Anthropologist and linguist Dr Bentley James is close to realising his dream, and the vision of the woman who inspired him, to ensure the children of North East Arnhem Land continue to use Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL).

3 June 2019

https://arts.govcms.gov.au/node/4155/edit

Anthropologist and linguist Dr Bentley James is close to realising his dream, and the vision of the woman who inspired him, to ensure the children of North East Arnhem Land continue to use Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL).

A YSL book will honour Yolŋu elder Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, known as Big Boss, whose life-long work saved her language and ensured the intergenerational transmission of ancestral heritage and knowledge of the seas.

Bentley was inspired by the 'woman of amazing virtue and stamina whose vision to follow in the footsteps of the ancestors demanded every Yolŋu child the opportunity to learn YSL into the future'.

'Passing away at 97 she never saw this work finished. She entrusted me and I feel deeply determined to complete and distribute the hand book, as she would say 'yitjiwalaw yalalaguyaway'—for the children's future'.

'I'm aiming to provide the books free to every local school, library and Learning on Country and Junior Ranger program across Arnhem Land, to help pass on the knowledge of kin and country embodied in these signs. It is one of Australia's greatest treasures and it is disappearing,' says Bentley.

'Sign language or 'hand talk' has evolved over thousands of years to include signs for everything important to those living on land and sea country. In ceremonial gatherings it has allowed widely geographically distant people to communicate across different languages by easily learned hand signs and gestures.

'It has a rich ancestral heritage in dance, ritual and kinship reflecting an intimate relationship with the natural world.'

Bentley has spent nearly three decades living and working closely with Indigenous elders to learn and document the language. Baymarrwaŋa herself spoke nine Indigenous languages and no English. She was recognised for her kindness, generosity and tireless work as the Senior Australian of the Year in 2012.

Together they produced and distributed across Arnhem Land the Yan-nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands. 'For over 20 years we sat together in the shade and captured stories about the world, where it came from, how it was sung and where the big name sites are,' Bentley said.

He is hoping to publish 'The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land' later in this International Year of Indigenous Languages. It will include 500 of the most frequently used signs.

'YSL is an alternate language for hearing Yolŋu but the primary language for deaf Yolŋu, so it runs in parallel with the spoken language of the communities. However, Yolŋu sign language is a language unto itself and so it is in danger of disappearing as all of Australia's Indigenous languages are.'

The project has attracted support from many different quarters including Yellow Wiggle Emma Watkins, who recently made a generous donation to do her bit to 'protect and share a rare and remarkable Indigenous sign language'.

Read about Emma's donation in this Sydney Morning Herald story.

Photo by Chiara Bussin, 2009. Yolŋu elder Laurie Baymarrwanga telling Dr Bentley James stories.
Photo by Chiara Bussin, 2009. Yolŋu elder Laurie Baymarrwanga telling Dr Bentley James stories.

Find out more