Back to listing

Blood words

Archiving, Nick Thieberger, Shape

Date: 10 August 2017

The Science Gallery Melbourne has opened its first ever exhibition, on the intriguing topic of blood.

Called 'Blood: Attract and Repel’, the exhibition includes an interactive map demonstrating the word for blood in over 200 Indigenous Australian languages. The map was created by CoEDL CIs Rachel Nordinger and Nick Thieberger, both also of the Research Unit for indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne. At the bottom of this article is a video showing how the map is used.

The map highlights the extraordinary linguistic diversity of Indigenous Australia reflected both in the sheer number of languages across the continent, and in how different they can be.  The map toggles between one view showing numerous Indigenous Australian languages and their localities (700+ language names and locations across Australia) and a second view where the word for ‘blood’ is given in over 200 of these languages (40 with accompanying audio).

Visitors to the exhibition view the interactive map showing words for blood in over 200 Indigenous Australian languages

“What is fascinating with the view showing the many words for blood, is to see how similar and different these terms are across Australia,” said Associate Professor Nordlinger. “In some regions, such as the Daly region of the Northern Territory, there are many languages in a relatively small space and yet the words for ‘blood’ are all completely different.”

Dr Thieberger says a number of archival resources were used to bring the exhibit together, including the famous map of Indigenous Australian languages by Norman B. Tindale. “I also got permission from the Macquarie Library to use the map that they published in 2005,” he said. “Much came from published sources, but we also put out a call for words and had many sent to us, together with recordings of the spoken word.”

Associate Professor Nordlinger said the most time-consuming part was collecting the data, making sure it was in a consistent format and finding the right geo-codes for each language to associate it to the right part of the map.  “We had lots of help from other researchers, community members and Indigenous language speakers who provided us with much of the data. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Dr Thieberger said in time, the word for blood in further Australian languages could be added to the map but in some locations, there are gaps for a significant reason, “In some parts of the country the word for 'blood' is considered inappropriate for public use, so we followed local advice not to use words from those areas.” 

Both researchers found the process rewarding. Associate Professor Nordlinger said where English just has one word ‘blood’, many Indigenous languages have multiple words such as words for animal blood, blood from cooked meat, congealed blood, and so on. “I’m constantly reminded of what a rich resource these languages are,” she said. 

The exhibition runs from August 2 – September 22 at the Frank Tate Building at the University of Melbourne, in Parkville.

You can find out about the overall exhibition here:  and the blood map here:  You can also click on the below image to see how the map works.

Select image to play

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University