Yolngu Sign Language.

Matt Garrick reports for ABC News of Australia:

It has been used for thousands of years as a way to hunt without scaring your prey, or to recognise cultural silences during mourning or to conduct secret conversations. Now the ancient art of Yolngu sign language is being documented for a landmark resource, to help prevent this rare form of communication from disappearing altogether. The “beautiful volume to give back to the children” is being created by anthropology and linguistics expert Dr Bentley James, in concert with senior Yolngu figures and academics. […]

For the past 25 years, Dr James has been studying sign language on Yolngu country in remote East Arnhem Land. “I found I was drawn to attempting to do something to save Indigenous languages,” he said. His work has entailed living on isolated outstations and in Indigenous communities, learning to speak and sign off patient elders, who have allowed Dr James to write down and document the different words and phrases.

Now, more than two decades since first embarking on his mission, this extensive volume to hand down to future generations is coming to fruition. “We have collected over 10,000 photographs, of that we have managed to get it down to about 2,500, and those will then express the signs. There’s 1,800 signs all up, and we’ve collected about 1,000. But in the book we’re only using 500 of those signs, so those 2,500 photographs [will be] in full colour, sequential photographs showing the hand shapes, and the movement of the arc and the hand signal itself, and the conventions and how it works.” The volume will also contain a learner’s guide and a history of the language, to help people who do not speak Yolngu hand signs to learn how the language works.

Of the 8,000 or so speakers of Yolngu languages in northeast Arnhem Land, Dr James estimated most were still fluent in sign language. But, he said, due to the decline of Yolngu people living on homelands and outstations and instead moving into crowded communities, “they’re not carrying on their behaviours that they did managing country”. “So they’re unable to have opportunity to use sign, there’s not much of the hunting that used to go on going on.” Young people being glued to their phones and indulging in excess screen time was also playing a part in the erosion of sign language, he said.

“Yolngu” can be a confusing term; as Claire Bowern said back in 2005: “Yolngu is used in Armhem Land both for Yolngu people (ie speakers of Pama-Nyungan Yolngu languages) and for Aboriginal people in general.” Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Sigh.

    “It has been used for thousands of years…”. A statement which can neither be proved nor disproved…but, considering how many known sign languages have arisen at a comparatively recent date, it is far more likely to be false than to be true.

    Is there some kind of unwritten rule whereby any journalistic article on any obscure/out-of-the way language (which, in practice, means most of the languages spoken on the planet) must make exaggerated and/or wholly unproven claims about how “ancient” said language is?

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    This seems to be particularly a favoured trope with regard to Australia; to be charitable, probably as a sort of attempt to make amends for the routine denigration of Australian languages and cultures so prevalent until quite recently, and very, very far from dead even now.

    Like other such attempts, when it floats free of any verifiable facts it ends up revealing unfortunate preconceptions of its own. The idea that indigenous Australian culture has been essentially static for forty thousand years is, when you think about it for even an instant, pretty … well, racist. “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay …”

    It’s rather too easy to slip into such ways of thought. I must own up to a sort of lightbulb moment (as David M puts it) when I realised one day how much traditional African cuisine featured ingredients that originally came from the Americas. (And then I thought, “Well, why wouldn’t it?”)

    It is compulsory when mentioning Welsh in UK media to say that it is the oldest language in Europe, by the way. Us and the Yolngu, we go waaay back.

  3. Bellwood says proto-Yolngu probably dates no longer than 2000 years, because Yolngu languages are so similar to each other.

    English separated from continental Germanic languages 1500 years ago, so that would make Yolngu somewhat more ancient than English.

  4. “It has been used for thousands of years…”. A statement which can neither be proved nor disproved…but, considering how many known sign languages have arisen at a comparatively recent date, it is far more likely to be false than to be true.

    Yeah, I guess I’m so inured to that particular journalistic trope I just roll my eyes and move on. Good that you pointed it out, though.

  5. Lars (the original one) says:

    In related news, my mother last night drew my attention to a newscaster habit of saying that somebody historical “would have turned 150 years old today”. If they hadn’t been human, I guess.

  6. David Eddyshaw: I cannot say the “spoken here since time immemorial” cliche about minor languages (which I have run into so often that in my mind it seems to have itself existed since time immemorial) strikes me as more common in Australia than elsewhere: I am biased, of course, since I believe my own first instance of denouncing this cliche here at Casa Hat involved a non-Australian language:

    http://languagehat.com/macarthur-grant-for-wampanoag-revival/

    Has anyone done a study on the history + geographical distribution of this and other language myths in the mass media?

    And yes, I am well aware how this myth of an unchanging (primordial/prototypical/pure/unspoiled…) indigenous (pre-European contact) culture is itself a well-entrenched belief in many parts of the world. Including, sadly enough, among many indigenous communities: I may have mentioned this here before, but it is worth repeating: apparently, part of the reason comparative linguistics involving Indigenous languages of North America is nearly extinct (despite the excellent foundation laid by scholars such as Sapir or Bloomfield) is because many, perhaps most, speakers of such languages are deeply offended by the notion that their languages somehow came from somewhere else, or by the (related) notion that they and speakers of another language might once have been speakers of a single language. I have run into this attitude several times in the Canadian West, among speakers of several different languages.

  7. David Eddyshawd says:

    Not just minority languages: Wikipedia at one stage hedged shamefully on whether Arabic was related to Hebrew (now mended, I’m glad to say) and the Hindutva folk live in their fantasy world with regard to Sanskrit.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    To be fair, the came-from-somewhere-else narrative often is politically motivated. I’ve encountered this with several groups in Ghana, claimed without a shred of evidence to be incomers from what is now Burkina Faso or Togo, though the narratives in question don’t seem to have any particular linguistic aspect (many of the languages involved are closely enough related that their kinship is obvious even to ordinary speakers.)

    There is some irony in the fact that these arguments are often deployed by supporters of the traditional Mossi-Dagomba power structures, whose founders by common consent did come from outside the territory which is now Ghana.

    And to be even-handed about it, some groups really did come from elsewhere. My Plan to repatriate the English to Jutland is gaining ever more traction these days. We need innovative solutions to Brexit.

  9. John Cowan says:

    Surely only the Kentish {men,maids} and the {Men,Maids} of Kent. The rest need to go back to Angeln in Schleswig, or failing that somewhere in Low Saxony (just between Middle Arsony and Low Mopery, belike). Of course there is plenty of room in High Canada (Upper Canada, not so much), what with global warming.

  10. If we all Went Back Where We Came From, Africa would get mighty overcrowded.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Surely only the Kentish {men,maids} and the {Men,Maids} of Kent.

    Hah! Enough of these fine distinctions between the English groupuscules! They’re all Jutes to me!
    (Also, Jute is intrinsically a funnier word than Angle or Saxon. It just is.)

  12. John Cowan says:

    “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay …”

    Well, if you read cycle as ‘saecula’, that’s only a 2:1 ratio.

    As for the counterfactuals, consider this:

    Alice: He actually said that, but no one objected!

    Bob: Well, I would have objected if I had been there!

    But of course Bob couldn’t be there, because he was here, and nobody can be both here and there at the same time except Boyle Roche’s bird. There’s nothing wrong with even impossible counterfactuals.

    As for Boyle Roche, he was famous for his Irish bulls, such as “give up not only a part, but, if necessary, even the whole, of our constitution, to preserve the remainder!”, “I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud”, “What has posterity ever done for us?”, and of course “his Majesty’s deluded subjects in America”.

  13. …many, perhaps most, speakers of such languages are deeply offended by the notion that their languages somehow came from somewhere else, or by the (related) notion that they and speakers of another language might once have been speakers of a single language.

    This just appeared on my WP feed: Bantu Theory’s Many Troubling Issues: A Close Examination of Bantu Theory and Many of Its Unanswered Question. Is Bantu Theory a Voodoo Science or a racist colonial theory of the 19nth century??

  14. Good lord, that’s an idiotic article.

  15. Plenty of those, but this one has such a special title. Very sic-worthy.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    The most radical problem with the article is not the ignorance (we’re all ignorant) but the assumption that only Africans can come to correct conclusions about African linguistics. He insouciantly denies the possibility of a common shareable truth.

    At least he’s not a politician. And perhaps in his rather engaging enthusiasm he just hasn’t noticed the dire potential consequences of such a denial.

    (Sorry to darken the mood. Just got back from a party political meeting.)

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s not as if Ntaganzwa hasn’t got some legitimate grounds for complaint. I’m looking at FW Taylor’s perfectly serviceable 1952 Fulani grammar, where he wombles off in the introduction into solemn twaddle about how Fulani is the “parent Hamitic language” (and possible ancestor of Bantu.) “Fulani is not a ‘Negro’ language”, quotha. The Fulani are descended from Phut, the third son of Ham. ‘Course they are. Obvious, really.

    1952! Strewth. Really makes you appreciate Greenberg (who Taylor specifically disses in his introduction, ‘prefer[ring] to rely on the work of officials who live among the people they write about.’ Pretty much the same logic as Ntaganzwa, really.)

    Guthrie himself didn’t accept that Bantu was related to any mere West African languages. Bantu languages were too advanced for that, what with all that superior flectional morphology and all.

  18. According to David Anthony, ancestral homeland of English is located in the Belyayevsky District of Odessa Oblast (province).

  19. John Cowan says:

    “Threat or menace?”

  20. David Marjanović says:

    1952! Strewth. Really makes you appreciate Greenberg

    😮

    I mean, I’ve often read about Greenberg being the first who systematically classified the languages of Africa by classifying the languages, as opposed to relying to varying extents on the “racial type” of their speakers. But relying on the third son of Ham in 1952 is another level.

  21. John Cowan says:

    the assumption that only Africans can come to correct conclusions about African linguistics

    I don’t quite read that into it, though I see it through the lens of Native Americans making similar complaints. It’s more about “no whiteman can be trusted to tell the truth, by definition”, so only if confirmed by one of Our Own can we accept it. By the same token, Nick Nicholas has the power to silence Greeks ranting about how Greek pronunciation has never changed where a barbarian like me could not. It has wider connections to the meme of decolonization: better to be ruled by a “swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood” who belongs to our tribe than a relatively impartial bunch of bureaucrats who don’t. (That I say this doesn’t mean I’m against decolonization, much less in favor of colonization.)

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    ancestral homeland of English is located in the Belyayevsky District of Odessa Oblast (province)

    I knew it. It’s something about the eyes …

  23. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/11-Centum-Migrations-HI.jpg

    Migration of pre-Germanic speakers from their homeland in Odessa region (Usatovo Culture) to northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    No Italic north of the Alps ever, no Crotonian, and are they really making an assumption that Greek is closer to Germanic + Italo-Celtic than to anything else?

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