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Historic seminar in an Indigenous language

Shape, University of Melbourne

Date: 17 December 2018

In September, the Research Unit for Indigenous Languages (RUIL) at the University of Melbourne hosted a unique seminar on language. The seminar on ‘Yederr country and language’ was presented by Nguvudirr Jeremiah Tunmuck, an Indigenous man from Wadeye, Northern Territory.

Nguvudirr is a 35 year-old Magati Ke man and speaks Murrinhpatha as his first language. He presented the seminar together with university colleagues Dr John Mansfield (COEDL affiliate and alumnus) and Tony Goodfellow. Nguvudirr delivered the seminar primarily in the Murrinhpatha language, with John Mansfield providing translations in English.

To the best of our knowledge, this may be the first time that an academic seminar has been presented at the University of Melbourne in an Indigenous language!

Nguvudirr began by introducing his traditional country, a place called Yederr, and showing how this relates to the contemporary town of Wadeye:

Yederr country map

Kanhi-ka da Yederr. Kardu Yek Yederr kanhi pirrim, i Murrinh Ke parnamngerren. (“This is Yederr country. Yederr tribe people live here, and they speak the Magati Ke language.”)

He described different languages and ways of speaking in the area: his traditional language, Magati Ke, his adoptive language Murrinhpatha, as well as differences between older peoples’ ‘heavy’ speech and younger people’s ‘light’ speech.

Murrinh Yitthit heavy language

Puguna murrinh yitthit pardengerrentha. Murrinh muntak, da nginalminh-kathu. Murrinh pumamkathawingawurt.
(“These two brothers spoke heavy language. This is old language, from the roots. These two brothers recorded that language.”)

Nguvudirr then presented a recently made video showing how his brothers and nephews harvest tamarind fruit near the beach at Yederr. The technique involves older boys climbing high into the branches and shaking out fruit for the younger boys to collect below. The video was stopped at various points to explain interesting features of the language that the boys were using.

This was an important first for the University of Melbourne, but it was also an important professional and cultural experience for Nguvudirr. He has worked with linguists at Wadeye for a number of years, but this was his first visit to a university, and his first visit to Melbourne.

As part of his visit, Nguvudirr also enjoyed seeing an AFL finals match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the Melbourne Demons disposed of the Hawthorn Hawks), and was lucky to experience some late-season snow at Mount Buller. Nguvudirr expressed his admiration for snow’s capacity to reveal animal tracks.

The seminar was attended by a small but rapt audience of academics from Linguistics and other Arts disciplines. Nguvudirr’s 10-day visit to Melbourne was part of an ongoing RUIL scheme to facilitate Indigenous language workers from remote communities engaging with the linguistic research in a university setting. The scheme recognises the asymmetry of the more typical situation, where Indigenous speakers provide crucial knowledge and skills for linguistic research, but may have little opportunity to see how this knowledge is deployed in an academic setting.

Nguvudirr Jeremiah Tunmuck and John Mansfield



(Main image: Nguvudirr Jeremiah Tunmuck and Dr John Mansfield. Third image: † Chester Street of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and † Panbawa Gregory Mollinjin of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Wadeye.)

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