Head + ghost + dog = blunt ears: a curious language note




One of my few PhD fieldwork regrets is that I didn’t take the time to learn Yolŋu sign language. I had the great fortune of having a beer conversation with two long term researchers in this area last night, Dany Adone and Bentley James. Adone and Maypilama (2013) define Yolŋu sign language as  both an alternate and primary sign language. It is used on a daily basis on the Homelands, as a way to talk to each other from a distance (when out of hearing range), as a way to communicate when out hunting (when you want to be quiet for obvious reasons), and as a means to communicate things you just don’t want others to hear. Children also often use it just because. My little gaminyarr, for example, tells the most hilarious stories in sign-language, made all the more funny on account of her overly exaggerated manner of signing.

Anyway, the other day Bentley shared with me the hand-sign for the idiom buthuru-dumuk, and I found it a little big bit more than curious. Buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), is a Yolŋu-matha idiom used to refer to people who behave in an unthinking or unfeeling manner (and who upset or affront others as a result). It has connotations of being insensate, ignorant and unaware. The hand-sign for buthuru-dumuk, however, is comprised of three separate hand-signs: the sign for liya (head), the sign for mokuy (ghost, evil spirit) and the sign for watu (dog). Head + ghost/evil spirit + dog = buthuru dhumuk. How could one not find this impossibly curious?

I immediately started wondering what the associative links might be, between ‘head, ghost/evil spirit, dog’, and the meaning of buthuru-dhumuk, and/or why they lend themselves to use in comprising the sign. After giving it some thought, and having talked it over with a fellow anthropologist and linguistic friend, I came up with the following speculative thoughts and ended up where I often do, thinking about non-state sociality and social order. So here’s goes as yapa would say – a few speculative thoughts on the associative links between ‘head, ghost/evil spirit, dog’ and the meaning of buthuru-dhumuk:

The link with liya (head) is perhaps the most obvious. The head is associated with thinking and thought. The link with mokuy and watu far less so. First, a few notes on the terms themselves.

Mokuy can be used to refer to a deceased person, a corpse, or most commonly, the ghost of the dead. Mokuy, in this sense, is as distinct from a person’s birrimbirr (soul, spirit). Indeed, it is when a person’s birrimbirr (soul, spirit) has not been successfully or restfully returned to their homeland after death (through mortuary rites) that their mokuy is restless or active. Mokuy can also refer to evil spirits, which, while they are not the same as, are closely associated with galka (sorcerers). Mokuy are always unsettling and the presence of mokuy carries a sense of threat or danger. This is reflected in the hand-sign for mokuy – a claw-like shape made with the hand – which is also the hand-sign for rakuny (dead).

Watu, as mentioned, refers to ‘dog’. Dogs are enveloped within the kinship system in Yolŋu matha, and are also important ancestral figures. However, the one thing that sets dogs apart from humans, they say, is dogs have sex with their sisters (and/or any other close kin for that matter). Dogs do not follow or respect the kinship system when it comes to sexual relations.

So what of the associative links to buthuru-dumuk (literally ‘ears-blunt’), to behaving in an unthinking manner? Firstly and most generally is the fact that they all behave in a socially aberrant or transgressive manner. Indeed, the only time people really use the expression is as an explanation of sorts, for rather odd, unfortunate, immature, or ignorant behaviour.

Secondly and importantly, I think, is the fact that one cannot attribute responsibility to mokuy and watu in the same way that one would to a socialised, competent adult. This is the same with people who are buthuru-dhumuk; they behave in an aberrant manner not because they are spiteful or malicious but because they are ignorant, unaware or unthinking. In English, for example, one might say they are ‘a bit soft in the head’.

Behaving in a socially aberrant or transgressive manner, and not being able to attribute responsibility to them as one would a well socialised, competent adult. I think these are reasonably strong associative links. But what of the unsettling ‘danger’ factor, the implied sense of threat associated with mokuy? It is such a specific and potent term, I dare suggest its use isn’t or wasn’t incidental. How or why might buthuru-dhumuk be associated with an implied sense threat or danger? In the same way, and for many of the same reasons I suggest, as the term or concept of dhukun (rubbish, litter, trash) when it is used to describe social relations.

When social relations are upset and unsettled people will often describe the situation or place as dhukun-mirri (soiled, messy, spoiled). This is one of the more common ways that people describe upset or unsettled relations. When used to describe the state of relations like this, dhukun’, in my experience, connotes a potential threat or sense of danger. Social situations that are described as dhukun’-mirri are not only unsettled or upset but they carry a sense of volatility and an associated sense of threat or danger.

This may seem a rather dramatic leap – from unsettled relations to volatility, threat and danger – but social order (as I argue in my thesis) is largely a matter of affect where forms of non-state sociality prevail, as on the remote Yolŋu Homelands in Arnhem Land.

And where social order is largely a matter of affect, upsetting the state of relations (by behaving in a socially aberrant, unthinking or unfeeling manner) has potentially immediate and serious consequences. Those involved or implicated in dhukun-mirri relations hold a tension under the weight of potential conflict, violence and disorder – which is equally everyone’s responsibility, worry and concern.

Head, ghost, evil spirit, dog. Blunt ears. Socially aberrant or transgressive behaviour, the inability to attribute responsibility, a sense of upset and unsettled relations. Social volatility and a sense of potential threat and danger. Makes sense.


Does that make sense? I don’t know. Hooray!






Filed under Incidental

5 responses to “Head + ghost + dog = blunt ears: a curious language note

  1. Gareth

    Cool, erudite and very inetersting – blunt ears as “…insensate, ignorant and unaware…” similar connotations to the social space drunk people occupy in many Aboriginal contexts – disorder, volatility and threat with diminished responisibilty just as your concluding statements describe….

  2. Interesting. “the hand-sign for mokuy – a claw-like shape made with the hand – which is also the hand-sign for rakuny (dead)” — so the sign triple can be glossed ‘head-dead-dog’, right? I wonder what other senses might be covered by the signs glossed liya and watu. How is dumuk signed? (the closed fist of the watu sign strikes me as iconically fitting the sense ‘blunt’).

  3. Yes I think so – re: triple glossing as ‘head-dead-dog’. I’m not sure what the hand-sign for dhumuk is to be honest. The hand-sign for djinbulk (sharp, clever smart) is also the hand-sign for dhapirrk (neat, trim, cool [as in great/attractive/awesome/sharp kind of thing]), but I can’t think of the sign for dhumuk. I have a feeling it involves the head. I’m out bush tomorrow so I’ll ask around and let you know.

  4. Ah sorry David, I forgot to note that the sign for dog isn’t a closed fist – that’s just a reflection of the poor quality of the small photograph. The sign for dog is the sign Balanda make when they are pretending to be a kangaroo, if that makes sense?

    I asked about the sign for dhumuk over the last few days and I was consistently told there was no discrete sign for dhumuk by itself – quickly followed by: but if you want to say like liya dhumuk (head+blunt) . . . and the combination of signs was 1. birkayun (thinking/thought [signed by touching the temple with a pointer finger]) + 2. bayngu/nha: (none, nothing/what? [signed by a kind-of-twisting-the-wrist-motion with a half open hand]) but notably signed by the temple or side of the head.

  5. Thanks Bree. So it looks my thought about dhumuk was on the wrong track. (And yes I get what you mean about the “pretending to be a kangaroo” sign/gesture — the one made with both hands symmetrically, jiggled up and down eh.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s