Writing & News

Saving our Endangered Indigenous Languages

Saving our endangered Indigenous languages and the Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land.

On the Crocodile Islands, in the shade, on a beach, near a tin shed with no water and power sits an old woman in her late seventies. At this time, 1993 only 300 words of her language were recorded. Her name is Baymarrwaŋa, she speaks no English, we are unaware that in twenty-one years, she will become Senior Australian of the Year, because of her commitment to passing on the language, knowledge and signs of the ancestors.

We are on Murruŋga, largest of the outer Crocodile Islands, speaking in the lingua-franca of Arnhem Land (Yolŋu Matha -people’s tongue). She explains that we must record the language and signs of the seas for a new generation. She begins to teach me the hand signs of the Crocodile Islands. For the next thirty years, with the help of volunteers, we collect some 1800 hand signs of the endangered language known as Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL). This is the genesis of the Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land project. 

Baymarrwaŋa died before we could finish this work. We want to create an online YSL resource to enhance the intergenerational transmission of this endangered Indigenous sign language to all the children across Arnhem land, and Australia, and the world. Australia continues to lead the world in the destruction of Indigenous languages. In our Indigenous languages exists the knowledge of countless generations; the gifts of intimate coexistence with the land and sea; the precious knowledge of place that will enrich our lives and those of future generations.

Baymarrwaŋa said to resist assimilation “napu mana bulaŋgitjirrmiyangu ḏoṯurrkma yanagu miḏikumiyamawaymala – we must ennoble the hearts of those who humiliate us”. Her respect for language and culture compelled her to create a family of interrelated projects in support of language, livelihoods and homelands. Together with the positive health outcomes and psychological resilience attending bimodal-bilingualism, local languages promote the inter-generational transmission of vital local knowledge to a new generation. This is part of a suite of local initiatives that skill and employ people on country, follow traditional law, protect linguistic, cultural and biological diversity and create an inclusive and liveable future world.

At 25cm, 328-pages the Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land is the authoritative, practical and sumptuous guide to learning YSL in English and Yolŋu matha, stunningly photographed by Theresa Ritchie and David Hancock. It demonstrates in sequenced images the use, structure, and conventions of over five hundred Yolŋu hand signs. It also includes an extraordinary section of previously unknown and undescribed idiomatic hand signs of an earlier era, fortunately saved for posterity, by an older generation. It includes Illustrations, Maps, Reference, Grammar, Learners Guide, A Yolŋu Bilingual Identification Guide and English Index. World experts in YSL Prof. Danny Marie-Carla Adone, & Dr Maypilama E. L, have organised a stunning visual guide to semantic domains of Yolŋu Sign Language “bringing together YSL signs and English translation with pictorial illustrations, it is a resource for bilingual education in schools, on homelands, in communities…and for English speakers to learn YSL. It includes notes on the history, use and grammar of Indigenous Sign Languages, Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) and insightful cultural translation. It includes a learner’s guide, grammar, cross-cultural beginner’s mini-language, example sentences, hand shapes, interpretation and composition of signs, movement, location and orientation of signs and their non-manual elements. Designed by Therese Ritchie it is a landmark in endangered language preservation, collaboration and bilingual-bimodal education.

Perhaps now, more than ever, at a time when we all, and especially Indigenous people worldwide, are struggling to save us from the destruction of our planet, we can see the value of her insight. Maybe we can save some of this knowledge. Help us to pass it on.

Purchase the Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land and proceeds go towards the creation of an on-line resource for schools across Arnhem Land and available world wide in an effort to save at least one indigenous sign language of Australia.