also the clan-independent variety Dhuwaya N116 (yolngudictionary.cdu.edu.au; Wilkinson, 1991:11; Schebeck 2001:14-16).

Most dialect names are formed around the demonstrative pronoun 'this'. Some are followed by a suffix '-mi(rr)(i)', indicating a comitative function (having, possessing, with): Dhuwal'mirr N198; Dhuwala'mirri N199 and Dhayi'yimirr N118. Some names are archaic demonstrative forms e.g. Djinba N97 and Djinang N94.1 (Schebeck, 2001:13). Ritharrngu N104 is a clan name affiliated with a dialect sometimes called Yakuya (or: Dhiyakuy N149) (yolngudictionary.cdu.edu.au), but is given as the name of the language group in many sources. Historical sources refer to Yolngu by the terms 'Murngin' N117.1 (Warner, 1937, O'Grady et al. 1966, Oates and Oates 1970, Wurm 1972) and 'Wulamba' (Capell 1963, Tindale 1974, Oates 1975).

The Speaker Numbers for Schmidt (1990) refer to Gupapuyngu N122.1; Djambarrpuyngu N115, and Gumatj N141

  • Capell, Arthur. 1963. Linguistic survey of Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
  • Greatorex, John. 2014. Yolngu Matha Dictionary http://yolngudictionary.cdu.edu.au/
  • Heath, Jeffrey G. 1980. Basic materials in Ritharngu: grammar, texts and dictionary: Pacific Linguistics B-62. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Keen, Ian. 1978. One ceremony, one song: an economy of religious knowledge among the Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land, Australian National University: PhD. (MS 1298).
  • Keen, Ian. 1994. Knowledge and Secrecy in Aboriginal Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Keen, Ian. 1995. Metaphor and the metalanguage : groups in northeast Arnhem Land. American Ethnologist, August 1995; v. 22 no. 3, p. 502-527.
  • Morphy, Frances. 1983. Djapu, a Yolngu dialect. In Handbook of Australian languages, vol. 3, eds R. M. W. Dixon and B. J. Blake, 1-188, + map p xxiv. Canberra: ANU Press.
  • Oates, William J., and Lynette F. Oates. 1970. A revised linguistic survey of Australia: Australian Aboriginal Studies 33, Linguistic Series 12. Canberra: AIAS.
  • Oates, Lynette F. 1975. The 1973 supplement to a revised linguistic survey of Australia. Armidale: Armidale Christian Book Centre.
  • O'Grady, G. N., C. F. Voegelin and F. M. Voegelin. 1966. Languages of the world: Indo-Pacific fascicle six. Anthropological Linguistics 8(2).
  • Schebeck, Bernhard. 2001. Dialect and social groupings in northeast Arnheim [i.e. Arnhem] Land vol. 7: LINCOM studies in Australian languages, no. 7. München: Lincom Europa.
  • Tindale, Norman B. 1974. Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits, and proper names. Berkeley: University of California Press/Canberra: Australian National University Press.
  • Warner, W. Lloyd. 1937. A black civilization: a social study of an Australian tribe. New York: Harper.
  • Waters, Bruce E. 1989. Djinang and Djinba - a grammatical and historical perspective: Pacific Linguistics C-114. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Wilkinson, Melanie P. 1991. Djambarrpuyngu: a Yolngu variety of Northern Australia, University of Sydney: PhD. (MS 3182).
  • Wurm, S. A. 1972. Languages of Australia and Tasmania. The Hague: Mouton.
State / Territory: 
Location information: 

North-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Indigenous organisations: 

East Arnhem Regional Council - https://www.eastarnhem.nt.gov.au/

Year Source Speaker numbers

Speaker numbers were measured differently across the censuses and various other sources listed in AUSTLANG. You are encouraged to refer to the sources.

Speaker numbers for ‘NILS 2004’ and ‘2005 estimate’ come from 'Table F.3: Numbers of speakers of Australian Indigenous languages (various surveys)' in 'Appendix F NILS endangerment and absolute number results' in McConvell, Marmion and McNicol 2005, pages 198-230 (PDF, 2.5MB).

Manuscript note: 
Source Family Group Sub-group Name Language-dialect relationships
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