A Yolngu ontology of language announces itself in academia

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paper presented at Conference (not in Proceedings)


In 2019, I was invited to help a research project team transcribe and translate Yolngu Aboriginal traditional songs and joined four Yolngu elders and one non-Indigenous cultural worker managing the project. Listening to the sound of pre-recorded songs by these elders, we were looking at a screen projecting my transcription and translation. The cultural worker frequently asked the elders for the meaning of Yolngu words displayed on the screen; in response, one of the elders who adopted the cultural worker into Yolngu kinship urged him to pronounce the word aloud.
Why was the cultural worker encouraged to pronounce, to say the words using Yolngu language? The elder continued by saying ‘the meaning of a word will come out when you pronounce it properly.’ I was a witness of the cultural worker being kindly guided and seriously taught by Yolngu language authorities to take the proper understanding of language that has credible life in Yolngu cosmology – Yolngu ontology of language. This experience helped me understand what my research role is. Given only Yolngu elders are allowed to teach their pedagogy, I position myself in a modest mediator role, supporting Yolngu ontology of language come to life in academia.
My work is to theorise the Yolngu ontology of language under the category of philology: philo- (love) and -logy (word). Modern philology is a rather vague category for studying language, but I claim philology can respect and take Yolngu language ontology seriously. I am arguing for supporting a revival of this way knowing language in academia. It can certainly help me, the cultural worker and many other academics to stop committing ourselves to having the world of things ‘out there’, and words to name them ‘over here’. It can help me to study words uttered and written and their meanings as one.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2022
EventCDU HDR conference 2022 - Charles Darwin University, Casuarina, Australia
Duration: 8 Jun 202210 Jun 2022


ConferenceCDU HDR conference 2022
Internet address


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