Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

Words and Pictures courtesy David Hancock

As rich afternoon light skips across the waters of the Arafura Sea bathing the sands of Elcho Island in a golden glow, Doris Yethun Burarrwaŋa moves lithely over the beach teaching her granddaughters the dance of bäru, the saltwater crocodile.

_1056507Twelve year-old Grace Burarrwaŋa glides with the confidence of a young girl who has participated in many ceremonial events while her cousin, two year-old Rekisha Gaykamaŋu, watches with curiosity and wonder, mimicking their movements with a child’s delight.

Bäru is the main totem of the Gumatj clan of north-eastern Arnhem Land and the crocodile dance is performed at major ceremonies. Doris bends over and extends her arms forward and parallel to the beach and dips her hands – this is the ‘sign’ of the bäru and it is woven into the dance. _1056461They spend 20 minutes dancing together before moving on to search for maypal (shellfish) among the rocks. Later, the group – including Rakisha’s mother Abby Dhamarraṉdji, settles around a fire to eat and chat as the sun goes down._1056712The group talks about clan totems, relationships and country in Yolŋu Matha, the main language of north-east Arnhem Land. It is a conversation aimed primarily at Rakisha and Grace and in a way that embeds Yolŋu traditions. Interestingly, hand signs accompany all words and phrases. For example, the word “fire” (gurtha in Yolŋu Matha) is expressed as breath being expelled from the mouth in accompaniment with a hand moving from the lips, “water” (gapu) is depicted as one cheek inflated whilst being tapped by the index finger. Many words have a corresponding sign and just as words are linked in sentences, hand signals are joined to create complex phrases, capable of expressing the full range of human experience. Traditionally, Indigenous children of Arnhem Land grew up using this alternate language of hand signals in concert with everyday conversation and, importantly, in situations when cultural protocols demanded it.PIMG_5207

Photo by Angie Gray at Galiwin’ku

“In the past, every Yolŋu person whether they could hear or not, used sign (language),” Doris says. “Children grew up understanding hand signs because they see people signing all the time. Signing is used in dancing, in buŋgul (ceremonies), with hunting and also when there is a need for quietness.”Those times include initiation and mortuary ceremonies – some mortuary conventions require silence – in some groups and kinds of relations, these periods of public silence may last for years. There are also certain kinds of avoidance relationships in Indigenous culture where two people are not permitted to communicate directly. Yolŋu people – use sign while hunting, at ceremony, for decorum and secrecy and around the fish traps, so as not alert mischievous ghost’s mokuy and appease the spirits of the fish traps.Images from Elcho Island, Arnhem Land, showing the coastal landscape and floraThis alternate sign language is also useful in everyday situations such as when groups of people travel over bumpy or corrugated roads in noisy vehicles, in boats, light aircraft and communicating over distance. Young Yolŋu people are also expected to remain quiet out of respect, when visiting sacred sites, in the homelands of other families, and hand signs have always been a preferred method in making those special secret assignations.

For the small number of Deaf and significant partially hearing community, Yolŋu sign language provides a way to easily integrate into society. Doris Burarrwaŋa’s nephew Michael Ganambarr who was born Deaf is a painter, talented dancer and full ceremonial and social participant._1055313“He knows how to communicate with people,” she says. “The old people taught him by singing and clapping sticks – he can see them and see their actions. He can do the shark, crocodile and kangaroo dance and other important dances. He knows all these (ceremonial) things. He learned by reading lips, watching us closely and through actions. He has not been limited because he uses hand signs very effectively, and we all understand.”_1056226Daisy Wulumu, a bilingual teacher for 33 years, with more than 20 of those at Shepherdson College at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, the largest settlement in eastern Arnhem Land, learned Yolŋu sign language from an early age.

“My uncle was Deaf and I watched him and talked to him,” she says. “As a Yolŋu teacher, I find it is a very handy thing to use in the classroom and going out on excursions or at a school camp out bush because I don’t have to yell as much.

“Children have fun with Yolŋu sign language and I like it because it was taught a long time before I was born. It is a very ancient thing that links us to our ancestors.”

Unfortunately teaching of hand signals dropped away as Indigenous people were moved off their country and into large communities under European control. Mainstream, non-Indigenous education placed exclusive importance on English so eliminating local dialects and discouraging or banning Yolŋu hand sign in classrooms. Other factors include changed living conditions, fewer visits to country, European-style houses with walled rooms, compared to the open-air camps of yesteryear, mobile phones._1056244According to linguist and anthropologist Dr Bentley James, Australian Indigenous hand signs were not recognised as an alternate language until the mid-to-late 20th Century. Early explorers and anthropologists, such as Baldwin Spencer, noted that Aboriginal people in northern and central Australia used hand signs but no comprehensive study was made until British academic Adam Kendon published a record of Warlpiri sign language in 1988.

“in 1989 I started living with Warlpiri people in Yuendumu and his work gave me a fascination for hand signs that has stayed for a lifetime,” Bentley says. “I have been frantically gathering hand signs in Arnhem Land for the past 25 years.”_1055293Dr James is working closely with Doris Burarrwaŋa, Professor Dany Adone of the University of Cologne, in Germany, and Dr Elaine Maypilama to compile and publish a book of hand signs for the Yolŋu of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Dr James believes there are over eighteen hundred hand signs in Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) with regional variations, but we focus on a fragment of these, some 500 of the most relevant will be published – (in our new book The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land) “otherwise you couldn’t carry the book”. He says._1056815“Linguistically, we have mapped many changes in Yolŋu culture through hand signs. There is a whole raft of signs that deal with the influence of Macassan material culture associated with navigation, boats, ceremony and integrated into dance with topics such as long knives, axes, alcohol, money, and tobacco. “More recently, signs are evolving to describe a contemporary world such as signs for changing styles of telephones, televisions, ipads, credit cards, motorcars and school.”

Dr James says Yolŋu people have brought culturally inflected and intensely imaginative constructions into creating signs that represent a changing modern world. “Signs for television, air conditioning, washing machines and dishwashers signified by a rectangular outline, an iconic sign of an idea that represents a box that washes, or a computer – a box that thinks, a camera – a box that looks, a television – a box you look at, an ipad – a box you write into.”_1056802The roots of this collaboration with Doris Burarrwaŋa, Bentley, Dr Elaine Maypilama and Prof Adone reach back twenty five years with a chance meeting at Galiwin’ku. ‘None of us imagined we would still be working on this book all these years later.’ ‘So many that have helped us in this work have passed away.’

“This book is a collaborative effort borne out of a desire to give back to children the priceless inheritance of their alternative sign language, the YSL of Arnhem Land” Bentley James says. “The document includes a precise ethnographic and linguistic description of enormous interest to academics internationally.”

David Hancock


The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, has been superbly photographed by Therese Ritchie in fabulous full colour. – For Free !!!_1056921The Yolŋu hand signs for the associated Yolŋu Sign Language APP for telephone and computer are being captured by the wonderful Swedish videographer Angie Gray.

For free !_1056953David Hancock has again rendered his ample services free of charge yet again in  support of this worth while project. Thank you David.


This year 2019, is the year of ‘Indigenous Languages’ and AIATSIS is celebrating International Woman’s Day 2019 by recognising Senior Australian of the Year Laurie Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to ‘give language back to the children’.

Capture 1

Following on from the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands, this beautiful new volume, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, will be distributed for free.

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is an endangered Indigenous Language.

YSL is not a signed version of a Yolŋu language, but a totally unique and rare Australian Indigenous Sign Language, an alternative Yolŋu language for the hearing and the primary language of Deaf Yolŋu. Arising from a rich ancestral inheritance of song, dance, ritual and kinship YSL reflects an intimate relationship with the natural world. Used when speech is forbidden, in mourning, near sacred objects and in ceremonies, in dance, over distance and for stealth in hunting. This rare and endangered indigenous language is very easy to learn, however, we can make only few copies, so I urge you to buy into this book project now.

We bring together some five hundred signs of YSL collected from across North East Arnhem Land collected in striking full colour with a comprehensive learner guide to produce another rare and beautiful book.

Please help us honour Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to save Indigenous language and give back to the children their priceless ancestral inheritance

To donate email North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Managers Alliance (NAILSMA) to make a DGR tax-deductible donation or bank online to: BSB: 085–933 ACC: 140012871 Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Fund. Please include your postal address so we can send you a copy of this wonderful book when complete.

Questions, please phone Janely 0488 068 738, or email Janely.Seah@nailsma.org.au, or email: bentley.james.dr@gmail.com Mobile: 0402704354


Please pass on this information to your friends so that they may participate.







4 thoughts on “Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

  1. Hi Dr.James, your site’s posts are the most powerful I currently receive in my inbox. Invariably they leave me weeping with joy at my new knowledge, but ashamed and angry to be an Australian for what our Governments have done to our indigenous nations, their languages, cultures and ancient civilizations. I see it as more than 2 centuries of hacking away at a genocide. Thank you so much for your devotion to the rescue and resurrection of their cultures. [ Frank Baada was a year or two behind me at Moe High School…] I will contact you with regard to making some small contribution. With best regards, Carlo Canteri Newstead Vic. 3462

    • Thank you Carlo, your support is truly and deeply appreciated, thank you. As you may know after half a century Frank is retiring CEO of Yuendumu Mining Company No Liability (YMC) which had its 50th Anniversary on 20th February. YMC is a ‘countrymen’ owned ‘intervention’ that may well be the oldest surviving Aboriginal owned enterprise in the Northern Territory and perhaps all of Australia. X Students of Moe High are very wise. Hope to hear from you soon. B

  2. Karen Morton says:

    I was privileged to receive a copy of The Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands a few years ago. As a teacher of children, I shared the book with my Year 3/4 class. Together we were taken on a journey of discovery, not only through the use of stunning photography and illustrations, but by exploring an ancient Indigenous language captured in written form and thereby preserved for all time.

    The children were spellbindingly engaged when learning about Laurie Baymarrwaŋa and her determination in ensuring that the endangered Yan-nhaŋu language was saved from extinction.

    However, language is not limited to the spoken or written word.

    I am thrilled to hear that The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land is being compiled in an effort to capture and preserve this unique and rare form of communication that is the primary language for deaf Yolŋu people as well as being a vital aspect in many cultural traditions of Yolŋu life.

    Laurie Baymarrwaŋa’s vision was to save Indigenous language and give back to the children their priceless ancestral inheritance.

    These two books do just that.

    Please donate money to assist in the production of this latest book, so that it may be distributed to the children for free.

  3. […] The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land 350pp Australian Book Connection. Melbourne. Vic. […]

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