Affect, exchange and Yolŋu-matha idioms based on the term ‘gumurr’ (chest/sternum)


Two Person Friction Fire Drill


The most basic, important concept associated with affect and morality in Yolŋu-matha is ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling’). While I decided to use the English term ‘feeling’ as the final translation for ŋayaŋu throughout the thesis, there are a number of things that distinguish ŋayaŋu from ‘feeling’ as it is normally used in English.

Ŋayaŋu encompasses, for example, what Anglo-Europeans usually consider distinct or different senses: touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing.[1] Ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between ‘affective feeling’ and ‘physical feeling’ either. Furthermore – and perhaps most importantly – while ŋayaŋu is experienced or ‘felt’ by individuals, it is always and necessarily relational. Ŋayaŋu is ‘the state or sense of feeling among and between people [in any given situation or event].’ The individual experience or ‘sense’ of ŋayaŋu only exists as or ‘in’ relation to others. Ŋayaŋu is something that individuals experience or ‘have a sense of’ as a state of their relationship to or ‘with’ particular/significant others.

Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive or negative, can be wikama (‘given, passed [on-to]’), or märrama (‘taken, brought, carried’) to or from others. A person can ‘give,’ for example, the state or sense of feeling gora (‘shamed, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty’), or they might märrama (‘take, bring, carry) the state or sense of feeling gora from one place to another. People can also wutthun (‘affront, hit, assault’), or djaw’yun (‘snatch, steal’) particular states of feeling or ŋama-thirri-yama (‘make [it] good, make [it] well’). Ŋayaŋu encompasses or potentially entails both positive and negative capacities – constructive and destructive potentialities – of everyday interactions and social relations in everyday life.

From an outside observer’s point of view, the social attention given to ŋayaŋu can be seen to foreground and focus social attention on the many subtle ways that people affect and influence one another in everyday social life.

Finally, and in closing is just to note a lovely note: ŋayaŋu is generally associated with the chest or sternum, the gumurr. For this reason, there are innumerable idioms and expressions based on this term. To give a sense of what they are and how they are used, these are some of my favourites:


Gumurr-mirri (lit. ‘having or possessing the quality of [a/the] chest/sternum’) means ‘to spread out.’

Gumurr-yun (lit. ‘to chest/sternum [as an action/verb]) means ‘to meet’.

Gumurr-manydji (lit. refers to a dyadic/reciprocal relation between chests/sternums), is an expression used to describe or refer to the relationship between close friends and consociates.

Gumurr-darrwa (lit. ‘multiple or many chests/sternums’) is used to describe someone of inconsistent loyalty/loyalties, someone who is irresolute or inconstant in some important sense.

Gumurr-djararrk, literally ‘chest-beloved,’ is one of the more common exclamations of affection, sympathy and compassion – it is used to mean or refer to something like ‘my poor dear one!’

Gumurr-yu-gäma, literally ‘to carry by the chest/sternum,’ is the act[-ion] of fare-welling someone, ‘seeing them forth’ or carrying them onward in some way.

Gumurr-yu-märrama, literally ‘to take or get by the chest/sternum,’ is the expression used to refer to the act of adopting a non-Yolŋu person into the Yolŋu kinship system – adopting or ‘taking’ them in as kin.

Oh, and the naughty one (I almost forgot to include!):

Gumurr-duttji’ (lit. ‘chest/sternum + spark/light a fire with fire-sticks [i.e. with vigorous friction]’), which is when two people of the same moiety ‘get together’ and umm . . . rub together vigorously and so on and so forth sparking a fire and so on and so forth etcetera, etcetera, naughty, naughty, naughty.




[1] Indeed, the verb most commonly associated with ŋayaŋu is dhäkay-ŋäma, from dhäkay (‘taste, flavor, feeling’) + the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). Where ŋayaŋu is the state or sense of feeling, dhäkay-ŋäma is the act[ion] of ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling’ of ŋayaŋu.



Filed under Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

2 responses to “Affect, exchange and Yolŋu-matha idioms based on the term ‘gumurr’ (chest/sternum)

  1. Pingback: No cheek is an island: Body parts in Yolŋu-matha | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

  2. Pingback: A brief descriptive note on types or ‘kinds of relations’ in Yolŋu matha | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

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