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Documenting MalakMalak, an endangered language of Northern Australia


Language MalakMalak
Depositor Dorothea Hoffmann
Affiliation The University of Chicago
Location Australia
Collection ID 0166
Grant ID IPF0189
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle



Summary of the collection

MalakMalak is a northern Daly language spoken in the Daly River area in north-western Australia. Today it is highly endangered.

While there is some existing description of the language, no systematic documentation efforts have been made so far.

This collection aims to complement existing sketch grammars with audio-visual recordings with a focus on documenting traditional stories and culturally significant processes such as hunting and gathering or tool-making and by compiling a 2,000-word dictionary. In addition to a Learners’ Grammar, aspects of MalakMalak slated for a more detailed discussion in future journal articles are its distinctive complex predicate structure, noun classification system, and spatial Frames of Reference, from both a typological and a comparative Australianist perspective.

Furthermore, a bilingual (MalakMalak-English) dictionary will make this documentation accessible to a broad range of potential users including those who are no longer fluent in the language. The aim is to produce a 2,000-word dictionary developing orthographic conventions in line with previous documentation efforts of neighbouring and related languages such as Madngele.


Group represented



Language information

MalakMalak is a highly endangered non-Pama-Nyungan language with eleven confirmed speakers remaining. Together with Kuwema it forms the Northern Daly Language Family (Tryon, 1974). All speakers are elderly, however in the majority frequent users of the language.

The major means of communication other than MalakMalak today is Kriol and English. Almost all speakers also know Matngala (ISO 639-zml) and/or another indigenous language of the Daly area. Some younger community members have passive knowledge of MalakMalak to varying degrees, but the language is currently not acquired by young children.

Other names used for MalakMalak are Malagmalag, Malak-Malak, Ngolak-Wonga, and Nguluwongga.


Special characteristics

“The language is like a map” is how one speaker describes the outstanding spatial reference system employed by MalakMalak. Current observations suggest an intricate relationship between geographical, social and cultural settings and language use.


Collection contents

This collection will contain audio-visual documentation of MalakMalak. The collected data will be as diverse and representative as possible, and comprise of elicited data and, foremost, natural communication and traditional narratives and other types of discourse such as personal life stories and event narrations. There will be an estimated total of thirty hours of recording, including about three hours of video.

Particular focus will be on documenting the land’s traditional dreamtime stories, events of cultural significance as well as personal and regional history, and finally thorough documentation of specialized vocabulary for hunting and gathering, bush medicine, and tool- and weapon-making. One speaker still remembers life in the bush as well as stories she heard from older people about working with Jesuit missionaries in the 1880s (Crocombe, p.c.).


Collection history

The last comprehensive description of MalakMalak was carried out by David Birk in the 1960s and an MA thesis by Petrea Cahir described aspect and Aktionsart of the complex verb phrase in 2008. Additionally, Mark Crocombe director of the Kanam Kek Yile-Ngala Museum in Wadeye has recorded stories and conversations for a number of years and is happy to share those with me. None of these, however, resulted in an annotated corpus of audio- and/or video material which is the aim of my project. I undertook two field trips so far, one between May and June and another between September and November 2012 and am planning on going back to the field between April and September 2013.

There are two grammatical descriptions by Birk (1976) and Cahir (2006), an unpublished wordlist (Reid, p.c.), and documentation of plant and animal terms and uses (Wightman et al., 2001). Birk also made a number of recordings stored at AIATSIS in Canberra.

Efforts to ‘return material to the community’ and to document processes of cultural significance such as building fish traps have been underway within the AIATSIS-funded ‘Elders Repatriation and Archiving group’ (Reid, p.c.). Finally, a few stories have been recorded, but not transcribed by Mark Crocombe (p.c.) over the last couple of years. I plan to transcribe and publish these stories for community use with the help of the speakers.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Hoffmann, Dorothea. 2015. Documenting MalakMalak, an endangered language of Northern Australia. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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