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New book on Murrinhpatha questions concept of the ‘word’

Date: 8 May 2019

When former Centre postdoctoral fellow John Mansfield came to choosing a topic for his doctoral research, two things grabbed his attention: a brief description of the incredibly complex Murrinhpatha language, and news reports about young speakers in the Top End town of Wadeye forming ‘heavy metal gangs’.

“I decided to visit Wadeye myself, and from the moment I arrived I knew this was what I had to research,” John says.  

Eight years later, his major contribution to the study of that language, Murrinhpatha Morphology and Phonology, was published last month by De Gruyter.

For four years, John spent about half his time in Wadeye doing intensive fieldwork research. “While there, I became friends with some young Murrinhpatha men who generously opened their world to me,” says John. “This was something very different from anything I’d encountered in urban Australia, both linguistically and culturally.”

Book coverOne of those men is Nguvudirr Jeremiah Tunmuck, whom John hosted last year at The University of Melbourne, where he delivered a unique seminar on language primarily in Murrinhpatha.

According to the publisher’s blurb, Murrinhpatha word structure is highly complex and quite distinct from the better-known Pama-Nyungan languages of central and southern Australia. It is characterised by prolific compounding, clitic clusters, cumulative inflection, irregular allomorphy and phonological assimilation.

What does all this mean?

“Murrinhpatha really is as complex as the earlier literature suggested, or perhaps even more so,” John confirms. “Verbs carry information about who did what to whom, how many people are involved, their gender, and the manner of the action. But different verbs express these things quite differently, so you need to learn a lot of highly specific patterns.

“I’m still amazed that people learn and speak this language.” 

In fact, there’s so much going on in these verbs that they don’t really look much like ‘words’ as we would generally conceive of them. On the other hand, they do come as a single unit of speech which can’t be broken up.

For example, take the ‘word’ panthimardawiththapirrini, which translates to: ‘They were bringing them (waterlilly roots) up from the water’.

“One way of looking at this is that the ‘word’ is not a basic linguistic concept, but rather that different languages have very different types of that basic unit,” says John.

“In writing this book, I am deeply grateful to people in Wadeye who befriended me – we were all way outside our comfort zones!” says John. “I’m also indebted to those linguists who paved the way with previous research, especially Michael Walsh, Chester Street, Joe Blythe and [Centre Chief Investigator] Rachel Nordlinger.

“Murrinhpatha is a really special language, one that developed very unique ways of representing the world. By delving into the details of how it works, we get a fascinating vignette in the bigger picture of what human languages can do.”


Dr John Mansfield is an alumnus and Affiliate of the Centre, and currently researches Aboriginal language evolution in urban contexts at The University of Melbourne. Murrinhpatha Morphology and Phonology is available from De Gruyter. (Main image: Jeremiah Tunmuck and John Mansfield)

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