Category Archives: Anthropology

Geertzian moments (or, ‘when ethnographers lose their shit’)


Fieldwork photo (2008)

Returning home from hunting on our Husband’s country, fieldwork (2008)


There are certain moments during fieldwork that anthropologists refer to as ‘Geertzian moments’ or sometimes ‘Geertzian cockfight moments’. These are pivotal moments when something in one’s disposition and social relations shifts dramatically. Often it’s a moment of losing oneself and behaving in a way that one wouldn’t have expected or couldn’t anticipate, and it’s not until afterwards when you pause and reflect that you realise what has just occurred. It is in that moment of reflection that the ethnographer realises they’ve reached some tipping point of enculturation. This tipping point, in turn, changes the way that the ethnographer is perceived and treated. You become less of an outsider and start to be considered and treated more like ‘one of us.’ In this sense, there’s an element of intimacy and trust involved and I suspect this is because so-called ‘Geertzian moments’ are often triggered by some stressor and the ethnographer’s response often leaves them vulnerable or exposed in some way.

To give you a sense of Geertz’s now classic ‘moment’, the following is an excerpt from ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight‘. It begins with Geertz and his wife accompanying their extended family to a cockfight in Bali. Cockfights are illegal in Bali, the police stage a raid, and so it begins . . .


‘On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves . . . .


The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions.


But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.’

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Quotations of note: Henrietta Moore on Gimi creation narratives




I cringed reading certain parts of this (see, ‘she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood’ and ‘she internalises them as a woman does a child’), but the narrative itself is super interesting and richly layered. There are elements that remind me of a lot of The Djan’kawu actually – a Yolŋu creation narrative that recounts the exploits of a man and two sisters as foundational ancestral figures for the Dhuwa moiety.


*Please note: this excerpt includes references to sexual coercion.


‘The Gimi of Papua New Guinea exchange sisters in marriage, and these dual ceremonies ideally take place at the same time as the initiation of their adolescent brothers. Before their marriage, the pairs of future sister-in-law are secluded inside the house of the mother of one of them, and, while being deprived of food and sleep, they are taught the songs and incantations necessary for successful gardening and the raising of pigs. The women pile wood onto the fire in the centre of the hut and tell the girls that the heat will make them sweat and remove their menstrual blood. Women’s gardening and pig-rearing songs are related to their myths, and to their ‘Blood’ and ‘Moon’ songs that they sing to bring their periods to a close. During the initial phases of the initiation and the rites of marriage, a girl receives spells and songs from older women. These food spells are secret and shared only between classificatory mothers and daughters, and between the mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law (Gillison, 1993: 155-9).


Production and reproduction are linked in Gimi philosophy because a woman is thought to be able to transform her life-force (auna) into food over time. She sends her auna into plants and animals through a repetitive process of singing, talking, cajoling and caressing. In a sense, she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood into other objects. Through songs and chants, a woman joins her auna with that of the plan or animal, and internalizes them as a woman does a child. But her power to make things grow, to conceive a child, originates in the source of her auna, that is, in her menstrual blood (ibid.: 199-201). Thus a woman’s body and its reproductive potential are imagined in relation to specific sets of social and productive relationships. Continue reading


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The way value inheres: Yolŋu riŋgitj and its relationship to Malay ‘ringgit’


Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.

Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Port of Macassar, 1947.


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.) Continue reading

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Sexy Hot Damn Anthropology: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism




It’s true that I often get excited by anthropological theory, but it’s rare that I am this excited and impressed. If you haven’t yet come across ‘Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism’ by Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing and Sylvia Yanagisako, then I highly recommend it.

Gens here refers to ‘a collective with feminist ancestry for the study of capitalist inequality.’ The manifesto is published in Cultural Anthropology as part of their Generating Capitalism series. The manifesto begins as per below: Continue reading


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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. Continue reading

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On violence, reality, and the parameters of social existence: A comment on Graeber’s essay.




I’ve been reading David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy lately. Slowly I should say – I’ve been reading it slowly. I’ve only just finished the second essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination,’ which I found particularly ‘great for thought’. The ideas in the essay are great to ‘think through other thoughts with,’ if that makes sense. I guess that’s theory, huh. Anyway, this is a comment on one of the key theoretical contrasts that Graeber draws between the political ontology of the right and the political ontology of the left vis-à-vis’ reality and the parameters of social existence. I want to cast a gender[ed] light on it. Continue reading


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A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading

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Government Time, Mission Time, and the nature and violence of alienation


Proud to feature in the first issue of the new Upswell Magazine with an archival/ethnographic piece on alienation – GOVERNMENT TIME, MISSION TIME, AND THE NATURE AND VIOLENCE OF ALIENATION.



Congratulations to the Upswell collective and best wishes for the future of the project. x




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On value: Revisiting D’Andrade and Graeber





I re-re-read Roy D’Andrade on value yesterday and was reminded just how interesting his findings. First, however, to give an overview on his overview, D’Andrade sets out five different definitions of value:

1) As in the phrase, ‘the value of x in this formula,’ value refers to some amount or quantity. This sense is generally found only in mathematical or linguistic discourse. There is no ‘goodness’ component in this sense of the term;

2) A notion of value that refers a preference for something, measured by the preference for that thing over another. Economists use the term ‘utility’ for this sense of value’;

3) Value as in the phrase ‘the value of IBM stock has risen 10 percent,’ which refers to price. He notes here that while utility and preference are connected to price, they are not the same thing: ‘Water, for example, has great utility for humans. But because the supply of water is normally large, one does not need to pay greatly for it (although this is changing). Price is affected by supply and demand, and so is not intrinsic to the object in the way that utility is. Value as price has a long history of debate in the social sciences, primarily focused on where the price comes from. Early economists, such as Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, thought that the price of objects came from the labor by which they are produced and that is why diamonds have more value than water. The labor theory of value was demolished by Turgot and the economists of the Austrian School who developed the marginal theory of value, although some Marxist-oriented social scientists still use varieties of the labor theory (e.g., Graeber 2001).’

I’m not sure Graeber would agree with this characterisation of his position, but anyhow . . .

4) The default or ‘unmarked’ meaning of value, which involves a sense of worth – the goodness of something. The term ‘value’ as used here refers to ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ Whether something is good or bad appears to be one of the most frequent and salient assessments that humans make. People ‘rate’ things in a way that foregrounds the factor of ‘evaluation’ – the ‘good or bad’ property of things – with a broad sample of adjectives such as ‘’beautiful versus ugly, useful vs not useful.’ In the common sense of the word values are more than just ‘goodness’; for something to be a value it should not only be good, it should also be something that is ‘weighty and important – it should be worth something.’

5) Value as in phrases such as ‘he has no values,’ which refers to a moral subset of values. A person with no moral values is someone who is immoral. ‘Such a person knows that other people feel it is good to help others and bad to steal and cheat, but does not feel this himself. But such a person may have many nonmoral things they feel are good, like money and leisure. This is a specialized or marked sense of the term value, referring to a subset of values regarding moral issues.’ Expressed as a noun, ‘goodness’ seems to be in the thing or event.’ Expressed as a verb as in ‘he values social approval’ – goodness is not in the thing but rather, in the person’s response to the thing.’

At this point D’Andrade notes that a question remains as to whether values are just thoughts or whether they include some kind of feeling: ‘As a matter of ordinary talk, people say the experience of goodness is more than just cognition. Obviously, one can know about a value but not hold it. Somebody may know it is considered good to give to charity and even think abstractly that charity is good, yet feel nothing really about charity. The internal sense of its goodness is missing. We speak of value as internalized when a person believes some object or event is good, when the person experiences a strong sense of its goodness and responds with the feelings and motivations that are appropriate to such an appraisal (Spiro 1987). Values vary greatly in the degree that they are internalized. Much of the research on values involves trying to measure the degree of internalisation.’


After his introductory overview D’Andrade eventually settles on a definition of value defined as ‘the goodness attributed to something important.’ While the body of the text is admittedly a little touch dry, his findings are both surprising and really very really interesting. Two things! Two things:


First thing. The first interesting point of note in his study is D’Andrade’s emphasis on the fact that value dimensions are contrasts, not opposites: ‘Individualism versus collectivism and altruism versus self-interest are not formed by contradictory opposites such as up and down,’ he explains, ‘but . . . this does not mean that they are not dimensions. As dimensions they are formed by the correlational structure of semantic contraries (things opposed in nature or tendency) rather than contradictories (whatever is true of one is logically false about the other).’

This is coupled with his general hypothesis is that ‘values are always a compromise in a tension between opposing tendencies’ and a further hypothesis, that ‘value standards in many domains are a negotiated adjustment to a conflict’ (see the discussion on pp. 136-137). This is a lot of food for thought and a really interesting cluster of hypotheses, I think.

Second thing. The second thing I found particularly interesting is his finding that large differences in personal values across cultures do not exist but there DOES appear to be large differences in what-counts-as-what. This. is. an. incredibly. important. and. interesting. point. I think. – and one that had me wondering how one might go about studying eliciting scenarios for values, just as one might for emotions. To give more of a sense of this finding in the context of his study:

D’Andrade’s project began with the hypothesis that ‘values are organized into empirically isolatable clusters and dimensions and that some value dimensions are common to most societies. It was also hypothesized that most societies would display culturally unique value dimensions’ (p. 12). He concludes quite differently, however, and it’s worth quoting him at length here:


‘The ideas with which this book finishes are different from the ideas that it started with. It now seems large differences in personal values across societies do not exist. There are some differences in personal values between societies, but there is close to overwhelming evidence that these differences are small. The variation within a society is many times larger than the variation between societies in personal values. This does not mean that societies are all the same. First, as has been pointed out a number of times, there are large differences between societies in what-counts-as-what. The same value can be instantiated in very different ways. The canonical example is that the practices thought to give toddlers independence in a Japanese pre-school are different from the practices thought to give toddlers independence in an American preschool.


There also are, it is clear, great differences in institutionalized values. The largest value differences seem to be between roles within a society, but to the degree that the same institutionalized values are found in a variety of institutions, whole societies can vary greatly with respect to institutionalized values, as exemplified by the value of purity in India. . . .


Perhaps the fact that cultures do not vary much in personal values will be taken by social scientists to indicate that there is little sense in bothering to study personal values on the group level. This conclusion would be a mistake because life satisfactions and physical health are affected by the fit between personal values and institutionalized values in important life-world institutions such as work and family (Rohan 2000, Meglino and Ravlin 1998, cited earlier). Also, differences between personal values and institutionalized values can give rise to social conflict. Of course, given sufficient external power applied to keep the social standards in place, as in slavery or in totalitarian regimes, the distress caused by lack of fit can be ignored. That is, until the day comes when it cannot be ignored.’


You can imagine how much I was smiling at this point. And! but! anyway! – the part of the conclusion particularly relevant to my own research and the idea of moral misrecognition:


‘Were I to begin the study of values now, I would focus on these questions about the degree of fit between institutionalized values and personal values. It would also be helpful to find some way of systematically surveying what-counts-as-what. Techniques to do this could be helpful in resolving cross-cultural misunderstandings. Unless one knows what-counts-as-what, one cannot understand much of political conflict. It is easy to describe the conflicts but more difficult to dis-cover the nature of the linkages between values and the practices. What is needed is a general theory that can be used to conceptualize the psychological and cultural processes involved.’


This had me thinking about ALL KINDS of wonderful things! Final thing. One final thing. While D’Andrade and Graeber (2001) appear to be talking past one another in many respects in their respective texts, their conclusions in fact nicely parallel or reflect or echo one another. Consider, for example, dhuwala:


‘We are back, then, to a “politics of value”; but one very different from Appadurai’s neoliberal version. The ultimate stakes of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is (Turner 1978; 1979c; see Myers and Brenne is 1991:4–5). Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively or individually) what it is that makes life worth living. In the end, then, politics is about the meaning of life. Any such project of constructing meanings necessarily involves imagining totalities (since this is the stuff of meaning), even if no such project can ever be completely translated into reality—reality being, by definition, that which is always more complicated than any construction we can put on it’ (Graeber 2001, p. 88).


AND THAT IS ALL MY STORY! There are a lot of colons in this post and erratic grammar. Goodbye.





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Two basic concepts of emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha


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The key body of concepts comprising the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha describe emotion and affective experience as fundamentally relational, as contingent upon the state of relations between people. If we ‘consider emotional meaning like any other semiotic practice, as a product of signification’ as Fred Myers suggests (1988, p. 591), most Yolŋu concepts associated with emotion and morality signify a particular state or sense of feeling among and between people. Yolŋu place emphasis not on the autonomous individual, nor necessarily even the individual self-in-relation-to-others, but rather, on the state of the relationship between people in any given situation or event.

This is not unique in the ethnographic literature. Emotions, Markus and Kitayama remind us, are typically conceived and experienced relationally, inter-personally, in the many places or cultures in which an interdependent view of the self prevails (Markus & Kitayama 1994 – but see also, for example, Geoffrey White 1994, D’Andrade 2008).

In this post I thought I would attempt to introduce and explain the two most basic terms or concepts associated with emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha. This material is from Chapter 3 of my thesis.



The most basic concept is the emotion lexicon is ŋayaŋu, which I generally translate as ‘state or sense of feeling.’ As a cultural concept of affect there are a number of things that distinguish ŋayaŋu from the meaning and use of the English term ‘feeling’ and/or ‘feelings’ because ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between what Anglo-Europeans would normally consider distinct or different ‘senses’ – touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing – nor does it necessarily distinguish between affective and ‘physical’ feeling. Furthermore, while ŋayaŋu is experienced or felt by individuals (associated with the gumurr [‘chest’]) [1] it is always and necessarily relational. Ŋayaŋu refers to the state or sense of feeling among and between people in any given situation or event. The individual experience or sense of ŋayaŋu is considered as or ‘in’ relation to significant others – and contingent upon the state of the relationship between them. This last point is significant as it gives rise to a theory of morality which foregrounds the affective influence that people have on one another in everyday life, as well as how this positively or negatively affects the state of feeling or state of relations among and between people more generally.

As something shared and contingent or mutually interdependent, ŋayaŋu is something that people can do to one another; it is something that people can give and take – something that they can exchange. Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive, negative, pleasant or hurtful, can be exchanged. A person may give wikama a particular state or sense of feeling such as gora (‘shame, embarrassment, guilt’) to another person or group of people, or märrama (‘take, bring, carry’) it from one place or person to another. Ŋayaŋu can also be wutthun (‘affronted, hit, assaulted’), or djaw’yun-märrama (‘snatched, stolen’), or more positively, ŋama-thirri-yama (‘made good’). Ŋayaŋu implicates both positive and negative capacities of the self and others in interpersonal exchange. To give a sense of the way ŋayaŋu is implicated in everyday talk, the following are excerpts from recorded discussions with yapa and waku.


Ŋayaŋu manymak – nhe yurru lakarama-mirri[2] ŋarra-kala … so you and I have to have the same feeling. Yaka  holding in.  Yaka  keeping  in-nha  anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings-ndja, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but  ŋarra-kala[3] ŋayaŋu yurru lakarama  yurru that you holding something there for me but nhe yaka yukurra djäl-thirri-ndja lakarama-nha.

(Nice, pleasant, healthy ŋayaŋu – we will tell or talk to one another . . . so you and I have to have the same feeling. Not holding in. Not keeping in anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but ŋayaŋu will tell that you are holding something there for me but you are not wanting to tell or talk [about it])


If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness-ndja and everything is still stuck in your brain  . . . then become a headache nhanŋu, brain tumour nhe yurru märrama because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself, whether it’s good or bad, see?”

(If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness and everything is still stuck in your brain . . . then become a headache for that person, and you will get a brain tumour because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself . . . whether it is good or bad . . . see?”)


Consider also the following excerpt taken from a discussion with waku. This particular part of the discussion was prompted by my asking if it makes sense to say ŋoy wikama (‘give’ the seat of emotions). I asked this question because there exist  conventional ways and means of talking about ‘giving’ various states of feeling, and I  wanted to ‘ask around’ ŋoy (‘seat of emotions’) to clarify my understanding about differences between ŋoy and ŋayaŋu in this sense:


“Yaka . . .  “märr läy-yun” ŋayi ŋunhi . . . ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu läy-yun” . . . yaka “märr wikama” wo  nhawi . . . “ŋoy wikama.” Ŋunhi-ndja ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu wikama-nha” ŋayi ŋunhi ‘doing’ – It is “doing something” . . .  to get back.

(It’s not . . . “ease [collective/ancestral] power” . . . it’s “ease the state or sense of feeling” . . . not ‘ease [collective/ancestral] power,’ or whatchyamacallit . . . “give the seat of the emotions.” What you are referring to is “[to] give the state or sense of feeling” which is “doing” – it is ‘doing something . . . to get back [i.e. mutual or reciprocal exchange].)


[ . . . ]


Ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama is, it is make yourself free . . . lay-yun . . . laytju-irri-nha, mulkurr ga rumbal-nha läy-yun-ndja.”

(To make yourself open, it is to make yourself free . . . to ease or relax . . . becoming pleasant and smooth, [to] ease or relax the head [mind] and body.)


The act of ‘giving something’ as described above, it should be noted, is not differentiated from the act of giving or ‘letting out’ one’s feeling(s) or (‘läpthun-marama ŋayi ŋunhi ŋayaŋu’). They are both associative expressions, which have meaning and significance in contradistinction to ‘holding something in for one another’ or being däl (‘hard, difficult’). Persons or proclivities that are not ‘open’ (‘ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama-mirri’), which do not ‘give’ or ‘let out’ something for one another are considered or felt to dhal-yurra (‘block up, close off’) the possibility for realising or maintaining positive, moral, valuable relations.

It is important to note that being ‘open’ is not akin to or the same as ‘being open and honest’ in English. It denotes or describes an observant attentiveness to the state or sense of feeling between people in any given situation or event – and reflects the valued ability to be attentive and sensitive to the interpersonal context –  the knowledge and ability to respond flexibly and adjust to social contingencies.[4]

Being ‘open’ is where ŋayaŋu and dhäkay-ŋäma meet; to be däl (‘hard, difficult’) is to be insensate, which is not to dhäkay-ŋäma.




The verb most closely associated with ŋayaŋu is dhäkay-ŋäma, from dhäkay (‘taste, flavour or feeling’) and the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). Where ŋayaŋu is the state or sense of feeling, dhäkay-ŋäma is the act of ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling’ of ŋayaŋu among and between people (and or place). People can dhäkay-ŋäma a person, group of people, a social situation or place. They may also dhäkay-ŋäma songs as well as things like food. An alternate but similar expression used interchangeably with dhäkay-ŋäma is dhäkay birkay’yun from dhäkay (‘taste, flavor, feeling’) and the transitive verb birka’yun (‘try, test, taste’). Dhäkay-birkay’-yun is thus something akin to trying or testing the taste, flavor or feeling. Another similar term often used interchangeably is ŋan’ku-ŋäma from ŋan’ku (‘taste, flavour’) and – once again – the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). These interchangeable expressions are often glossed by English speakers as ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling.’ The following excerpt from a recorded discussion with yapa offers an example of the use of these terms or expressions:


“ . . . ŋuli  ŋali  yurru dhäkay märrama ga birka’yun, dhäkay-ŋäma dhuwala dhäkay: “Ya – dhuwali ŋatha wikaŋa, ŋarra yurru dhäkay-birka’yun!” Taste, like dhäkay, same ŋayi mayali, eh?

(. . . if we get a taste/feeling, that’s dhäkay-ŋäma, that’s dhäkay: “Hey give me that food, I’ll get a taste/feeling!” Taste, like dhäkay, same meaning, see?)


When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . dhäkay-ŋäma ŋayi yurru yolŋu’yulŋu-nha, eh? Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; anything nhe yurru dhäkay-birka’yun.

(When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . Get a taste/feeling of those people, see?  Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; you can get a taste/feeling of anything.)


Me: wäŋa – ?
(Me: [of a] place?)


“Yoo . . . wäŋa ŋunhi ŋilimurru yurru birka’yun mak ŋayi ŋunhi milk’milk-mirri . . . mak milk’milk’-miriw. Eh bitjan, wo wiripu mak ŋayi wäŋa nunhi mari-mirri . . . wo mak  ŋayi laytju, yo, balanyara wiripu-nha ŋayi.”
(Yo, we can get a try/test whether that place, perhaps it has sandflies . . . or perhaps it is without sandflies.  See, thus so.  Or perhaps that place is conflict-ridden . . . or perhaps it is pleasant and smooth, yo, that’s a different [example].)


Consider also the following excerpt from a discussion using the interchangeable expression ŋan’ku-ŋäma:


“ . . . ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋanya yurru, ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋayi Yolŋu-nha ŋanya . . . maymak ŋayi ŋayaŋu, wo nhanŋu yätj ŋayaŋu . . . ŋan’ku-ŋänara-mirri ŋali-pi-yu Yolŋu wo whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . .
(. . . get a taste/feeling that person, they will get a taste/feeling [of/for/with] that person . . . [is it] a good state of feeling, or is that a bad state of feeling . . . they themselves will get a taste or feeling [of/for/with one another], whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . . )


. . .  ŋali yurru ŋan’ku-ŋanara-mirri feel one another feelings-ndja litjalaŋu-way because our bodies can tell us something. Dhäkay-ŋäma ŋali yurru eh balanyara . . . yo . . . we can feel our body can tell us something . . . ŋali feel with our own body whether ŋayi manymak Yolŋu or yätj, balanyara.”
(. . . we will get a taste/feeling [of/for one another], feel one another feelings our way because our bodies can tell us something. We will get a taste/feeling thus so . . . yo, we can feel our body can tell us something . . . we feel with our own body whether that person is good or bad, thus so.)



Interestingly, one of the many stereotypes of Balanda is that they are always däl (‘hard, difficult’) and lack the sense, skill or ability to dhäkay-ŋäma (get a taste or feeling). There’s obviously a lot more to say about these ideas and concepts, but perhaps some other time I hope.





[1] There are more idioms based on the word ‘gumurr’ than can be addressed here, however, to give a sense of the way they are used, or what they imply I will briefly introduce a few. The expression ‘gumurr-mirri’, translated literally as ‘having or possessing the quality of a chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to spread out.’ The expression ‘gumurr-yun’, translated literally as ‘to chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to meet’. ‘To meet’ may also be referred to as ‘gumurr-buna’, literally ‘chest-arrive’. The expression ‘gumurr-manydji’, translated literally as ‘reciprocal relationship between chests’, is an expression used to describe or refer to close friends or consociates. The expression ‘gumurr-darrwa’, which translates literally as ‘multiple or many chests’ is used to describe someone of inconsistent loyalties who is irresolute or inconstant in some way. The expression ‘gumurr-djararrk’, literally ‘chest-beloved’ is one of the more common exclamations of affection, sympathy and compassion, meaning something akin to ‘my poor dear one!’ ‘Gumurr-yu-gäma,’ literally ‘to carry by the chest’ is used to describe the act of fare-welling someone, seeing them forth or carrying them onward a way. The final example is the ‘gumurr-yu-märrama,’ translated literally as ‘to take or get by the chest’. This is the expression used to describe the act of adopting a non-Yolŋu person into the Yolŋu kinship system and wider social networks.

[2] lakarama-mirri is difficult to translate directly into English and I am not completely satisfied with this particular translation. The term or expression is from the transitive verb lakarama (‘to talk or tell [of or about]’) and the suffix –mirri which here denotes the reflexive reciprocal form of the verb – to do to one another.

[3] This term or expression – ŋarra-kala  is literally ‘with/at me’ – so this sentence could be more accurately (but awkwardly) translated as: ‘but ŋayaŋu will tell with or at me . . . ’

[4] This is, as the reader will appreciate, quite a different thing to being ‘open and honest’ in English. In fact, being ‘open’ in the sense in which it is used here often entails withholding (or highly regulating the expression of) one’s private inner thoughts and feelings – so as to maintain a state or sense of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling)

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