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Documenting Gurindji Kriol, an Australian mixed language


Language Gurindji Kriol
Depositor Felicity Meakins
Affiliation University of Queensland
Location Australia
Collection ID 0273
Grant ID IPF0135
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Gurindji Kriol is an endangered mixed language spoken in Australia. It fuses Gurindji (Pama-Nyungan), with Kriol (English-lexifier) to create a unique system. Gurindji Kriol is an important language to younger Gurindji people, entailing both modern and traditional Aboriginal ideologies. It is also significant linguistically, displaying a rarely observed mixed structure. Gurindji Kriol provides a unique opportunity to document a mixed language. Mixed languages often represent a prolonged stage of language change which precedes language shift. Thus the existence of mixed languages often goes by unobserved. In the case of Gurindji Kriol, documentation is urgently required, with Kriol finding increasing currency with Gurindji teenagers.


Group represented

Gurindji Kriol is a mixed language which is spoken by the Gurindji people who live at Kalkaringi in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory, Australia.

Gurindji Kriol is an important language to its speakers. Ideologically, Gurindji Kriol embodies a resistance to cultural assimilation by marking out a separate Gurindji identity. Its genesis occurred in the 1970s when the Gurindji successfully protested against the slave-like conditions of their forced employment on cattle stations, and also fought to regain control of their traditional lands (Hardy, 1968). This socio-political context is important to understanding the meaningfulness of Gurindji Kriol to its speakers. A separate Gurindji identity is both recognised and enacted through the continuing use of Gurindji in the mixed language. The mixed nature of Gurindji Kriol entails both modern and traditional values. Speakers are younger Gurindji people who have not grown up as traditional Aborigines, and have no wish to return to the traditional way of life. At the same time, they separate themselves from other Aboriginal people by staking claim to strength and respect that is associated with their name. In this respect, the documentation of Gurindji Kriol is a validation for its speakers of both their language and identity.


Language information

Gurindji Kriol contains lexical and grammatical elements from two languages: Gurindji, which is a member of the Ngumpin-Yapa subgroup of the Pama-Nyungan family, and Kriol, which is an English-lexifier creole spoken across the north of Australia. All languages of the Ngumpin-Yapa subgroup, including Gurindji, are highly endangered. The surrounding languages which are related to Gurindji (Bilinarra, Malngin, Jaru and Ngarinyman) are only spoken by older people. The Ngumpin-Yapa languages are also no longer being acquired by children, with Kriol finding increasing currency with younger people. Gurindji Kriol is also endangered with Gurindji teenagers also shifting towards Kriol.

Gurindji Kriol is the result of contact between the Gurindji and non-indigenous colonists, who established cattle stations in the Victoria River District in the early 1900s. Via imported Aboriginal labour, they brought with them Kriol, which was added to the linguistic repertoire of the Gurindji. Interestingly, where Kriol replaced the traditional language of many other groups, a mixed language originated at Kalkaringi (McConvell and Meakins, 2005). Though Gurindji Kriol bears some resemblance to Gurindji and Kriol, this mixed language is not the result of a simple replication of features from these source languages. Instead, forms from these languages are used to function within a unique and autonomous language system.

Gurindji Kriol is situated within a complex picture of contact and code-switching. Although the traditional language of Kalkaringi and the surrounding area is Gurindji, Gurindji people under 35 years speak Gurindji Kriol as their first language. This mixed language has around 700 speakers, and is the dominant language in most social domains, except education, health and government institutions. Older members of this group also speak Gurindji, and younger Gurindji Kriol speakers have a high level of passive knowledge, albeit untested. All Gurindji people also speak Kriol to some extent. Gurindji Kriol continues to be spoken alongside Gurindji and Kriol, and is a ‘symbiotic’ mixed language in this regard. Other languages are also found at Kalkaringi, including Warlpiri and Aboriginal English, which are used to varying extents and in different contexts. Code-switching can also be observed, and it is common to find code-switching between Gurindji and Kriol, and Gurindji Kriol and its source languages.


Special characteristics

Gurindji Kriol provides a unique opportunity to document a mixed language as an autonomous language system. It is currently the language of everyday use for Gurindji people over the age of 20 years. Given this linguistic situation, the rich documentation of a mixed language is possible including the creation of an annotated corpus (based on language data from a range of contexts), a lexical database and grammar. This documentation is urgently required, with Kriol becoming dominant in the linguistic repertoire of younger Gurindji people, and the preferred language of child-directed speech.

Gurindji Kriol is of interest linguistically because the nature of the grammatical and lexical split is rare. In terms of structure, Kriol contributes much of the verbal grammar including tense and mood auxiliaries, and transitive, aspect and derivational morphemes. Gurindji supplies most of the NP structure including case and derivational morphology. The presence of Gurindji inflectional morphology within a Kriol verbal frame is exceptional given the fragility of inflectional morphology in other language contact situations. Moreover, structural splits between the nominal and verbal systems appear to be quite rare in mixed languages, with grammar-lexicon splits more commonly found. Though Gurindji Kriol bears some resemblance to Michif (Bakker, 1997), which also exhibits an N-V grammatical split, in Gurindji Kriol, unlike Michif, the lexicon does not follow the grammatical splits, since both nominals and verbs can be traced to either Gurindji or Kriol.


Collection contents

The materials in this collection were collected from 30 speakers from three different age groups (6-15 years, 16-25 years, over 30 years) using different data collection methods: peer and inter-generational conversation and free narratives, picture-prompt narrative elicitation based on a series of picture books created by O’Shannessy which contain culturally specific and modern themes for the area and on the story “Frog, where are you”, peer elicitation based on picture-match activities and card games.
When completed, this collection will contain

  • an annotated corpus of 40 hours of Gurindji Kriol language data based on a range of social contexts
  • a lexical database built from annotated texts
  • a grammatical description of Gurindji Kriol
  • trilingual (Gurindji, Gurindji Kriol, English) books and short ethnographic films as language resources for the community


Collection history

The materials in this collection were gathered between 2008 and 2010 during Felicity Meakins’s postdoctoral research funded by an ELDP Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship.


Other information

The materials in this collection will also be archived with AIATSIS in Canberra. All materials will also be lodged with Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation in Katherine, to allow easy local access. Between 2004 and 2007, Felicity Meakins carried out her PhD research and produced two Gurindji Kriol corpora as part of the Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition Project (ACLA1) at the University of Melbourne. Her own PhD dataset consists of 20 hours of recordings and unannotated transcriptions of narratives told to picture-prompt books and peer elicitation of constructions based on picture stimuli. The materials from this earlier research are archived with ACLA.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Meakins, Felicity. 2014. Documenting Gurindji Kriol, an Australian mixed language. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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