Language

Mirarr speak an average of three Aboriginal languages plus English. Of these languages the Gundjeihmi language is the dominant tongue (pronounced kund-jate-me).

Background to the study of Australian Aboriginal Languages

Individual Aboriginal words or vocabularies have been collected in a haphazard way since Captain Cook. But systematic study of languages commenced in Australia in the 1930s, with the establishment in Australia of the academic disciplines of anthropology and later linguistics.

Two standard nationwide maps have been produced that show the known languages. Norman Tindale’s map of 1974 (boundaries drawn by Winifred Mumford) sought to show all languages at the time of colonisation. The current standard map is that from the Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, published in the 1990s. The two maps show hundreds of individual named languages.

Linguists have grouped them and now recognise 26 language families in Australia. A language family in this sense consists of two or more related languages that share an identifiable earlier common language. Linguists call the largest only language family in Australia Pama-Nyungan. It covers about 85% of the continent. The other 25 language families cover northern Australia from the Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria, including the Gunwinyguan language family.

Kakadu Languages

That language family is also known as the Bininj Gunwok group of dialects in the Kakadu and West Arnhem region which includes Gundjeihmi. The full list of languages for the region is Kunwinjku, Gundjeihmi, Kune, Kuninjku, Mayali and Kundedjnjenghmi. The emergent language for the region in the south and around the town of Katherine is Kriol (Creole).

They are very similar dialects but nonetheless linguists have determined that Kunwinjku and Gundjeihmi require their own orthography and alphabet because of differing pronounciation. (Orthography is the technical word for creating a written form for languages that othewise have only been spoken.)

Dialects means the varieties of languages which are quitre close but have different words or grammar. When the differences are so great that communication is not intelligible the languages are said to be distinct – i.e not dialects but distinct languages.

So, only about 15% of the Australian continent contains 95% of the language families. Tragically most of these languages are either extinct or spoken by so few people that they cannot survive. Gundjeihmi is one of the few survivors.