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Yanyuwa: The Aboriginal Language Shaped by the Sea

Yanyuwa: The Aboriginal Language Shaped by the Sea
© NOAA Ocean Exploration / Flickr
Picture of India Irving
Social Media Editor
Updated: 13 July 2018
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‘Tiger shark language’, also known as Yanyuwa, is inspired by a 40,000-year-old history forged from a deep connection with sharks.
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The Aboriginal Yanyuwa people have resided in Northern Australia‘s Gulf of Carpentaria for centuries. Describing themselves as li-antha wirriyara, or people of the salt water, they believe the landscape of their coastal homeland was created by tiger sharks.

Sand Tiger Shark
Sand Tiger Shark

The story of the birth of the Yanyuwa is one of the oldest tales in the world, dating back 40,000 years. It tells of the gulf and the rivers that flow around it as being carved into the landscape by the movements of the shark, who rejected by many creatures that crossed his path, had to keep swimming in order to find a home. The people call this creation myth their ‘dreaming.’

The tiger shark is so pivotal within the culture that Yanyuwa language has five different words for shark and a plethora of words to describe sea-related imagery. To say that light beams are shifting through the water for example requires multiple words in most languages, but in Yanyuwa it takes only one: yurrbunjurrbun. There is even a combination of two words, narnu ngawurrwurra, which means clouds casting a shadow on the water’s surface. Such evocative descriptors illustrate the people’s true connection with nature and their ocean.

The language is also one of the few in the world where men and women speak different dialects. Yanyuwa even has its own sign language, which was used during hunting to keep noise to a minimum, and a children’s language called ‘string language,’ which involves tying string together in various patterns to represent words. Aboriginal people in the past were forced by the government to speak English, so there are not many Yanyuwa alive today able to speak their native languages. In fact, there are only three women left who speak the women’s dialect and a handful of men who speak the men’s. Those who continue to communicate traditionally and attempt to pass the language on to future generations are fluent in a tongue inextricably entwined with the tiger shark and with the sea.

The sea creature sacred to this people is considered ‘near threatened’ according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but its heartbeat pulses steadily within Yanyuwa culture.

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