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Bringing back the Ngunawal language.

Abstract: This paper reports on a project at AIATSIS to revive the Ngunawal language of the Canberra and nearby New South Wales region. This project is grounded in a close collaboration with a group of representatives from the Ngunawal community, who drive all aspects of the project. While still in its early days, the project has produced valuable outcomes both in terms of the language work carried out and the collaborative research process that has underpinned these outcomes.


Over the past 25 years Australia has seen a great growth in work on language revival, activities aimed at returning languages to daily use by their communities after some period of time in which they were not spoken. (1) Probably the best-known example in Australia is that of the Kaurna language of Adelaide, which now has a small but growing group of speakers (see Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi 2015a). The present paper describes the first steps underway in work to revive the Ngunawal language of the Australian Capital Territory and adjacent parts of New South Wales.

Much of the work carried out by AIATSIS researchers over the 50 years since the founding of the Institute has focused on Indigenous groups in more remote parts of Australia. Although recent years have seen an expanded emphasis on work with Indigenous populations in the south-east of Australia, this has rarely included the AIATSIS 'backyard' of the Australian Capital Territory and surrounding New South Wales. This was one of the reasons why, in September 2013, the AIATSIS Centre for Australian Languages began a community outreach program in the surrounding region of the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. This activity brought us into contact with members of the Ngunawal community of Canberra via an invitation to all who identify as members of that group to participate in a meeting at AIATSIS to discuss the possibility of carrying out language work on Ngunawal. At this initial meeting linguistic staff of AIATSIS (Melissa Crowther, (2) Doug Marmion and Michael Walsh, and then Director of Research Jakelin Troy) presented some background on language work, describing the types of such work being carried out across Australia and in other parts of the world, and in particular focusing on the successful language revival work happening in Adelaide with Kaurna and in Victoria with the Ganai language. The Ngunawal attendees were provided with copies of some of the historical materials on their language held in the AIATSIS archives, materials that would form an essential part of the basic resources for any Ngunawal language revival project. The community members attending were very interested in the possibilities and keen to meet again, so it was decided to hold further meetings to continue to explore the idea. After several more meetings, members of the Ngunawal group decided this was something they were keen to progress and began discussions with AIATSIS to formalise arrangements. This resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding, which has continued to guide and underpin the joint work on the Ngunawal language.

Building the relationship

At the time the Memorandum of Understanding was being developed, the Ngunawal group also decided they wanted a Ngunawal name. With the assistance of AIATSIS linguists, the group examined wordlists and considered the vocabulary that has remained in regular use in the community, eventually deciding to create a name that combined the words ngaiyuri 'father' and idja 'mother', the end product being Ngaiyuriidja Ngunawal Language Group (NgNgLG). The group chose this name to show the kinship-like relationship members feel towards their language, and to show their respect both for their Elders in general and also for several individual Elders, some of whom are now deceased but who have played a major role in inspiring the work to revive their language.

While the initial meetings involved discussions of language work in general, the focus soon moved to the Ngunawal language, its history and state of documentation. The original language of the Australian Capital Territory and nearby New South Wales is attested in a number of wordlists and at least one brief description of some aspects of the grammar. The various wordlists from the region use a number of different 'tribal' and 'language' names, but many members of the Aboriginal community hailing from the region consider Ngunawal to be the correct name for their language--certainly the various wordlists show much similarity, and several use this name. For the neighbouring languages Ngarigo (to the south of Queanbeyan), and Gandangara (3) (from the area of New South Wales to the east and north of Goulburn), the available information is also limited, but what we have indicates that these three varieties were likely to have been very similar, perhaps even having been mutually intelligible.

The starting point for the work on Ngunawal was historical records and materials collected by various individuals in the nineteenth century (such as Mathews (1904), Curr and so on), but as the relationship between AIATSIS and the NgNgLG developed members of the group began bringing their own materials in to contribute. Over time we discovered that individual Ngunawal people, over previous decades, had made their own audio and video recordings and written wordlists, and had produced various materials for teaching their language. The group members brought this material in to AIATSIS, where it was placed in the archives to ensure its preservation; appropriate access conditions were placed on all these items in consultation with the depositors. It was gratifying to learn that, despite the claims in A handbook of Aboriginal languages of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (Wafer and Lissarrague 2008), there turned out to be quite a bit of community knowledge of language that was previously unknown to the academic community. It was also gratifying that the level of trust between AIATSIS and the NgNgLG had developed to the point where people were happy to share this valuable (and, in some cases, quite personal) material. So one important outcome of this language revitalisation initiative has been a substantial increase in the documentation of Ngunawal. Although the limited historical materials put a corresponding limit on the amount that could be known about their ancestral language (a point discussed with the group many times), this limit has been constantly moving as the resources grow with the addition of community contributions. The end result has been a valuable set of historical materials that will be available to underpin the language revival project, as well as a growing sense of trust between the community members and AIATSIS as partners in an important project.

Developing an orthography

In the monthly meetings that took place over the following year one important focus of discussions was the development of an orthography for Ngunawal. An orthography (a standardised system for writing a language) is an important step in language revival as it provides a shared understanding of how to write the language, ensures that those familiar with it are able to be confident in maintaining consistent pronunciation of any words written in the orthography, and provides a means for recording and documenting the language used in any particular situation. Australian languages typically have fairly straightforward sound systems, and Ngunawal is no exception; as well, there are long-established orthographic traditions for Australian languages that we were able to draw on, and which provided illustrations of the various possibilities. In the case of language revival, however, this process is more complicated as it is necessary to understand the sound system in the absence of speakers or even, in the case of Ngunawal, audio recordings of the language. (4)

The expanded body of Ngunawal language material, which includes historical material already in the AIATSIS archives as well as that newly deposited by members of the NgNgLG, was used to conduct an analysis of the likely structure of the sound system of Ngunawal; also assisting this work was analysis by other linguists, such as Koch (2009, 2010). Although numerous questions still remain, this enabled us to work with the group to develop an orthography that would accurately represent what we know of Ngunawal while providing a straightforward and consistent way of writing the language. The proposed orthography for Ngunawal is shown in Table 1 (Ngunawal consonants) and Table 2 (Ngunawal vowels). This development involved much discussion over a period of months, with numerous decisions being made by the NgNgLG; one such decision was the choice of the 'voiced' symbols to represent the stop consonants, and another was the use of a digraph to represent the palatal stop.

The available information indicates that Ngunawal had only a single lateral, as is found in many languages along the eastern edge of Australia (Dixon 2004:549), and the common system of three vowels; additionally, there is no clear evidence for a retroflex series. These points (among many others) were discussed with the group and the AIATSIS linguists advised that although it is possible that material could turn up in future that will require additions such as retroflexes, a dental lateral and so on, until that time there was no need to further complicate the orthography. The NgNgLG members recognised that there was a level of uncertainty around the orthography but were keen to put it into use, understanding that they could deal with any need that should arise for additional symbols in the future.

Using Ngunawal

With an orthography in place, the NgNgLG members were keen to start developing and learning phrases and expressions to incorporate into meetings and into daily life. This work began with a 'Welcome to Country' and an 'Acknowledgment of Country'. After some time spent looking at the available Ngunawal resources and examples of welcomes and acknowledgments used by other groups working to revive their languages, the group chose the following wording:

Yumalundi! Dhawra nguna dhawra Ngunawal. Yumalundit

'Welcome! This Country (is) Ngunawal Country. Welcome!'

Although short and fairly simple, the NgNgLG members were immensely proud to be able to make this very important statement in their ancestral language. And, of course, there is nothing to stop it being expanded as the available language resources grow to support further development. Since its development in June 2014, this has been the language used to begin every meeting of the NgNgLG, with members of the group taking turns to give the welcome and acknowledgment. Since that time the group has also been considering the protocols around the use of these phrases; as a complex issue, this remains a work in progress.

Beginning in late May 2014, the Ngunawal language revival work began to receive coverage in the Canberra media. One result of this was a request from a local government agency that wanted a name for an important event at which it would launch a program jointly with an Aboriginal reference group. The agency was seeking a name in Ngunawal to replace the word previously used, which was drawn from the neighbouring language, Gandangara. It initially asked for words with a meaning such as renaissance/revival/fresh start or something similar. None of these terms seemed suited to Ngunawal; however, on enquiring further to better understand the event in question, a possibility was found, a term from an article published by RH Mathews in 1904 --badji '(a)rise'. This was put together with the first plural inclusive pronominal suffix -manyin to give the form:


'We are all arising'

The NgNgLG members were very pleased with this expression and felt it reflected their Ngunawal values better than trying to construct a term to do with 'renaissance' or 'rebirth'. They were happy to provide this to the local government agency, particularly as the Aboriginal reference group in question was keen to use the local language and to reflect the presence of Ngunawal in the community. The government agency was similarly pleased with the result, and this was felt to be a very successful use of Ngunawal. Since that time there have been consistent requests for Ngunawal words to be used as names for organisations, buildings, events and so on; however, while the NgNgLG members are gratified at the community interest and the desire to see Ngunawal words used across the wider community, they are also cautious about moving too fast and want to maintain control over the process. The NgNgLG are still working to refine a protocol for how and when to provide Ngunawal names and establish a process to make sure that there is appropriate community consultation. To this end, the group is studying and learning from approaches used by groups in a similar position, such as the Kaurna, who have a well-developed and longstanding approach to this (see Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi 2015b).

Ngunawal lessons in schools

The most recent development in the Ngunawal language project has been the trialling of a language program at a local primary school. For some time members of the NgNgLG had been in touch with Fraser Primary School teachers, who had indicated they would be very keen to have the language taught in the school. Flaving settled on a draft orthography, the NgNgLG decided it was time to run a short trial language class at the school. The Ngunawal group was fortunate in that one member, Rebecca King, is a trained teacher and has a strong interest in language teaching. Rebecca developed a series of lesson plans, with support from AIATSIS linguists, and presented them to the preschool classes over the course of a term. Although very simple, introductory classes that focused largely on teaching words for animals, relatives and body parts, the classes were highly successful. The children took delight in learning Ngunawal words, with parents reporting that children were using the words at home. Feedback from parents and teachers was resoundingly positive and has led to widespread interest from many other schools in the region.

The future of the Ngunawal language

Over the past two years members of the NgNgLG have all put in a great deal of time and effort to support the work of bringing back the Ngunawal language. There have been notable achievements, some described above, but the group is very ambitious and hopes to see more school classes, adult classes (they are all keen to be able to learn their ancestral language) and resources of all kinds, with the aim that future generations will grow up with the Ngunawal language as a part of their daily lives.


(1.) Some prefer to call this 'language reclamation' and there are various other terms in use.

(2.) Melissa also carried out a lot of the early work of collating and analysing the available materials.

(3.) Some members of these language communities may prefer different spellings to those used here.

(4.) One of the more valuable items contributed to the project by community members was an audio recording of a now-deceased Elder; although very brief, this has been of key importance.


Dixon, RMW 2004 Australian languages: their nature and development, Cambridge Language Surveys, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi 2015a 'Kaurna welcome', <> accessed 15 September 2015.

--2015b 'Kaurna language requests', <> accessed 15 September 2015.

Koch, Harold 2009 'The methodology of reconstructing Indigenous placenames, Australian Capital Territory and south-eastern New South Wales' in Harold Koch and Luise Hercus (eds), Aboriginal placenames: naming and re-naming the Australian landscape, ANU E Press, Canberra (Aboriginal History Monographs no. 19), chap. 5, pp. 115-71.

--2010 'Aboriginal languages and social groups in the Canberra region: interpreting the historical documentation' in Brett Baker, liana Mushin, Mark Harvey and Rod Gardner (eds), Indigenous language and social identity: papers in honour of Michael Walsh, vol. 626, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra, chap. 8, pp. 131-53.

Mathews, RH 1904 'The Wiradyuri and other languages of New South Wales', The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 34:284-305.

Wafer, Jim and Amanda Lissarrague 2008 A handbook of Aboriginal languages of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative, Nambucca Heads, NSW.

Doug Marmion's primary research interests are across the areas of Indigenous language description, documentation and revitalisation in Australia; he is presently working with the Ngunawal community of Canberra on the revival of their language. He also maintains interests in language revitalisation activities in Brazil, China and Ireland (in particular). His other current interests are the documentation of Ngajumaya, continuing work on Wajarri, and the historical linguistics of the Kartu subgroup of languages in Western Australia.

Doug was co-author of both the first (2005) and second (2014) national Indigenous languages surveys and is a co-author of the Curriculum Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages.

Table 1: Ngunawal consonants

              bilabial   dental   alveolar   palatal   velar

Stop          b          dh       d          dj        g
Nasal         m          nh       n          ny        ng
Lateral                           i
Flap, trill                       rr
glide         w                   r          y

Table 2: Ngunawal vowels

        front    central    back

high    i                   u
low              a
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Author:Marmion, Doug
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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