Top End Linguistic Circle

Meetings and Seminars


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Previous meetings

24th February 2021

Michael Walsh

Professor Michael Walsh speaks on “Christianity in Indigenous Australia: Linguistic Adaptations to an Exotic Spirituality”

The speaker:

Professor Walsh has been dedicated to working with Australian Aboriginal languages for about 45 years. He has worked and published extensively on documenting and revitalizing these languages, especially in the Northern Territory and New South Wales. His research interests include lexical semantics, cross-cultural pragmatics, language and identity, language and law, linguistic geography, language revitalization, song language and other expressive uses of language. He is currently affiliated with AIATSIS, the University of Sydney and the Australian National University among others.


Since the earliest days of “settlement” in 1788 Indigenous Australia has been engaged with Christianity. At one end of the spectrum were so-called “rice Christians”: Indigenous people who endured religious services because of an expectation that they would be given food. At the other end of the spectrum is the Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, a Yolngu from the Northern Territory, who has preached, lectured and published on Aboriginal spirituality for many years.

Sometimes encounters between Christianity and Indigenous spirituality have led to the counterintuitive. For instance in the late 1970s Lutheran missionaries were engaged in re-translating the New Testament into Western Arrernte (central Australia). When asked why there was a need for a re-translation, the surprising response was along these lines: the earlier translation was so good that, now, almost no-one can understand it.

Some commentators (e.g. Daisy Bates) have suggested that some Christian material (e.g. The Lord’s Prayer) cannot be translated into an Australian language. Recalling the parable of the seven wise and foolish virgins, it becomes a challenge for the translator of Scripture if there is no Indigenous word for “virgin”! This account will present some of the range of issues surrounding the encounter between Indigenous Australia and Christianity.

4th March 2020

Presenter: Dr John Mansfield, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Melbourne, and an Honorary Fellow of the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University.

Title: Aboriginal languages in Darwin prison

Abstract: Darwin is a meeting place of many Aboriginal languages and cultures. This is true not just of Darwin’s urban areas and coastal parks, but also of Darwin prison, where the majority of some 1000 prisoners speak at least one Aboriginal language.

In this seminar I will present a sketch of Aboriginal language use in Darwin city, and in Darwin prison. I will also introduce a new program of prison activities conducted primarily in Aboriginal languages. This project is currently being piloted with Murrinhpatha and Tiwi inmates, but would ideally cater to all the larger Aboriginal language groups in the NT Corrections system.


13th March 2019

Charles Darwin University, Casuarina campus, Northern Institute



David Moore: Language at the Centre: The contribution of German Lutheran missionaries to linguistics in the Northern Territory

Language was central to the concerns of the German Lutheran missionaries who established Hermannsburg mission in Central Australia in 1877. Ideologies of the German philosophy of language emphasised the connection between language and thought, the importance of fieldwork and the collection of texts. From humanism, the German Reformation and their training in philology which had developed to a pinnacle in Germany of the nineteenth century, they were well equipped to record, analyse and translate the languages of Central Australia. They compiled grammars, texts and the largest dictionary of Aboriginal language words of the era (Strehlow 2018 [1909]). Their research has been critically important for the description of Central Australian languages for more than a century. I aim to provide the basis for informed interpretation of these works so that the linguistics information they contain can accurately be added to scholarly knowledge of the Arandic languages of Central Australia. In this paper I will outline some of the key features of early missionary descriptions of Aranda.


Steven Bird: Learning English and Aboriginal Languages for Work

This new 3-year ARC Discovery Project aims to leverage mobile technologies to expand and enrich the communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians working together on Aboriginal owned or controlled country. The project expects to generate new knowledge in the areas of oral language learning and on-country technology design, through extensive collaboration with Indigenous participants in Arnhem Land. Expected project outcomes include mobile technologies that support learning of spoken English and Aboriginal languages, new ways for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to come together to design digital technologies and to learn each other's languages.

Ian Malcolm: Sharing our English

English came to Australia as an agent of colonization. Paradoxically, Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants adopted English, transformed it and now lay claim to it as their own. English today is a joint possession of Indigenous and non-indigenous communities. The process whereby Aboriginal English emerged from the varieties of English brought to Australia can be seen as one of de-colonization, that is, bringing English into conformity with Aboriginal conceptualizations.

There has, however, been an abiding mentality among the non-indigenous population that only one variety of English, Standard Australian English, should prevail in public institutions, and, in particular, in education. This viewpoint could be seen to lead effectively to making the teaching of English serve purposes of neo-colonialism.

This paper will suggest that the de-colonization of English teaching should involve the validation of two Englishes, the objective of bidialectalism, the employment of educators from both Indigenous and non-indigenous speech communities, the development of criteria for the recognition of bidialectal competence and the preparation of students to operate in situations where both dialects may have cultural and vocational relevance. The sharing of Englishes in education may contribute to greater cultural inclusivity in the use of English in society at large.

10 August 2018

John Bradbury: Transcending the academic language barrier: creating a mathematical discourse around place value in Yolŋu Matha

Joshua Phillips, Yale University: Talking times & possibilities: TMA in Arnhem Land

All languages allow us to ‘displace’ discourse: to talk about things that happen in different times, places or ‘possible worlds.’ Recent linguistic research (e.g. Tonnhauser 2011) has explicitly dissociated tense marking from ‘temporal expression’ — whereas tense is an important mechanism for encoding temporal reference across European languages, we quickly run into problems when we try to extend this generalisation to other languages. Here I present a few examples of ongoing puzzles in Yolŋu, Kriol and other languages in Arnhem Land that pose a challenge to notions of tense and modality as they're conceived in traditional grammar.

Margaret Carew, Batchelor Institute: Action! Multimodal communication in Maningrida

Human interaction is essentially multimodal. As well as speaking or using a sign language, people point to real and imagined locations, perform actions, manipulate objects with their hands, create maps and diagrams, and make permanent or semi-permanent marks on a range of surfaces. In the Maningrida region, alternate sign languages play an important role in communication, and sign is integrated with both speech and other forms of non-verbal communication (Kendon, 1988; Green & Wilkins, 2014). Locally, the English word ‘action’ provides a useful cover term for the analysis of a new corpus of multimodal data, contributed by consultants from five language groups – Wurlaki/Djinang, Gun-nartpa, Ndjébbana, Kunbarlang and Kuninjku.

In Maningrida, actions are one important way that people demonstrate kin-based norms of politeness and respect and constrain interaction between certain relatives. Along with actions (sign, gesture), the semiotic repertoire includes silence, the use of special speech registers (cf. kun-kurrng or kun-balak ‘mother-in-law lexical replacement register’, Garde, 2013), adjustments of body stance, non-speech vocalization, and the avoidance of close proximity and direct gaze. Actions may be performed more frequently in the presence of certain kin, and some are particularly emblematic of respect. To demonstrate this we will present some examples of actions used in relation to affinal kin in different interactional contexts.

This project is working with the Lúrra Language and Culture program at Maningrida College to develop a set of posters showing the kinship signs and speech terms used by a number of different language groups in the region. We aim to develop a further suite of print and video based resources that will raise awareness about the important role that actions play in communication. This research is part of a broader investigation of Indigenous sign language diversity in Central and Northern Australia, a collaboration between communities, Batchelor Institute and the University of Melbourne.


  • Adone, D., & Maypilama, E. (2013). A Grammar Sketch of Yolŋu Sign Language. Darwin: Charles Darwin University.
  • Bauer, A. (2014). The Use of Signing Space in a Shared Sign Language of Australia (Vol. 5). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter & Ishara Press.
  • Blythe, J. (2012). From passing-gesture to “true” romance: Kin-based teasing in Murriny Patha conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 44(4), 508–528.
  • Garde, M. (2013). Culture, Interaction and Person reference in an Australian language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Green, J., Bauer, A., Gaby, A., & Ellis, E. M. (2018). Pointing to the body: kin signs in Australian Indigenous sign languages. Gesture 17(1), 1-36.
  • Green, J., & Wilkins, D. P. (2014). With or without speech: Arandic sign language from Central Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 34(2), 234-61.
  • Kendon, A. (1988). Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maypilama, Elaine L., Dany Adone, and Anastasia Bauer. 2012. Yolngu Sign Language - English Dictionary. University of Cologne.

9 April 2018

Michael Walsh

Professor Michael Walsh speaks on “The language of money in Aboriginal Australia”

16 March 2018

The first meeting for 2018 was held on Friday 16 March 2018.


Meetings 1979 to 2017

See the archive page.

Last modified 12th June 2021

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