Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land

ABSTRACT: Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is a unique endangered endemic sign language of the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land. YSL is not a signed version of the locally spoken language. YSL is an alternate language for hearing Yolŋu. It is the primary language of Deaf Yolŋu.[1] YSL has a rich ancestral heritage in dance, ritual and kinship reflecting an intimate relationship with the natural world. We describe something of the project, bimodal-bilingualism, the history of YSL and motivation, from a Yolŋu perspective, for collecting, recording and distributing this unique sign language and crucially how to contribute to, and obtain a copy. More so, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign describes the grammar, vocabulary, structure and conventions of YSL in an easy to use and beautiful full colour guide for learning, to be distributed, free of charge, to the children of North East Arnhem Land, in honour of Baymarrwaŋa’s vision.SAVE YOLNG SIGN PDF NEW


The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land presents research from the fields of the ethno-linguistics of alternate sign language and the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous Australian culture. (Kendon (1988) Adone and Maypilama (2014), (2016), Adone et al. (2017)). The work focuses on the endangered Yolŋu Sign Language [2]. Over the last twenty five years we have documented the varieties, use, grammar and principles of YSL with a view to making that research a repository for disappearing signs and available to all. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land will achieve this and more, but it needs support.

2019 is the year of ‘Indigenous Languages’. Also, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is celebrating International Woman’s Day in 2019 by recognising Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, the 2012 Senior Australian of the Year, and her vision to ‘give language back to the children’. With her vision at its heart, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land documents, explains, illustrates and teaches the vocabulary, alphabet and grammar of YSL, with captions and text in Yolŋu and in English. The growing popularity of spoken Yolŋu will improve the prospects for this barely known and increasingly endangered language. The book honours the vision of Laurie Baymarrwaŋa and gives opportunities for all to be part of, and contribute to, the aims and aspirations of this profound work. This project, if supported effectively, will ensure the future of YSL.

YSL, once known as Murngin Sign Language, is an endemic sign language of the Yolŋu community of North East Arnhem Land.[3] As previously emphasised YSL is not a signed version of any spoken Yolŋu language but an alternate language of sign for hearing Yolŋu people, and a primary language for the Deaf (Adone 2016) YSL, having evolved to communicate and respond to the unique and complex ritual and religious life of the Yolŋu people, reflects their intimate relationship with an ancestral geography and kin based universal view. (Morphy 2008). Distinctive characteristics entailed in an absolute Frame of Reference for spatial expression and powerfully developed schema of signed kinship relationships (Levinson 1996a). YSL is used during periods of mourning when speech is culturally forbidden. It is also used in the presence of sacred objects and sacred sites, during ceremony and in the company of poison kin. YSL is also used for practical reasons, such as communication over distance, secrecy or for silent hunting practice. In the past YSL was learned from birth along with spoken language but its intergenerational transmission has been severely diminished by changes imposed (both deliberately and coincidentally) by the Settler State.

Anthropologist Lloyd W Warner collected the first seventy signs of YSL on the Crocodile Islands while visiting there during the period of 1926-9. Those signs, bar a few changes, are still in use today. Warner, like Vogelin et al. (1963:25) noted a widespread “culture of multilingualism” but as yet had not recognised the multilingual bimodalism of alternate sign languages. The field of Sign Linguistics defines ‘bimodal-bilingualism’ as the ability to use both spoken and signed languages to communicate. Bimodal-bilingualism is common practice in Australian Indigenous societies. In these societies the hearing population often use several spoken languages (auditory modality) and are also fluent in an Indigenous sign language (visual modality). (Kendon (1988) Adone and Maypilama (2014), (2016), Adone et al. (2017)) Common bimodal-bilingualism, with the exception of Native American communities, is rare elsewhere in the world (Farnell 1995, 2003). Bimodal-bilingualism is an aide to communications among geographically and linguistically distant groups. (Adone et al. 2017)

It is not clear how bimodal-bilingualism on the Australian continent came to be so ubiquitous, perhaps it was born of the continuity of countless generations in place, and its changing of environment over eons. Aridification, uncertain ecological carrying capacity and subsistence economies promoted long distance networks of ritual, marital (connubial) and economic relations, thus stimulating multilingualism and bimodal-bilingualism across geographically distant groups speaking different languages.[4] Ethnographic and linguistic evidence from the languages of Arnhem Land describe profound linkages between the Yolŋu experience of connection to place and each other as kin. It is this singular kin-based universal view and linked ancestral geography that anchor Yolŋu society to sites in place. The deep connections of place, of sites, songs and kin, in physical and social space, form a network of relations that anchor kin to country, evident in Yolŋu languages and YSL. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land records in vibrant colour the bimodal metaphors, idioms and signs of the Yolŋu experience of kin and country.

The accelerating loss of YSL motivated us to conduct this vital research and produce this beautiful handbook. We are a team of Yolŋu and non-Yolŋu people committed to record, retain and pass on this ancestral Inheritance of our languages and links to country. We are brothers and sisters in our commitment to this language. We do it for the children and for the future of Yolŋu society and the broader society that will be impoverished if YSL is allowed to die out. We continue to tell the story of how we were given these gifts by the ancestors and how we continue, despite official indifference, to care for and replenish our rare languages and our history. The following is an expression of the aims of this project from a Yolŋu perspective and is translated into English below.

Yolŋu’-Yulŋuy ŋuli ga ḻakaram dhäwu goŋdhu

Rumbal-yu dhäruk, dhuwandja djorra’ Yolŋuw ga Yolŋu yan, yuṯaw djämarrkuḻiw’yalalaŋumirriw. Djämany napurr balandawal mala dhuŋgarra ŋupan ga märryu ḏapmaram Djalkiri Rom, ga nhämunha wäŋa limurruŋ riŋgitjkurr. Ŋuruŋi yolŋuy wala gan nhäŋal ga ŋäkul nhaltjarr gan ŋaḻapaḻmirr limurruŋ nhinan baman’. Limurr dhu dhärra ga mel-gurrupan limurruŋguwuy djäma märr walal dhu yuṯay Yolŋuy nhäma ga marŋgithirr limurruŋgal. Ga balanyamirriy napurr ŋunhi dhäwuny lakaram nhaltjarr gan limurruŋ ŋaḻapaḻmirr nhinan baman’birr, napurr yuṯakum dhuwal dhäwumirr djorra’marŋgikunharaw yuṯaw Yolŋuny. Napurr Yolŋuy dhu marŋgikum yuṯany Yolŋuny ga dhärray walalaŋ ga marŋgikum yan yuwalkkum Djalkirriw Romgu walalany.

Nhä dhäwu ga lakaram dhiyal djorra’ŋur ga nhäpuy?

Dhiyal djorra’ŋur ga lakaram dhärukpuy ga nhatha ŋuli limurr bäki. Yuṯa Yolŋu dhu marrtji ŋuthan ga marŋgithirr nhaltjan dhu dhäruk bäki rumbal-yu yan ga balanyakurr marŋgithirr waŋanharaw nhaltjan napurr dhu waŋa goŋ’dhu yan. Ŋurukaliyi ŋunhi ŋayi  buthurumiriw ga dhärukmiriw yolŋu, wiripuŋuy yolŋuy mala ŋuli bäki dhäruk rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu. Napurruŋ ga ŋorra’ barrkuwatj yäku mala nhakun dhäruk-miriw ga dhoŋulu, yan rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu napurr dhu dhäruk dhawaṯmaram walalaŋgal.

Dhäruk napurr ŋuli wiripuny dhawaṯmaram buŋgulkurr goŋ’dhu ga rumbal-yu napurruyingal rrambaŋi yan Djalkarikurr Romgurr, dhuwalatjan napurr ŋuli ŋamaŋamayun napurruŋguwuy ŋaḻapaḻmirriny. Waŋanhamirr wiripuny napurr ŋuli rumbal-yu ga goŋ’dhu ŋunhi napurr ŋuli nhina ga muŋa-muŋany yan, bawalamirrŋur, balanya nhakun wakir’ŋur, buŋgulŋur wo wakalmirri’ŋur. Dhärranayŋu nhininyŋu dhuwal rom napurruŋ. Napurr wäŋa nhininyŋuy ŋuli ga nhäma, wäŋa ga marŋgi nhaltjan napurr ga nhina rakikurr ŋunhi ga ŋayatham wäŋay ŋarakay, märr dhu djämarrkuḻi’marŋgithirr dhiyaŋ dhäwuy.

Bili dharrwa ga mulkuru rom marrtji yuṯay yolŋuy ga bäyŋu dharaŋan baḏuwaḏuyunamirr rom. Napurruny ga wiripunywuy yup’maram ŋunhi wanhaŋuwuy napurr yuwalk, balanya nhakun napurruŋgiyingalaŋaŋur yirralkaŋur mala, bäyŋu dhukarr ga ŋorra nhakun nhinanharaw ŋaḻapaḻmirriwal ga buluŋuw marŋgithinyaraw Djalkiriw Romgu ŋamaŋamayunaraw. Dhumukthirra marrtji romdja balandany marrtji ŋurruthirra romdja marrtji ḏälthirra. Mulkuruynha romdhu ga nhina dhiyaŋuny bala balanya nhakun mobile-yu ga TV-nha. Ŋunhi baydhi limurr dhu ga nhina dhiyaŋ romdhu ga yaka yan limurr dhu moma limurruŋguwuy Djalkari Romdja dhuwaliyi mala ŋunhi gämurruny napurr nhina ga ŋamaŋamayundja dhuwal dhäwumirr djorra’ yuṯaw yolŋuw yalalaŋgumirriw.

English translation.

We are working hard to keep the precious knowledge about our world fresh and pass it on to a new generation following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Many great people have come in front to show us how to live and pass on this important knowledge. We must continue to show the way for those who come behind. We are the people who are the guardians of the land and the knowledge for the new generations.

what this book is for and about

This book is about the language we Yolŋu use to communicate with each other when we don’t want to speak. Before, every Yolŋu child would grow up learning sign language as they learn to speak their language. We learn to speak and sign. People who can’t hear and people who can all use this language. We have a number of names for this alternate language of signs. We call it ḻakaram goŋdhu

Here is a language we use in dance, in ceremonies celebrating the ancestors. We follow their actions and movements, we mimic the way that they created the world we live in. We perform the characteristics of the ancestors in signs that celebrate their gifts to us in the form of the world, language, in the way we live our lives.

This is a way of talking when silence is needed, in hunting, in ceremony, for fun. It is a natural part of life. We people of the land have signs that we read, talk, know and understand that show our connection to each other, to our country, it is part of our heritage. It is something we want the children to know.

This language is endangered for many reasons that stem from the coming of the colonists. The routines of community life are diminishing opportunities to visit and reside on homelands, opportunities to travel to and participate in ceremonies, less time spent with elders, and western styles of teaching, curriculum and changing technologies and attitudes have left less space for our sign language to be used. The television and recent small screen phenomena have also changed the way we see ourselves and communicate. Even though these things are changing it is still important to care for our ancestral heritage.

End of translation.

The success of distributing the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands for the kids of North East Arnhem Land demonstrates the practical on the ground value of this strategy. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, is poised to save this unknown Indigenous Language and bring it to light.

We need your support to bring over five hundred signs of YSL collected from across North East Arnhem Land together in an exceptional and substantial volume.

Help us honour Baymarrwaŋa’s vision to save this Indigenous language and give back to the children. There will not be many. Email your donation into the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Account with your name and postal address so we can mail to you your copy on completion.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Managers Alliance (NAILSMA) is again offering DGR tax-deductible donation capacity: BSB: 085–933 ACC: 140012871 Yan-nhaŋu Atlas Fund Phone Janely 0488 068 738 or

Email Janely.Seah@nailsma.org.au

E-mail: bentley.james.dr@gmail.com

Mobile: 0402704354

Help us save Yolŋu Sign Language at:





Adone, M.C.D. (2014)“Research Report: Indigenous Sign Languages of Arnhem Land.” Australian Aboriginal Studies (AIATSIS), vol. 1, , pp. 132-136.

Adone, M.C.D., & Maypilama, E.L. (2015). The Sociolinguistics of Alternate Sign Languages of Arnhem Land. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts [Special Issue: Indigenous Sign Languages], 16, 14-25. doi: 10.18793/LCJ2015.16.02.

—- (2014a).A Grammar Sketch of Yolŋu Sign Language. München: LINCOM.

— (2014b) “Research Report: Bimodal Bilingualism in Arnhem Land.” Australian Aboriginal Studies (AIATSIS), vol. 2, 2014, pp. 101-106.

Adone, M.C.D., Elaine L. Maypilama, B. James and Melanie A. Brück. Anchoredness in Nature and Environment: Linguistic Evidence from Indigenous Australia. Paper presented at the Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne) 1.3.2015

—- in press, (2018a) Yan-nhangu Language of the Crocodile Islands: Anchoredness, Locatedness and Connectedness. Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne).

—- in press, (2018b) A Signed Lingua Franca in Arnhem Land. Centre for Australian Studies Universität zu Köln (Cologne).

—- in press, (2017a) Indigenous Languages of Arnhem Land in Key Concepts in Indigenous Studies Routledge Press, Series editors G. N. Devy and Geoffrey V Davis.

Baymarrwaŋa, L, James, B (2017). ‘Voice of the Land: Laurie Baymarrwaŋa in Aigner, K (editor), 2017.  Australia: the Vatican Museums collection.  CittaÌ del Vaticano : Edizioni Musei Vaticani.

—- (2014) Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. pp.576. The Tien-Wah press, Singapore & Sydney Australia.

Baymarrwaŋa, L. James, B. and Lydon, J. (2014), ‘The Myalls’ Ultimatum’: Photography and the Yolngu in Eastern Arnhem Land, 1917 in J. Lydon (ed) Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies, (Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press)

James, B., (2019) Fish Traps of the Crocodile Islands: Windows on another World in At Home on the Waves: Human Habitation of the Sea from the Mesolithic to Today eds Tanya J. King & Gary Robinson, Berghahn Books New York-Oxford.

—- (2015) The Language of Spiritual Power: From Mana to Märr on the Crocodile Islands. In Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (Ed Toner P.G.).pp.235-263. ANU Press Canberra.

Kendon, A., (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia. Cambridge UP.

Levinson, S. C. and D. P. Wilkins (eds.) 2006. Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maypilama, E.L., (2012) Cross- Modal Contact in Shared-Signing communities: Kinship. Paper accepted but not presented for the EuroBABEL final Conference hosted by the European Science Foundation, Leiden, The Netherlands, 23-26 August.

Maypilama, E.L., & Adone, D. (2013). Yolŋu Sign Language: An undocumented language of Arnhem Land. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, 13, 37-44. doi: 10.18793/LCJ2013.13.05.

—- (2012a) Non-Manual Features in an Alternate Sign Language. Invited paper presented at the National Institute for Deaf Studies and Sign Language. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. July, 2012.

—- (2012b) Yolngu Sign Language an Alternate Sign Language? Invited paper presented at TELC meeting, Charles Darwin University, Darwin. Australia. August 2012.

—- (2012c) Language Mixing between a spoken and signed language: A Case Study of bimodal bilingualism. Paper presented at the Workshop on Language Contact. University of Aarhus. Denmark April 11-13th April 2012.

Morphy, F., (2008) Invisible to the state: Kinship and the Yolngu moral order. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) seminar series, Wednesday, 29 October 2008. ANU. Canberra.

Warner. L. W., (1937), A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe. Harper and Brothers Publishers. London, UK.

—-1978 Murngin Sign Language in Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia volume 2 eds, D. Jean Umiker-Sebeok and Thomas A. Sebeok. Indiana University Bloomington. Plenum Press New York and London.


The authors would like to thank,

Forrest Holder, Ferg Ferguson, Glenn James (HBDay-2U), Janely Seah, Therese Ritchie, David Hancock, Lavinia Landa and Ricky Archer.

This collaboration between Elaine Maypilama, Marie Carla Dany Adone and Bentley James began in 1994 when the three met and proposed to write a book on YSL. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land is encouraged by sustained Yolŋu support and has continued to collaborate with Yolŋu elders from Blue Mud Bay in the east to the sunset west of Milingimbi in the Crocodile Islands, to document, share, inform and entertain through YSL.[5]

Author’s Biographies.

Dany Adone is Professor and Chair of Applied English Linguistics at the University of Cologne. In Australia, she is also a University Professorial Fellow at Northern Institute/Charles Darwin University, a Visiting Professor at AIATSIS and a Visiting Scholar at the Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre in Kununurra.

Elaine Läwurrpa Maypilama is a Principal Research Fellow in the Northern Institute, College of Indigenous Futures, Arts and Society. Dr. Maypilama is a senior Yolŋu educator and researcher with a wide range of research experience related to nutrition, child and maternal health, hearing loss, sign language, chronic disease, intercultural communication, child development and program evaluation.  Läwurrpa is widely respected for her high level of expertise in developing and conducting culturally responsive and high quality research.

Bentley James, MA Linguistics, PhD Anthropology Australian National University has lived in remote N.T Indigenous communities since 1989. His recent publications are in archaeology, Australian anthropology, poetics, sign, shellfish lore and innovations in ethnographic and linguistic research. He is currently tutoring Yolŋu Studies at Charles Darwin University.

[1] The word deaf is conventionally written with a capital D when it is used as a cultural label especially from within the culture and identity of sign language users.

[2] YSL is also designated Glottolog yoln1234, ISO 639-3 ‘ygs’ (inclusive)and the Individual code for Yan-nhaŋu Sign Language is: ‘yhs’.

[3] The name ‘Murngin Sign Language’is an anachronism from the 1920s coined by the famous American Professor of Anthropology and author of A Black Civilisation: Social Study of an Australian Tribe (1937) Lloyd W Warner.

[4] More broadly this geographic separation and multilingualism might explain why a bimodal-bilingual hearing population of Indigenous groups in many parts of Australia used sign languages as an improvised lingua-franca. (Adone et al)

[5] YSL and yhs data is verified by senior Yolŋu and has been annotated using digital video annotation software called ELAN (Eudico Linguistic Annotator). Further data was processed using the dictionary building tool Lexique Pro developed by SIL International. Further data is stored in video and photographic files with the Yan-nhaŋu Dictionary Team.

3 thoughts on “Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL)

  1. Anthony McInerheney says:

    I just watched the fascinating documentary, Big Boss and had to reach out to simply say thank you.

    Thank you for those twenty years of hard, diligent & thankless work that you put in to help create the Atlas and dictionary of the Yan-nhangu language and people. What a gift you have given them? What a gift to give to the aboriginal peoples of Arnhem land.

    Throughout you positioned yourself very humbly, deflecting the attention back towards Big Boss, this truly remarkable woman but it is quite obvious, to me anyway, that you were, in fact, instrumental in making it all happen. Whether you set out to or not it seems you were cast in the role of the biographer. The researcher. The observer. And what must have been an absolutely incredible experience, the confidant.

    Then I happen upon this site and find that you are not one to rest on your laurels, once again documenting and clawing back from the precipice of extinction by assimilation another language, the Yolŋu Sign Language. Is there nothing you can not do?

    Your work is truly appreciated, even by someone like myself with little or no connection to Arnem Land and the peoples of the land but I do have gratitude for anyone who is working selflessly for the betterment of society. Bravo. Such a rare thing to see in this day and age of me.

    Thank you again and well done you.

    • Dear Anthony, it must be more than forty years, and your letter received with much gratitude. I thank you for such pleasing, fulsome praise, but am led to think that the substance of such says as much or more about your perspicacity and wisdom than my work. Clearly, we can both see and understand the importance of this work, the critical nature of its timing, and the difficulty of doing anything substantial without hefty resources. As you say it is rare in this age of ‘me’ for people to bank on sisterhood and brother hood, to strive for Indigenous underdogs, your words denote a sense of kinship with countrymen and woman, and a vision of the future for a country that celebrates the treasure of our languages and culture. The fight to save our precious language heritage goes on’ In the land where ‘closing the gap‘ is short hand for assimilation, and assimilation means extinction, we follow in the footsteps of Ted Strehlow;
      “Above all, let us permit native children to keep their own languages, -those beautiful and expressive tongues, rich in true Australian imagery, charged with poetry and with love for all that is great, ancient and eternal in the continent. There is no need to fear that their own languages will interfere with the learning of English as the common medium of expression for all Australians. In most areas of Australia the natives have been bilingual, probably from time immemorial. Today white Australians are among the few remaining civilized people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement.”
      T.G.H Strelow, 1958.

      • Anthony McInerheney says:

        Nearly 40 year Bentley, Not over. We are not that old… yet.

        You are just being modest, once again. Oh, and wisdom… it was never one of my strong points. Impetuous, rash, hasty? much more so.

        Although I do thank god that I had the early wisdom, although that was probably more like happenstance, to shrug off this Ozzie language barrier. I have learned to communicate in all of the adopted lands along my way. I married a German lady who I met while living in Greece and with whom I have two beautiful Germanic bilingual sons (Maxi, the elder, he is more tri than bi) from when we as a family lived here in Indonesia for 6 years and now me a further 4.

        Who knows where tomorrow we may call home. But I do know I will need to sit and have a chat with the locals

        Godspeed mate.

        PS Please do pass on my regards to your brother Glenn

        Cheers Ano

        *Anthony McInerheney* +62-811 396 1420

        *Manager – Special Projects*

        *Deus Ex Machina Indonesia Jalan Batu Mejan No.8Canggu, Bali* *Indonesia*

        On Mon, Apr 29, 2019 at 9:34 AM Dr Bentley James wrote:

        > dr bentley james commented: “Dear Anthony, it must be more than forty > years, and your letter received with much gratitude. I thank you for such > pleasing, fulsome praise, but am led to think that the substance of such > says as much or more about your perspicacity and wisdom than my wor” >

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