Yolngu kinship, beautiful pronouns, and other such wonderful things . . .

‘Warwu’ (2012) by the late Gulumbu Yunupingu

Being gurrutu is a ‘fact of life’ for Yolŋu people – akin to what it ‘is’ or ‘means’ to be a socialised, moral person for Balanda (‘white people, Europeans’).[1]

And as with kin categories like ‘uncle’ and ‘grandfather’ in Balanda kinship systems, Yolŋu kin categories refer to culturally recognized ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ of relations with attendant responsibilities and obligations.

The gurrutu system is ‘universalistic’ in the sense that everyone is considered gurrutu and refer to each other as such using the appropriate reciprocal gurrutu term. (There are twenty-four reciprocal gurrutu terms comprising the terminological system). These gurrutu terms are reciprocal in the sense that if you are my dhuway I am your galay, if you are my märi then it follows that I am your gutharra (and so on and so forth). The suffix ‘-manydji’ is added to gurrutu terms to denote or refer to the relationship between people –  the  relationship that they share – as one reciprocal relation. This is referred to as a ‘dyad’ or dyadic kin relationship.

While all people are potentially kin, Yolŋu assess the quality of relatedness along a dimension of distance. People distinguish between galki (‘close’) and daŋaŋ (‘full’) kin, in contrast to those who are barrku (‘distant, far off’), and therefore only märr-gaŋga, (‘a little bit’) or nyumukuniny (‘small’) kin. It would be impolite and offensive, however, to describe a relationship as barrku (‘distant, far off’) or nyumukuniny (‘small’) in the presence of the person or persons in question. Similarly, while the suffix –mirriŋu is added to kin terms to denote ‘one’s own’ kin, as in waku-mirriŋu (‘[own] child’), it is generally impolite to use such exclusive modes of expression unless addressing the person in question directly.

Generally speaking, actually, it is impolite to use any exclusive modes or terms of address without specific cause or reason. For this reason, people pay special attention to the use of inclusive and exclusive forms of pronouns.




ŋarra  –  I, me.
  –  you.
–  he, she, it.



ŋali  –  (inclusive) we, you and I.
  –  (exclusive) we two, not you.
  –  (exclusive)  you.
–  (exclusive) you two, those two.



ŋilimurru  –  (inclusive) we, you and us, all of us.
  –  (exclusive) we [three or more], not you.
  –  (exclusive) you.
  –  (exclusive) they.


And just because I love the suffixing joy’joy of Yolŋu languages

ŋarrakala  –  with me
nhokala  –  with you
ŋalinyalaŋbala  – 
with you and I
–  [away] from me
ŋanapurruŋbalaŋuŋuru  – 
[away] from us [three or more], not you.
ŋanapurruŋbalaŋuwuy  –  about/pertaining to us [three or more], not you.




[1] The term gurrutu refers to ‘kin[-ship], relation[-ship]. Anthropologist Ian Keen rightly notes that a case could be made for avoiding the use of ‘kin’ and ‘kinship’ exclusively because gurrutu contrasts with mulkuru (‘stranger, a person with whom one has no relationship’), and so denotes the existence of a social relationship. He recommends retaining the term ‘kin’ as well as ‘relation,’ however, because gurrutu as a category or ‘kind’ doesn’t contrast with other ‘kinds’ of social relationships like ‘friends’ or ‘colleagues,’ etcetera, and because gurrutu relations are based or ‘computed’ (for want of a better term) on what anthropologists recognise as genealogical relations.


Filed under Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

6 responses to “Yolngu kinship, beautiful pronouns, and other such wonderful things . . .

  1. Marrkap-mirri. Yurru rumbal ŋarra (bitjan bili) bawa’-mirri anthropologist 😉

  2. Pingback: Link love: language (48) « Sentence first

  3. Anthea Nicholls

    I was delighted to be introduced to your blog today, by following links in an email from my colleague (and former PhD supervisor) Michael Christie. I am involved in a Language Learning Group here in Ramingining and was contemplating putting together a worksheet called ‘The wonderful world of -gu-ku-wa’, because I too find suffixing in Yolngu Matha, quite seductive. I shall be reading more, and look forward to it.

  4. Hi Anthea, lovely to meet you – even if remotely and internet-kurru, and thanks for the kind words.

    Your Language Learning Group sounds fantastic – CDU seem to be doing such wonderful, important “on the ground” work with Indigenous communities in the NT – an example other universities would do well to learn from!

    Ah yes, suffixing! I’m such a fan as you can probably tell. Please let me know if you do end up making that worksheet. I’d love to read it. My PhD advisor, Frances Morphy, once commented on a draft chapter of mine that “An entire PhD thesis could be written on the suffix -buy/-puy/-wuy” and I think she’s right. They are both seductive and wonderfully rich/dense in meaning/reference.

    • ganyu

      Hello again! It is amazing to have this means of finding people with shared interests out there in this complex, crowded world. All a bit wild for someone who can remember the introduction of TV to their country town in the 50s. We used the -gu-ku-wa worksheet last night and I can see that some in the class were picking up on that intense pleasure of being taken on a language adventure and others were on the verge of being overwhelmed. They are such a great group so we’ll need to look after each other. Happy to share our worksheet but not sure how you do it on a blog!

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