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Lakun Ngarrindjeri thunggari: weaving the Ngarrindjeri language back to health.

Abstract: This paper tells of the efforts of three Ngarrindjeri women to revive their language over the past three decades. These three mi:minar (women), Auntie Eileen McHughes, Auntie Phyllis Williams and Verna Koolmatrie, are respected Aunties in the Ngarrindjeri community, as well as talented weavers and feather-flower makers. Just as they are relearning the ancient craft of weaving and teaching themselves to weave increasingly intricate patterns into their baskets and placemats, so are they relearning how to weave increasingly complex sentences and texts in their traditional Ngarrindjeri language. This requires learning a grammar that has not been used for well over 40 years. With these new-found skills, Eileen, Phyllis and Verna are translating familiar hymns and their favourite songs into Ngarrindjeri to be sung, and are constructing complex texts, such as welcome speeches, to be given at special community events.

This paper reflects on the collaborative efforts that the Ngarrindjeri revival process requires, and the research, training, hard work and enthusiasm it demands. It celebrates the rich rewards and the improved sense of wellbeing that language revival offers, particularly to the authors of this paper as they embrace the Ngarrindjeri language in all its complexities.


In 1984 Auntie Eileen McHughes travelled, with her sister-in-law Auntie Phyllis Williams, all the way from Murray Bridge and Adelaide in South Australia to Batchelor in the Northern Territory to work with the linguists Steve Johnson and David Zorc on their language. So began the revival movement of the Ngarrindjeri language. This collaborative effort to revive Ngarrindjeri has since embraced many more people, including Verna Koolmatrie from Raukkan, the homeland of the Ngarrindjeri, and the Adelaide-based linguist Mary-Anne Gale. This paper tells of that collaborative effort.

The traditional Ngarrindjeri lands or ruwi, to which Auntie Eileen McHughes, Auntie Phyllis Williams and Verna Koolmatrie belong, lie in the Lower Murray Lakes and Coorong region of southern South Australia (Figure 1). It is here that they live, work and strive to bring back their language to be used for new and meaningful purposes, and to be passed on to their children and their children's children (or 'grannies').


Eileen McHughes' story Nganawi mh:tji Yaili:ni McHughes. Nganawi laklinyeri Kropindjeri. Nganawi nangai Alban Richard Kropindjeri, Murrundi-nendi. Nganawi ningkuwi Gertrude Elizabeth Gollan, Kurrangk-nendi. Ngapi krawi rna:dawi. Nganawi ma:dawi wanyil ki:lawi: Kevin, Leslie, Verna (dec.), Vicki (Bikitji), Richard, Michael and Patricia.

I was born on 5 January 1941 Pomberuk-angk (in Murray Bridge). I grew up at three mile camp south of Tailem Bend. Several other Ngarrindjeri families lived there as well as ours. I was a very nosey child, and I used to listen to the yarns that the Elders would tell. That is really where I learnt most of the language. When all the women sat around together in a group weaving baskets from the rushes, this was the time for yarning. They would also sit together repairing the string fishing nets. I also learnt the language as the women sat around together on a big tarpaulin washing our mayinggar (clothes) in a big iron tub.

This was also the time when I learnt about my genealogy and who I was related to, and what my nga:tji (totem) was. On my father's side my nga:tji is the tiger snake or reed snake (pranggi watjeri, which means 'with water'), and on my mother's side my nga-tji is the huntsman spider (wururi). I also learnt what plants were good for different ailments. Old man's beard (yalkari) and sheoak apples (kolgi) were good for chest complaints. We were also told when we were allowed to go swimming (wrukun), which was when the dandelions had died off at the end of spring. They taught us about safety in the river, and to never go swimming by ourselves. We were also taught about birthing practices, conservation, and other aspects of my culture and heritage, such as to always share and never to be greedy. Most of all I was told to be a good person and to respect my Elders. They taught me to treat other people how I would like to be treated, and to never be ashamed of my Aboriginality.

Because dad was exempted, (1) and I grew up in a fringe camp, we were not forbidden to speak our language, or forbidden to practise our culture. The same applied to the one mile camp south of Meningie, because the people there still spoke a fair bit of the language. It was not fluent but they still used hundreds of Ngarrindjeri words in their Nunga speech. (2)

In 19661 heard my grandfather Roland William Kropindjeri talking with Hughie McHughes at Tailem Bend in fluent Ngarrindjeri language. They were speaking so fast I couldn't understand any of it. So for some Elders, speaking the language was more than just words, but for me it was mainly just words.

Then in 1984 and 1985 I had the privilege of going to Batchelor in the Northern Territory to study my Ngarrindjeri language at the School of Australian Linguistics. I wanted to learn more about my language. I was fed up with my Aboriginality being taken away from me. The reason myself and others went to Batchelor was because at that time there were no available linguists in South Australia. Even though we knew quite a few Ngarrindjeri words, we didn't have a clue how to spell them and write them down. So at Batchelor we had to observe fluent speakers from Arnhem Land, and work with the linguists Steve Johnson and David Zorc to work out how to write down our Ngarrindjeri words. We also tried putting words into sentences. We wrote a little play about robbing a bank. I'm not sure why we chose that topic, probably because one of the action words we all remembered (that wasn't rude) was the word pethun, meaning 'stealing', and we also knew the words nganhari for 'money', pu.thi for 'bank notes' and kainggaipari for 'policeman'. We also produced a little colouring-in book of birds and animals in Ngarrindjeri for children to colour in. We eventually compiled a wordlist with Steve of about 250 Ngarrindjeri words that the group of students could all remember between us.

After Batchelor I used to go up to the high school at Murray Bridge to assist them with the teaching of the language. Now, in more recent years, I have been working together with the linguist Mary-Anne Gale, and others, to compile a large Ngarrindjeri dictionary for adults. So those 250 words we listed with Steve are included in the new dictionary. We have also included words from tapes that I have listened to from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). They were recorded in the early 1960s and included recordings of David Unaipon, Brooksie Kartinyeri, Walter McHughes, Michael Gollan, Alison Lovegrove, Mary Karpany, Annie Koolmatrie and others. I also went through the (1993) book A World That Was, written by the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt, and found many familiar words to add to the dictionary. There are many more words included in our dictionary from other wordlists, such as Rev. George Taplin's (1879) list and missionary Meyer's (1843) wordlist. I proofread every word in the entire dictionary for Mary-Anne. It took me well over two weeks because it is over 300 pages long. (3) I also needed to cross check with other sources to make sure we hadn't missed any. I am proud of my achievements.

I would like the young ones to be proud of their language, and their heritage and culture, and be proud of who they are. I am a very proud Ngarrindjeri mi:mini who spends many hours babysitting my grandchildren (or grannies as we call them). I teach them their language, culture and genealogy. They try to sing the songs with me now in Ngarrindjeri. The youngest one is five now and she remembers to say anu nginti for 'thank you' and nguldi arndu for 'welcome'.


For me, my interest in the language has really increased in the past few years. And now I concentrate more on doing 'welcome to country' speeches in our local area. All my welcomes are done in Ngarrindjeri, with no English, and I adapt my speeches to suit the occasion.

There are several different dialects of Ngarrindjeri, so in my opinion no one is wrong in how they pronounce the word. However, I do believe we should have a uniform system for the spelling of the words. As an Elder I know this, because if we use the wrong vowel we change the whole meanings of the words. When we are singing hymns in Ngarrindjeri we need to get the words right. For example, when we are singing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross in Ngarrindjeri there is a word nragi, which means 'really good' or 'dear', but if we spelt it nrugi it would mean 'snot'.

Since 2007 I have been teaching Ngarrindjeri language courses at TAFE with Mary-Anne. We have now had eight intensive courses, and in October 2010 we began weekly classes of a new certificate III level course. The core group of adults who continued to attend the TAFE language courses are the ones that have got the fire in their bellies to continue speaking and learning more of their language. In December 2011 eight adults completed the Certificate III in Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language, including Phyllis, Verna and myself. We like to use the analogy or metaphor of basket weaving in the way we learn and teach our language. Each strand or thread or yalkari (rush) represents a word in Ngarrindjeri, and the baskets or placemats represent the sentences and songs we are weaving together. As we learn more and more of the traditional grammar, our woven language seems to be getting more intricate, just as my baskets now have more complex designs. So before I leave this world my language and my weaving will be perfect, just as our language was prior to European invasion.


Phyllis Williams" story

Nganawi mi:tji (my name is) Phyllis Williams. I was born at Murray Bridge in South Australia. I am a Ngarrindjeri woman, a mother of five children, grandmother of 20 plus and great grandmother of four plus children. I have been working in the health field for many years, and am currently employed as an Aboriginal Outreach Worker with Southern Adelaide Fleurieu Kangaroo Island Medicare Local (SAFKI Medicare Local), based at Victor Harbor, about 90 kilometres south of Adelaide.

I went to Batchelor College with Eileen in 1985, but I didn't do much with the language after my trip to Batchelor. I was married to a Narungga man, and living at Point Pearce, and we used words from his Narungga language as well as words from the west coast. We spoke these words in Nunga English. My story with reviving the Ngarrindjeri language really began when I moved down to Victor Harbor in 2001. I began work in 2002 with the Fleurieu Health Service. At that time Daryl Sumner had organised for the Elders of the Fleurieu region to get together once a month for meetings and a BBQ. Then Cheryl Love (from the cluster group of schools in Murray Bridge) invited the Elders from Victor Harbor to come along to language workshops being held at the school in Murray Bridge. They were run by the late Auntie Veronica Brodie and Mary-Anne and I attended with the other Elders.

Then I became more and more interested in learning my own Ngarrindjeri language. The biggest part that has helped me learn the language has been through singing. That's how my life has taken off. It makes me feel so good and proud when I sing in Ngarrindjeri. It feels like finally I am finding part of my identity that has been lost in me. Learning my language makes me want to learn more. But now we really need to learn how to construct sentences and use the Ngarrindjeri language more in our daily life, for example when we greet each other. I'd like to be able to speak the language just with Ngarrindjeri words for ten minutes. That's the big goal for me.

Since early 2008 the Southern Fleurieu Health Service has organised for the Elders group Tumake Yande to meet together regularly at either Murray Bridge or Goolwa to engage with the Ngarrindjeri language. We translate songs and hymns into Ngarrindjeri, and learn more of the language together. We have translated The Old Rugged Cross, and we have performed it several times now, including at the re-opening of the Raukkan church in October in 2008 (it was on the Stateline ABC TV show). We have also sung it for an ABC national radio show with the journalist Nance Haxton. The choir also gets regular requests to sing the hymn at funerals; for example, recently we sang at a funeral for one of our leaders who passed away. It was an honour to sing it for the partner of the Ngarrindjeri person who passed away. It meant a great deal to her for us to sing in language. The other songs that we have translated include Shall We Gather at the River, Just a Closer Walk with Thee and God Be with You til We Meet Again. We sang them all at the 150 year celebrations of the founding of the Point McLeay mission, now known as Raukkan, in October 2009.

The aim of the Elders program is to help improve the Elders' wellbeing, including their social and emotional state of health. The term Tumake Yande means 'caring for the elderly'. Up until 2010 I worked one day a week with this program, while the other four days I was a Community Health Worker with the Southern Fleurieu Health Service. Now I work with the federal government initiative of Closing the Gap with SAFKI Medicare Local, but I still do the same type of work of promoting good health among the Aboriginal people of the Fleurieu region. I try to break down the barriers they often feel in accessing mainstream health services, and encourage them to take up the health services that are available, especially those Aboriginal people suffering from chronic illnesses.

But I always encouraged the community to come along to our language courses held in Murray Bridge each week, and other programs offered through my employment. The programs that I am involved in operate with a holistic approach where everything is interwoven and intertwined. Language is a very important positive way of healing and making people feel good about themselves and their Aboriginal identity. Just like we weave words together in our language to make and sing songs and hymns, so too can singing in our language weave people's lives back to health.

Verna Koolmatrie's story

Nganawi mi-tji (my name is) Verna Koolmatrie. Ngapi Ngarrindjeri mi:mini Raukkan-nendi (I am a Ngarrindjeri woman from Raukkan). I was born at Raukkan, which is the home and heartland of the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia. The Ngarrindjeri are a proud mob and intensely protective of all things Ngarrindjeri.

Growing up on an Aboriginal community at Raukkan as children we were surrounded by Elders who knew much of the language and spoke it every day, even though our language had been consigned to a 'second language' due to the policies of the day, and with English being taught in the local school since the late 1800s. Still, our conversations with our parents, grandparents and extended family were always interwoven with a mix of English and Ngarrindjeri.

This was a normal part of our lives and so we always knew and spoke language naturally without much thought about it. I think it wasn't till we left our own little safe school at Raukkan and entered the world via mainstream schools, where we continued to speak our mixed language, that we realised not everyone knew our Ngarrindjeri words. White kids would look at us strange and then we would have to replace a Ngarrindjeri word with the English equivalent for them to understand what we were talking about, and then it would be like, 'oh', and we would continue on talking. All of this was just a natural part of life for us until, of course, after a while we didn't have to replace words anymore because either the white kids also learned the odd Ngarrindjeri words, or we probably didn't use our 'words' so much at school anymore.

So it is true that we never really lost our language just like our people never really lost the ancient art of basket weaving or feather-flower making, which I am proud to say that my mother has taught me to do. It was more like they were just 'put to one side' because we were being taught that other things were more important, like learning this new language, English, which everyone spoke. We were told English is what would help us get ahead in the world. So education became all important for Aboriginal people and, of course, it became a sort of trade off for a while.


Over the years we have seen a revival of interest in not just knowing about our cultural practices but actually practising them as a part of our normal everyday life and so the art of basket weaving, feather-flower making and, of course, our language has been reintroduced.

So in actual fact we have almost come a full circle because as the 'education' of our people was used to stop our cultural lifestyle, it is now being used to revive them, literally. Mary-Anne is a linguist with the university who has set up Ngarrindjeri lessons through TAFE for our community but it is really the Elders who teach. Mary-Anne helps with the linguistics and together we learn. It really is a unique collaboration because everyone contributes and an ancient oral language is not only being relearned but is now being written and recorded through dictionaries, books, CDs etc. and in this way our future generation will not only speak but write our language.

On a personal level, I too have come a full circle. I am now teaching Ngarrindjeri language to our children at Raukkan Aboriginal School, so I feel privileged. It is exciting because I strongly believe that language and identity go hand in hand. So as we learn our language, children and adults alike, we have a sense of pride instilled in ourselves about who we are as a people, in our own country. And I believe that leaves us all with promise and a hope for our future.

Overview of Ngarrindjeri language revival

The Ngarrindjeri language never went to sleep

Unlike Kaurna, the neighbouring language of the Adelaide Plains, the Ngarrindjeri language never went to sleep. As Auntie Eileen and Verna have explained, some Elders were still speaking the Ngarrindjeri language in sentences in the mid-1960s, even though some important aspects of the old grammar were lost by then. Such Elders included James Brooksie Kartinyeri, who was recorded on tapes now held in the AIATSIS collection. He would say sentences like Nowai yanun nganawi thunggari, meaning '(They are) not speaking our language'. Others speakers included Auntie Eileen's grandfather, Roland William Kropinyeri, who could speak his language freely in fringe camps, well away from the mission superintendents who enforced the English-only policies of the era.

It is a great credit, to all Ngarrindjeri people, that the language has survived as well as it has, despite the Elders being forbidden to speak their language or practise their culture during the assimilation era of the past century. Government authorities insisted that the children learn English in mission and reserve schools, in much the same way that Aboriginal children have been forbidden to speak their own languages for four hours each day in remote schools in the Northern Territory in recent times. Fortunately for Ngarrindjeri, the language continued to be used by a number of very stubborn Ngarrindjeri Elders, as well as by some of the exempted Aboriginal people living and working away from Raukkan.

Because Raukkan was unable to support all who lived there, many Ngarrindjeri people were encouraged to apply for exemptions in order to find work off the mission, often as shearers, but also in the army or as labourers on the railways and highways. Eileen says that it was because her grandfather Roland was exempted that he continued to speak his language, and consequently passed it on to his grandchildren. So Eileen learned to pepper her Nunga English with Ngarrindjeri words, in sentences such as Ma, nakun that wurangi ko:rni, meaning 'Hey, look at that mad man'.

Language revival begins in the mid-1980s

The revival of the Ngarrindjeri language actually began in 1984 with that trip of a small group of Ngarrindjeri people to the School of Australian Linguistics at Batchelor, south of Darwin. As explained by Auntie Eileen, they were heading north to study their traditional language with the linguists Steve Johnson and David Zorc. This first group included Auntie Eileen, Richard Goldsmith, Sharon Gollan, Shirley Gollan and Lorraine Kartinyeri. They stayed there for a week, which was long enough to kindle a spark of enthusiasm in Auntie Eileen, who returned south determined to rally the troops and return the following year.

In 1985 two more trips were made to Batchelor, for longer periods, this time including Phyllis Williams and many others. While there, they worked with Steve to produce a wordlist of around 250 words, which included all the Ngarrindjeri words they could remember. Again, as Eileen explained, Steve got them to listen to tapes of other language speakers, and to think about the pronunciation of their own words in Ngarrindjeri.

At around the same time several other Ngarrindjeri people, including Auntie Marj Koolmatrie (a respected Elder), Marlene Stewart, Mark Koolmatrie and Jillian Sumner, worked with the self-trained linguist Brian Kirke in Adelaide to produce a 'Ngarrindjeri Yanun' language kit for use in schools. This was done through the South Australian College of Advanced Education. (4) The kit included a set of word cards, comic strips, stimulus cards and a tape of language expressions, all attempting to incorporate the traditional grammar of the language.

These language revival efforts were all supported by the ready supply of federal funds that were available during the financial boom years of the mid-1980s. But it seems the financial crisis that hit Australia in the late 1980s put language revival efforts on hold in South Australia.

Language revival in schools from the mid-1990s

With the introduction of the Aboriginal Language Programs Initiative funding for schools in 1999, language revival efforts were sparked in a number of other Aboriginal languages in South Australia. But the spark for reviving the Ngarrindjeri language was rekindled earlier in Murray Bridge, when the high school convened a meeting with the Ngarrindjeri community, on 15 November 1993, to gain approval to teach the Ngarrindjeri language in the high school (Herman Frank, ex-Murray Bridge High teacher, pers. comm., 2009). These classes began in 1994, and Ngarrindjeri soon became one of the school's official Language Other Than English (LOTE) programs. Ngarrindjeri is now offered at all year levels, having been taught at the Year 12 level for the first time in 2008.

In 2012 Ngarrindjeri is the most widely taught Aboriginal language in the state. It is the official LOTE for Murray Bridge High, Murray Bridge North Junior Primary, Raukkan Aboriginal School and Winkie Primary in the Riverland. It is also taught as a mother tongue program in schools, whereby the Ngarrindjeri students are withdrawn from the classroom for weekly lessons. Other schools teach aspects of the Ngarrindjeri language as a part of their Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE) program. It is also taught in a number of kindergartens and creches. Such sites in Murray Bridge include Fraser Park CPC-7 School, Murray Bridge South Primary School, Murray Bridge North Primary School, Murray Bridge South Kindergarten, Nungas' Club Creche, Unity College (Murray Bridge Lutheran School) and Murray Bridge Christian School. It is also taught in schools in the Riverland, including Romeo Primary, Waikerie High, Loxton Primary, Loxton High, Glossop High, Renmark Primary and Berri Childcare Centre. In addition, it is taught at Victor Harbor Primary and Victor Harbor High School (as a mother tongue), at Port Elliot Primary (in SOSE), at Goolwa Primary (as a mother tongue) and in Adelaide at Modbury Primary on Saturdays as a mother tongue program.

It should be said that few of the schools listed above teach much grammar, except for some high schools that have language outcomes that must be met. Murray Bridge High School, for example, tries to meet the high expectations of its Year 10 International Baccalaureate (IB) language program. (5)

TAFE courses for adults begin in 2007

In 2007 federal funding was received from the federal Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) to start teaching the Ngarrindjeri language to a group of adults who were keen to take the Ngarrindjeri language further. From 2007 to 2008 up to a dozen intensive language workshops were held, and with further funding from the Prime Minister and Cabinet, we ran weekly Technical and Further Education (TAFE) classes from October 2010 to December 2011 at Certificate III level, as mentioned earlier. Auntie Eileen McHughes has been a key Elder in the success of this program, and with the dedication of a core group of Ngarrindjeri adults the Ngarrindjeri language is now being used for new and creative purposes that we did not think were possible just a decade ago. As well as translating old favourite hymns and songs, we are composing new songs in the language and writing different types of speeches. In addition, some are using the language for rudimentary communicative purposes, such as asking someone if they want a cup of tea, and if they want sugar: Nginti wethun lingling? Pintjathawi?

In the early days of our TAFE classes we ran formal lessons in the mornings on spelling and pronunciation. Before lunch the two Elders, Auntie Eileen and Auntie Julia Yandell, another key Elder teaching the course, would give their daily spelling tests. These would be followed by formal lessons on grammar, and the use of various suffixes that go on the pronouns, nouns and verbs when they are being strung together to make sentences. The aim was for the students to develop the language skills to speak, read and write the Ngarrindjeri language without having to use English sentence structure or grammar.

In the afternoons we made Ngarrindjeri texts. That is, students thought of the many meaningful purposes for which they wanted to use the Ngarrindjeri language. They usually worked in pairs or small groups, and collaboratively constructed their own poems, speeches, stories, songs or other texts to help them increase their daily use and performance of the language. Useful resources for this exercise were the many Ramindjeri sentence examples in missionary Meyer's 1843 grammar. At the end of each day we would share what had been composed collaboratively. The classes were such a success that they were reported in the local Murray Bridge Standard newspaper on two occasions. (6)

Tumake Yande Elders group

As word got out about the language classes at TAFE, and the possibilities that Ngarrindjeri language revival offers, (7) Phyllis Williams and Eileen McHughes made a request for language days to be run for the Tumake Yande group of Elders. So, monthly language days began in 2008 at Murray Bridge, and at Goolwa in 2009. These Elders have now become an active language group that works with Mary-Anne on whatever language activities or needs arise. We have thus far fielded requests for road names for a residential development near Port Elliot, and translated a number of songs and hymns into Ngarrindjeri to be performed at special events. Auntie Julia Yandell, mentioned earlier, who recently passed away, was a key Elder involved in the language revival movement from the beginning. She is the one we often jokingly blame as we struggle to translate a particularly difficult line in yet another of her requests for a favourite song or hymn. As Phyllis said, so far this group has translated four hymns, and we perform them on a regular basis at community celebrations and funerals. A final special request from Auntie Julia was to translate her favourite song Like a Bridge over Troubled Waters into Ngarrindjeri, which we were honoured to sing at her funeral on 1 July 2012, in the Raukkan church.

In addition to the hymns mentioned by Phyllis, we have now translated enough songs for a whole CD. In fact, along with members of the TAFE classes, we have formed a choir called the Rritjarukar (the Willy wagtails), and with a federal Indigenous Language Support grant have begun recording a set of hymns, songs and traditional chants for a Ngarrindjeri song CD. This project has sparked much interest, and was featured on 3 August 2012 on the ABC TV program 7.30 South Australia (Royal 2012). (8)

Ngarrindjeri language resource production

Language revival is just not possible without quality language resources, whether they be written or digital. What has really assisted the revival of Ngarrindjeri in contemporary times is the fact that so many people in the past took the time to record what they could of the language before it ceased to be spoken fluently in the 1960s. These old (and at times hard-to-read) documents have been invaluable in the preparation of new resource materials to aid the revival process. A discussion of the 2009 dictionary project, mentioned earlier by Auntie Eileen, has been published elsewhere (see Gale and Sparrow 2010), but we briefly summarise below what has been produced in recent years. The actual production of these materials has been very much a part of the revival process itself, as Eileen, Phyllis, Auntie Julia and other Elders, plus many other community members, have all worked together with Mary-Anne to retrieve what is still remembered. We have also worked together to try and interpret and understand all the old wordlists and documents about Ngarrindjeri that are held in libraries, in the AIATSIS collection and in the South Australian Museum archives.

Through funding from the University of South Australia and federal funding from DCITA (and later the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts), we have produced the following resources in the Ngarrindjeri language:

* a picture dictionary for older students, containing all the remembered words of Elders (Gale et al. 2007)

* a picture dictionary for younger children with an accompanying CD, with the Elders pronouncing each word (Gale et al. 2009b)

* an alphabet book and accompanying CD that explains the sound and spelling system of Ngarrindjeri (Gale et al. 2009c)

* a learners' guide, which is predominantly a rewrite of old grammars written by missionaries HAE Meyer in 1843 and Rev. George Taplin in 1879 (Gale with French 2010)

* a Ngarrindjeri dictionary for adults that contains 3700 entries from 25 different written sources and 30 different oral sources (Gale et al. 2009a). (9)

The dictionary, picture dictionary and alphabet book, along with a reprint of Taplin's extracts of the Holy Bible in Ngarrindjeri, were all launched at the 150 year celebrations, on 24 October 2009, of the establishment of the Raukkan mission by George Taplin. The 1864 publication of the Bible (Taplin 1864) was the first of its kind to be published in an Aboriginal language in Australia. The Ngarrindjeri people truly had much to celebrate on 24 October.


The Raukkan community sits on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Alexandrina. Not so long ago there was much despair in the community regarding the state of the dying lake and the nearby salty lagoons of the Coorong. The Ngarrindjeri people are fresh water people, as well as saltwater people, and grew up living off the fruits of these world-renowned wetlands. So it was very distressing to watch these waters slowly die before their eyes, particularly because there seemed to be nothing they could do to save them, apart from protesting. Auntie Eileen resolved that blowing up all those weirs up-river may put her in jail, and was probably not such a wise idea!

Just as the lake has now been restored, so has the language. The community has realised that, refreshingly, much can be done to save the Ngarrindjeri language from ever dying. In fact, it is now coming back to life in a way that Auntie Eileen, Auntie Phyllis and Verna never dreamed possible. It has been a life-changing journey for these three mi:minar who have woven their language into sentences and songs as intricate and pleasing as their woven mats and baskets. And it has been a privilege to work with these outstanding leaders in this exciting yet challenging language revival movement.


Berndt, Ronald and Catherine Berndt 1993 A World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and lakes, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Gale, Mary-Anne and Dorothy French with the Ngarrindjeri community 2007 Ngarrindjeri Picture Dictionary for Older Students, Raukkan Council on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri community, Raukkan, SA.

--with Dorothy French 2010 Ngarrindjeri Learners' Guide (revised edition), Raukkan Community Council, Raukkan, SA (first edition, 2007).

--with Peter Mickan 2008 'Nripun your ko:pi: We want more than body parts, but how?' in Rob Amery and Joshua Nash (eds), Warra Wiltaniappendi: Strengthening languages: Proceedings of the inaugural Indigenous Languages Conference (ILC) 2007, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, pp.81-8.

--with Sydney Sparrow and the Ngarrindjeri community 2009a Ngarrindjeri Dictionary: First edition, Raukkan Community Council, Raukkan, SA.

--and Dorothy French with the Ngarrindjeri community 2009b Ngarrindjeri Picture Dictionary, Raukkan Council on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri community, Raukkan, SA.

--and Dorothy French with the Ngarrindjeri community 2009c Ngarrindjeri Alphabet Book, Raukkan Council on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri community, Raukkan, SA.

--and Sydney Sparrow 2010 'Bringing the language home: The Ngarrindjeri dictionary project' in John Hobson, Kevin Lowe, Susan Poetsch and Michael Walsh (eds), Re-awakening Languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia's Indigenous languages, Sydney University Press, pp.387-401.

Lindsay, Rita, Michael Lindsay, Audrey Lindsay, Verna Koolmatrie and Mary-Anne Gale 2011 'The use of song as a tool in language revival: The Ngarrindjeri experience', paper presented at AIATSIS National Indigenous Studies Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, 20 September.

Meyer, HAE 1843 Vocabulary of the Language Spoken by the Aborigines of the Southern and Eastern Portions of the Settled Districts of South Australia, Preceded by a Grammar, Showing the Construction of the Language as far as at present known, James Allen, Adelaide.

Royal, Simon 2012 'Recording Aboriginal history through song', 7.30 South Australia, 3 August, <> accessed 17 September 2012.

Taplin, George 1864 Tungarar Jehovald: Yarildewallin:Extracts from the Holy Scriptures, South Australian Auxiliary of the British and foreign Bible Society, Adelaide (reprinted in 1926 and 2008).

--1879 Folklore Manners, Customs and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines, E Spiller Acting Government printer, Adelaide (includes the 'Grammar of the Narrinyeri tribe of Australian Aborigines' and 'Vocabulary of the Narrinyeri language').

Mary-Anne Gale

The University of Adelaide

Eileen McHughes

Language consultant

Phyllis Williams

Southern Adelaide Fleurieu Kangaroo Island Medicare Local

Verna Koolmatrie

Raukkan Aboriginal School


(1.) This meant he was made an honorary 'white man' and was exempted from the Aborigines Act that controlled the lives and movements of Aboriginal people in the state.

(2.) Nunga is a word used for Aboriginal people of southern South Australia, including Ngarrindjeri people. Nunga speech, often called Nunga English, is the speech of Nungas who use English grammar, but pepper their sentences with Ngarrindjeri and Narungga words, as well as words from the languages of the west coast, such as Wirangu.

(3.) Rev. George Taplin was the missionary who founded Point McLeay mission (now officially known as Raukkan, as it has always been called by the Ngarrindjeri people) in 1859. He compiled an English-to-Narrinyeri wordlist. Rev. HAE Meyer was the first missionary to the Ngarrindjeri people from 1840 to 1848, based at Encounter Bay with the Raminyeri clan. He compiled a quality wordlist of 1750 words and a grammar. The contemporary 2009 Ngarrindjeri Dictionary: First edition (Gale et al. 2009a) contains 3680 Ngarrindjeri head words, incorporating all of Meyer's and Taplin's wordlists plus many other sources.

(4.) Kirke also worked with Narungga people to produce a kit for reviving the Narungga language.

(5.) The IB normally requires Year 10 students to read and answer questions on a 500-word text in language as a reading comprehension exercise. Because of the unique language revival program at Murray Bridge, a new strand has been introduced into the Middle Years Program IB curriculum. So the reading comprehension text they have to read is just 200 words in Ngarrindjeri, and hence much more achievable.

(6.) These early TAFE classes are discussed further in a paper by Gale (with Mickan 2008). However, since then the new Certificate III in Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language has been offered to further TAFE students. This new course was written by Gale and, following the long national accreditation process, finally put on scope with TAFE SA, requiring much more documentation.

(7.) Such possibilities include translating songs, hymns and other texts such as Dreaming stories; writing poems and new songs; providing Ngarrindjeri names for buildings and institutions on request; writing and giving speeches for public events; performing songs and dances at public event and funerals; producing books in language for school children; and using the language for communicative purposes, particularly with family and friends.

(8.) A paper on the Ngarrindjeri song CD project was given at the biennial AIATSIS conference in September 2011 in Canberra by Verna Koolmatrie, Rita Lindsay, Audrey Lindsay, Michael Lindsay, and Mary-Anne Gale (Lindsay et al. 2011). It won best presentation of the conference.

(9.) The manager of this project was Syd Sparrow, while Dorothy French and Mary-Anne were the project officers. The Raukkan Community Council holds copyright to all of these language materials, on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri people.

Mary-Anne Gale has been working in the field of Aboriginal Education since 1977. She is a research fellow with The University of Adelaide, and in recent years has been working with the Mobile Language Team supporting language revival programs in Ngarrindjeri, Ngadjuri, Kaurna and Boandik, among others. Her current focus is the writing, trialling and implementation of language training courses for Aboriginal adults wanting to learn and teach their own languages to others. This has culminated in the successful accreditation of two courses now available to any Registered Training Organisation (RTO) in Australia called the Certificate III in Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language, and Certificate IV in Teaching an Endangered Aboriginal Language.


Eileen McHughes is a respected Ngarrindjeri Elder who currently resides in Victor Harbor, South Australia. She began her work on the revival of her Ngarrindjeri language in 1984 by travelling to study at Batchelor College in the Northern Territory. Now she does language consultancy work in South Australia, and gives many 'welcome to country' speeches in the region, entirely in her Ngarrindjeri language. She was the consultant Elder for the recently trialled TAFE Certificate Ill course 'Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language', taught in Murray Bridge, and actually completed the course herself. She was an important contributor to the recently published contemporary Ngarrindjeri Dictionary in 2009.


Phyllis Williams is a local Aboriginal woman living in Victor Harbor, SA. She has worked in the primary health care industry for more than 15 years and is currently employed as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Outreach Worker with Southern Adelaide Fleurieu Kangaroo Island Medicare Local based in Victor Harbor. Her cultural background is of Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna heritage. In recent years she has studied at TAFE Murray Bridge and attained Certificate Ill in Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language, During this period of study, the students of the class have written and translated songs into their native tongue and have most recently recorded a full-length CD entirely in Ngarrindjeri. It is hoped that the CD will be released in December 2012.


Verna Koolmatrie has been working as an Aboriginal Community Education Officer at her home school of Raukkan for many years. She teaches her Ngarrindjeri language to the students, focusing in particular on building a strong sense of self-identity among her Ngarrindjeri students. Verna has also been the Ngarrindjeri language Co-ordinator for schools in the region, and in that role has travelled to many language conferences interstate, and more recently to Germany to visit the museums and archives that hold records of the missionaries who worked on her language many years ago.

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Author:Gale, Mary-Anne; McHughes, Eileen; Williams, Phyllis; Koolmatrie, Verna
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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