Ngadjon vocabulary is small as is common a hunter-gatherer cultures. A
great deal is communicated non-verbally. Maintaining silence in the
rainforest is essential both in terms of hunting and opportunistic
acquisition of protein while gathering food.
communication during hunting may be via subtle almost imperceptible
motions of the eye, a tiny nod of the head, tiny movement of the
fingers... that delivers information on hunting strategies...
location, number and size of prey...which way to move, when to move,
who is to use their weapon, allocation of various roles
in the jungle trails are marked and information provided via bent
ferns or twigs, blazes, materials laid out on a track, deliberate
placing of footprints ... to indicate when a person passed, how long
ago , how many in the party, which way they were going, whether they
were travelling light or carrying burdens ... footprints are like
fingerprints to hunter gatherers ... individuals people can be
identified ... the genders and ages of hunted game are reflected in
their footprints and droppings
objects placed in places they would not normally be can send
messages ... some moss sitting on the fork of a bush...
in the rainforest sight is diminished .. when you see a moving leaf
the creature has often already moved on
in the rainforest sound predominates ... to the trained ear each
creature produces a distinctive sound when moving
in the rainforest smell travels further than sight or sound ... the
distinct smell or a particular ripe fruit... the fishy / meaty smell
of a python or the smell of a particular type of possum in a tree
the presence of bio-indicators communicate actions that need to be
taken (for example the singing of green cicadas may initiate the
harvest of bush turkey eggs)
some courses of action requiring complex interaction are ancient and
traditional.. there is no need to say "lets go hunting.. you do this
and I'll do that"
It should be noted that where verbs are listed, only one form is shown in
Speakers of the language will be familiar with other forms.
Likewise, speakers will be aware of gender markers (bayi, balan, balam,
bala) which are not shown in the list.
Note:It is essential to refer to local language speakers for accurate
pronunciation of specific words and phrases. Several guides are provided
dating at different times...
Professor Bob Dixon pioneered linguistic studies amongst Aboriginal people
in North Queensland and in writing this glossary I have tried to adhere to
his basic outlines for writing dialects of the Dyribal language group.
I will quote him briefly here, however anyone seriously interested in
studying Ngadjon language is well advised to go to the source.
Special note on b and p - Dixon's scheme uses b to cover both these sounds
since there are no word pairs (such as bat and pat in English) that would
require the distinction. However, contemporary Ngadjon uses a distinct p
sound for some words. Where this is the case, we have used p in this list.
English sound as in...
Rolled “rr as in Scottish
Robert the Bruce
"There are thirteen consonants - b,d,g,j,l,m,n,ny,ng,r,rr,w,y.
b and m are sounds pronounced with the lips, exactly like b and m in
d and n are also quite like English sounds; they are pronounced with
the tip of the tongue just touching the ridge just behind the top
j and ny are rather different from any sounds that occur in English.
The sound we write j for is like a d and a y pronounced at the same
time ... ny is like n and y pronounced at the same time. These sounds
are pronounced with the front part of the tongue against the front
part of the roof of the mouth, with the tip of the tongue just behind
g is exactly like the English sound and ng is like the sound that
occurs at the end of some words in English (as in 'bang' and 'sing').
These are made by the back of the tongue being pressed against the
back part of the roof of the mouth.
There are only three vowel sounds, many fewer than in English. ...
i - the front of the tongue raised up towards the roof of the mouth.
This usually sounds like the vowel in the English word 'beet' but it
can sound like the vowel in 'bit' or even that in 'bet' ...
u - the back of the tongue is raised towards the roof of the mouth.
This usually sounds like the vowel in English 'boot' or 'tool' but it
can sound like the vowel in 'put' or enen that in 'bought' ...
a - with the mouth quite open and the tongue lying in the bottom of
the mouth. This is like the sound in English 'bat' and 'man', but it
can be pronounced like the vowel in 'half' or even that in 'not' ..."
from "Writing down Jirrbal and Girramay", Bob Dixon, Canberra 1978.
More from Dixon (1984 Memoirs) on pronunciation of Dyribal words... ng is a single sound; it occurs only at the end of a syllable in
English - the single sound after the vowel in sing for instance.
One way of learning how to say a word like nga "yes" (in Dyribal)
is to begin with sing, add an a , and on repetition drop
off the si-, thus singa. singa, nga. Unlike in the
English word finger, there is no hard g sound as in nga
ny is a single sound, like an n and y pronounced
simultaneously; it is like the sound in the middle of English onion
(and is identical to the Spanish ñ)
j is like d and y pronounced simultaneously; a
sharper sound than that in English words like judge
rr is trilled or rolled r as in Scottish pronumciation
r is very close to the Australian or English pronunciation as in arrow
b,d,g,m,n,l,y and w can be pronounced almost exactly as in
i is pronounced like the vowel in English bit
u is pronounced like the vowel in English took
a is pronounced like the vowel in English ban
Doubling of a vowel letter indicated a lengthened vowel...
ii is like the vowel in beat only longer
uu is like that in soup only longer
aa is like the vowel in southern English pronunciations of grass,
Each vowel should be pronounced carefully and distinctly; they should
never be reduced to the vowel sound of the English the, for
Dyirbal (also Djirubal) is a tonal and ergative Australian Aboriginal
language spoken in northeast Queensland by about 5 speakers. It possesses
many outstanding features that have made it well known among linguists.
The Ngadgon people classify nouns in a unique manner which has made
linguists need to re-think ways in which language can be organised.
Dyirbal actually has only four places of articulation for the stop and
nasal consonants—this is fewer than most other Australian Aboriginal
languages, which have six. This is because Dyirbal lacks the
dental/alveolar split typically found in these languages. It also lacks
voiceless consonants, an extremely uncommon trait among languages. Its
vowel system is similarly small, with only three vowels: /i/, /a/ and /u/.
Grammar The language is best known for its system of noun classes, numbering
four in total.
They tend to be divided among the following semantic lines:
I - animate objects, men
II - women, water, fire, violence
III - edible fruit and vegetables
IV - miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three)
The class usually labeled "feminine" (II), for instance, includes the
word for fire and nouns relating to fire, as well as all dangerous
creatures and phenomena.
This inspired the title of the George Lakoff book "Women, Fire and
Dangerous Things" - an outline of his division of nouns is
given below (based on powerpoint presentation slides)
Using Language to Suggest a View of the World
The noun "gender"diagram below may gives some insight into the way the
Ngadjonji view the world.
When a Ngadjon person enters their rainforest they enter the "greatest
supermarket in the world", no specialising here, everything they
will need for their entire lives is to be found here.
They are, simultaneously, of the rainforest, the landscape, the past,
present and the future, not necessarily looked at separately, but as a
Males associate directly with hunted food, where to camp, defence, ritual,
Females associate with interconnectness, daily food and materials, family
In a largely vegetarian society there is a special relationship with the
Some things durable and enduring supply messages , guidelines , tools...
and everywhere stories link things together.
Some linguists distinguish between such systems of classification and the
gendered division of items into feminine, masculine, and sometimes neuter
found in, for example, many Indo-European languages.
Dyirbal is remarkable because it shows a split-ergative system.
Sentences with a first or second person pronoun have their verb arguments
marked for case in a pattern that mimics nominative-accusative languages.
That is, the first or second person pronoun appears in the least marked
case when it is the subject (regardless of the transitivity of the verb),
and in the most marked case when it is the direct object. Thus Dyirbal is
morphologically accusative in the first and second persons, but
morphologically ergative elsewhere; and it is still always syntactically
There used to be in place a highly complex taboo system in Dyirbal
culture. A speaker was completely forbidden from speaking with his/her
mother-in-law, child-in-law, father's sister's child or mother's brother's
child, and from approaching or looking directly at these people. In
addition, a specialized and complex form of the language, with essentially
the same phonemes and grammar, but with a lexicon that shared no words
with the non-taboo language, was used when within hearing range of taboo
relatives. It existed until about 1930 when the taboo system fell out of
from Universities and Museums: More information is out there but much,
often, for no logical reason, is now considered "copyright",
"access denied" or hidden behind "paywalls".
The Ngadjon should have access. It is their culture. The vast
majority of cultural research, taking into account cultural sensibilities,
in an enlightened society, should be open source.**)
Knowledge is pointless unless it is shared... Shared
knowledge builds bridges of understanding. .. Without understanding
reconciliation is no more than a dream