Languages of Australia — Burragorang (Ngunawal – Gundungurra)

While browsing the various realms of the Internet for things about languages I find interesting, this one caught my attention:

This McDonald's sign outside Yass, Australia.: CrappyDesign

Interpret it for yourself, but its supposed intended message was to notify the motorist that the Maccas’ at Yass opened at 6am. So what is Yass exactly?

It turned out that Yass is a town in the Australian state of New South Wales. It is not that big of a town, however, with a population of around 6 500 according to the 2016 census. While known for having a number of flour mills, Yass is probably also famous for its town name, which carries an etymology that I think is appropriate to cover in this long-awaited Languages of Australia series.

You see, the name Yass finds its roots in an indigenous Australian language, used to mean “running water”, likely to denote the river that flows through the town. Incidentally, the river running through the town is also called Yass. However, the language or languages of origin are more or less shrouded in relative mystery.

The region where Yass is was traditionally inhabited by the Wiradjuri and the Ngunawal peoples, who have known this area by the name yarrh, “running water”, which later got picked up and probably messed around to reach the Yass we see today. Yarrh seems to be of Burragorang origin, but even the language of origin is somewhat disputed.

The Burragorang language was the traditional language of the Ngunawal and the Gandangara peoples, but conflicting evidence exists whether or not Burragorang is one language comprising two dialects or two languages. By ISO 639-3 standards however, Burragorang is assumed to be two languages, one Ngunawal (xul) and one Gundungurra (xrd).

Anyway, for both putative languages, no concrete estimate on the number of speakers exists, and that speaker numbers cannot be confirmed. However, there are people who identify with the language / languages, and are working towards revitalising the language. This effort has so far garnered a partnership with the Ngaiyuriija Ngunawal Language Group and The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) for a cooperative research agreement to contribute to the revitalisation effort. For now, it is seemingly safe to say that this language, or these languages are dormant, and pending reawakening.

While these languages are classified under the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, the more precise classifications are more or less tentative. Within this language family, there is a branch known as the Yuin-Kuric languages, a branch mostly consisting of extinct languages that existed in the southeast of Australia. Within this grouping, Burragorang falls under the Yuin group, consisting of a bunch of languages spoken in the southern region of New South Wales. These classifications are rather geographic, however, since there is a stark lack or absence of documentation of these languages, a genealogical relationship between these languages cannot be precisely nor accurately drawn.

Many of Ngunawal-Gundungurra’s words were compiled digitally in the R. H. Matthews article published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, as The Wiradyuri and Other Languages of New South Wales. From this, we could get a slight grasp on how Ngunawal-Gundungurra would have sounded like.

For Ngunawal, at least, there are three vowels, /i/, /u/, and /a/, distinguished by vowel length, and 19 consonants, including four retroflex consonants. However, resources are rather scarce for Gundungurra, though it is pretty reasonable to assume that these two would have a fair amount of consonant and vowel sounds in common.

Likewise, leads on how either language or dialect works are hard to come by, or even not publicly accessible at all. But with the reawakening efforts underway, clues on the grammar of Ngunawal-Gundungurra might come in the near future, and I will be looking forward to that.

So this has been the story about Ngunawal-Gundungurra so far, the language from which the town Yass was named, and spurred a bunch of memes concentrated around that Maccas’ opening hours. Extinct the language may seem, but in reality it lies dormant, preparing for a time where it would garner native speakers once more.

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