There are many loan words from Malay and other Austronesian languages in the Yolŋu languages of east Arnhem Land (see Evans 1992). These derive from pre-colonial exchange relations between Yolŋu people and seafarers from the port of Macassar (now Ujung Pandang) in Sulawesi. Collectively referred to as ‘Maŋgatharra’ in Yolŋu-matha, these seafarers made the annual voyage to Arnhem to collect trepang and engage in broader exchange relations with Yolŋu people.† A number of Yolŋu people also accompanied Maŋgatharra on return voyages to the Port of Macassar, as evidenced by oral history and art work such as that pictured above.
Among this body of loan words is the Yolŋu-matha term riŋgitj, derived from the Malay term ringgit, meaning ‘jagged’ and originally used to refer to the serrated edges of silver Spanish dollars which circulated widely in the region during the 16th and 17th century. Today, of course, ringgit refers to the national currency of Malaysia. (It was officially adopted as the name of their currency in August 1975.)
The historically derived Yolŋu-matha term riŋgitj, however, has quite a different meaning. It refers to an important ceremonial complex – to a riŋgitj group, the associated riŋgitj site where they ‘come together as one’ for ceremony and, by extension, to the riŋgitj madayin (sacra, inalienable property) that they hold in common. To relate riŋgitj to the broader social structure, below is a diagram that my Yolŋu sister and daughter drew of north east Arnhem Land. This is actually one of five diagrams accompanied by a lengthy descriptive exegesis of each, but for the purposes of this post . . . .
Each tree, they explained, is a bäpurru (patrifilial landholding descent group, or ‘clan’), anchored or rooted in place on their respective, associated Country. Each bäpurru is separate and discrete in the sense that it has or ‘holds’ a discrete corpus of madayin (sacra, inalienable property), however, each bäpurru is also manapan-mirri (joined, connected, linked together [to each other]) to a number of significant other bäpurru through ceremonial relations and marriage – here represented as the raki’ (roots, strings, ropes) of each tree. Bäpurru that are joined or linked together in this way are said to be waŋgany-ŋura (at one) in this regard.
To return to the diagram above, there are two slightly separate passages written diagonally on the left hand side of the page that relate to the roots (i.e. they were part of the descriptive exegesis I noted down as my sister and daughter explained this part of the diagram to me). The first reads:
‘Wanha-mala ŋali yurru giritjirri likan-lili, riŋgitj-lili?’
([The place] towards where we dance, to the riŋgitj place [that is our] connection)
The second passage, only the first word of which is visible in the image, reads:
‘Nhaltjan ŋali yurru ŋama’ŋama’-yun litjalaŋ-gu gurrutu-mirri?’
(How will we make kinship relations for ourselves?)
The circled cluster near the centre of the page was labeled ‘roots’ (in English), but this particular cluster formation was described as roots ‘toward a riŋgitj.’ The writing on this part of the drawing, diagonally below the cluster reads:
‘Raki’ dhurrwara manapan riŋgitj-gu, manikay-wu, gakal-wu.’
([We] join the end of the string [here] for ceremony, song, for [collective] power/action)
Riŋgitj, thus so, refers at once to the bäpurru who are ‘joined or linked’ together in this regard, to the associated riŋgitj site where they ‘come together as one’ for ceremony, and to the madayin (sacra, inalienable property) that they hold in common.
So, how did the Malay term ringgit meaning ‘jagged’ and used to refer to Spanish silver dollars lend itself – and eventually come to refer to – an important ceremonial complex known as riŋgitj in Yolŋu-matha? The short answer is, I have no idea! But if you’ll indulge me . . . the loan word was clearly adopted from Maŋgatharra as a result (or product of) exchange relations in the 16th or 17th century. This much seems obvious. More speculatively I’d suggest, as Ian Keen did when I emailed to ask him about this etymological association this week, that perhaps it became adopted for its connotations of value and exchange through ritual.
Finally, and far more speculatively, I’d point to the similarity between Munggurrawuy Yunupingu’s artistic impression of Port of Macassar and the depiction of riŋgitj above – both are hubs or centres where people gather or ‘come together as one’. Indeed, I could very well imagine the port of Macassar being described as a place where people from otherwise discrete groups ‘raki’ dhurrwara manapan buŋgul-wu, manikay-wu, gakal-wu (join, link, connect the end of the string [together] for ceremony, song, and [collective] power/action). And I think there’s something in that.
† For more on these pre-colonial exchange relations see, for example, Macknight, C. (2011), The view from Marege’: Australian knowledge of Makassar and the impact of the trepang industry across two centuries, or Ganter and Ganter,R. (2008) Muslim Australians: the deep histories of contact.
†† This is actually reflexive reciprocal form of the verb, so it’s actually ‘linked, joined together [to each other]’.