A brief descriptive note on types or ‘kinds of relations’ in Yolŋu matha



I was thinking about categories of types of people/relations’ the other day, as in English we have family, friends, colleagues, team-mates etc. etc., and as my brain is oft want to do started thinking of the Yolŋu matha equivalents or comparisons – of ‘categories of types of people and relations.’ I was surprised to realise that there are so few (although more in a sense).

Reproduced below is a list of categories of types of relations in Yolŋu matha. It is probably not exhaustive, but a list of all those that I could think of at the time:



Gurrutu is the ‘main category’ of types of relations, for want of a better description. The term gurrutu is generally translated as ‘kin[ship]’. The Yolŋu kinship system is universalistic or ‘classificatory’, which means that everyone in the Yolŋu social world is and relate to each other as kin. But while it is all encompassing in this sense, there are many different ‘types’ of reciprocal kin relations within it.

There are twenty-four reciprocal gurrutu terms in the terminological system, (which is what I meant about very few but more in a sense). These terms are reciprocal in the sense that if you are my dhuway I am your galay, if you are my märi I am your gutharra, and so on and so forth. And as with kin categories like ‘uncle’ and ‘grandfather’ in Balanda (whitefella) kinship, Yolŋu kin terms refer to culturally recognised ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ of relations with attendant responsibilities and obligations.


Gurrutu is the logical or associative opposite of mulkuru (stranger/s). Mulkuru as strangers are not simply unconcerning people that one simply doesn’t know; mulkuru connote a sense or threat of danger (which makes sense in a small-scale society characterised by a universalistic kinship system).


In addition to the larger or more general categories of gurrutu and mulkuru there are a number of terms used to describe certain kinds of relations within this system. (I say ‘within’ here because they are always going to be first and foremost kin.) Perhaps the most common among these is lundu or lundu’mirriŋu, which is generally translated as ‘(close) friends.’

There are a number of additional constructions using the term lundu which are used to describe different types of friendship or lundu relations. Luku-lundu, for example, literally translates as ‘foot[print], anchor friend.’ In my experience luku-lundu describes two friends who are not only steadfast in their relationship, but steadfast (with their feet) in the foundation of rom (law).


Gumurr-manydji literally translates as ‘chest, sternum + reciprocal relationship.’ As a type or kind of relationship gumurr-manydji describes two friends who always visit, meet, or greet one other when nearby or passing by one another’s Country. These are the types of friends (who are also kin) that one always stops with at ceremony, for example, or stops to visit after ceremony.

The term gumurr, as I’ve noted before, is central to all things affect and social.


Maŋutji’ is a term that is especially dense or rich in meaning. Here it means ‘lover or sweetheart’ but it can also be used to refer to a seed, an eye, or a fresh-waterhole.

It is a bit of a naughty term in this sense, which I wrote about speculatively back in 2010.


Djukarrŋu-manydji  is another important type or kind of relationship. I’m not sure how one would translate it literally (other than to point out that –manydji is a suffix that denotes a reciprocal relationship), but it describes two friends who frequently exchange with each other.

In practical terms these are the people that you are always thinking ahead for – to collect pandanus or wild-honey for, or prepare bark, or save some turtle for – before you visit them, or they visit you, or before you’re likely to see each other at ceremony.


Goyurr-manydji is the final term I can think of. Goyurr-manydji describes the reciprocal relationship between friends who ‘always walk together,’ or ‘walk the same way together.’


A note in closing: on white people, etc.

I should note that there are also terms for white people and people of other Nationalities in addition to gurrutu and mulkuru, however, they do not denote a relationship per se, which is why I left them out.

Terms for white people, for example, include Balanda (derived from Hollander) and ŋäpaki. (These two terms can be used interchangeably.) In cases where Balanda spend a lot of time in Yolŋu communities, however, the preference is almost always to ‘adopt’ these individuals into the kinship system, as they otherwise remain outside the social universe of culturally recognised types or ‘kinds’ of relations with attendant responsibilities and obligations. People are not sure how to ‘place’ you or relate to you, if that makes sense – or to put it another way, Balanda are more likely to remain completely ignorant of the networks of relations (and responsibilities and obligations) in which they have found themselves, until or unless they are adopted and at least partially socialised into the kinship system.







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