Top End Linguistic Circle


Previous meetings

10 August 2018

Location: Charles Darwin University Casuarina campus, Savannah room of the Northern Institute

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 29 September 2018

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