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Gumbaynggirr Language Revitalisation

The Country

Along the Pacific coast, the Gumbaynggirr lands stretch from the Nambucca River in the South to around the Clarence River in the North and the Great Dividing Range in the West.

The People

Many people from Grafton (Jadalmany) through Coffs Harbour (Garlambirla) to Nambucca (Nyambaga) and inland of these identify as Gumbaynggirr.  However, many Gumbaynggirr descendants now live in far-flung parts of Australia though they are proud of their heritage. We see this at Sydney Uni summer schools where several people have re-learnt some of the language and stories of their Gumbaynggirr ancestors.

Gumbaynggirr people share the same language, though a slightly different dialect as the Baanbay people who occupy the uplands in the West. They are bordered in the North by the Yaygirr people who live around the mouth of the Clarence. These spoke a language close to Gumbaynggirr. They also had the same family system as Gumbaynggirr so people would know for example who their cousins and possible marriage partners were in the other language group.

Also having the same family system were the Dhanggati people to the south. They also shared the same initiation ceremonies, though they and groups close to them (like Burrgadi and Ngambaa) have a quite different language.

To the North also are the many ‘Bunjalungic’ groups whose language is quite different.

Language Revival

When the original way of life of Gumbaynggirr people was all but destroyed much of the language was buried. However, through the determination of elders and supporters the Gumbaynggirr language is re-emerging. One group: Maggie Morris, Andrew Pacey, Jane Brown, Joyce Knox and Ivy Smith (who was fluent in the Nymboidan dialect) began reviving Gumbaynggirr  in 1986. Muurrbay Language Centre at Nambucca Heads is continuing the revival that they began.

What is a ‘dialect’? People from two areas might speak slightly differently; but they understand each other; so they are talking different dialects of a language. We have inherited quite a lot of language material from three dialects of Gumbaynggirr: the North Lowlands to be found, for example, at Grafton, the Southern, bordered by the Nambucca River and Nymboidan which graded into the Baanbay of  the New England Table Lands that reached to around Guyra and Tingha. Each region has some unique words. For example ‘biguurr’ is used for ‘tree’ in the South, but ‘jaliigirr’ in the other two regions. The grammar varies a little too.

Nymboidan Gumbaynggirr was spoken by Philip Shannon as well as by Philip Long (LA tapes 4503-4505). Large amounts of valuable language and story material in this dialect were recorded in manuscript by the German-American linguist Gerhardt Laves (1929) and Shannon was Laves’ main informant. Philip Shannon, Garrbuungga was a Nymboidan living near Maclean in 1929. He was the main informant in enabling Laves to write more than two thousand pages of  Gumbaynggirr sentences, stories and other information. Our knowledge of Nymboidan was later supplemented by Hoddinott’s and Howard Creamer’s recording of  Phillip Long.

A major source of knowledge about Northern Lowlands came from the association between Dr W Smythe and his informants which resulted in Smythe’s ‘Grammar of the Gumbaynggar Language’. Later audio informants including Clarence Skinner and Ray McDonald provided examples of some of this dialect.

The third major dialect left to us is Southern, especially that which  Harry Buchanan (Maruwanba, Maruungga) gave to the linguists Terry Crowley and Diana Eades, and which Buchanan  / Les Nixon gave to Brian Fillery. Diana Eades (1974) working with this Southern dialect produced the first accurate and professional grammatical analysis of the language, entitled: Gumbaynggir. This Southern dialect, spoken from the Nambucca to the Bellinger, has been the one most thoroughly recorded on LA audio tapes available from AIATSIS, Canberra. Among these the primary informants are Les Nixon and Harry ‘Tiger’ Buchanan: Tapes 434 (collector, B. Gibbons) 416, 417 (B. Fillery), 1396 (W. Hoddinott), 2763, 2764 (T. Crowley) and D. Eades (4497 – 4502).

Written example of the language

The following is taken from a Dreaming story, where a clever-man plots with others to ambush the hero ancestor Birrugan:

[One Clever Man]

Ngaaja  waandiw  yarrang gulaagundi  biguurr. 

I            will climb   that        his                tree

Waarriyaygu  waruungga; gala ngujawiny ngiling wajaada       gala-gala nyaaga!

wait-will         up-on (it)       but   you-all       there      on the ground  together  watch


Birruganba  yarrang  yaaban.    Gayging.   

Birrugan        there        came      (He) did cut

Gayging gulaadu  duuwa.

Cut did   he>          a boomerang

Yaam(agay)  waruunggadu   yanigurrang  gamay ngilina.

Well here       the man on top> let go              spear    this.

Bawgangagay yaam Birrugana.

(He) speared    here   Birrugan

 Buunmingagay.  Wurraang       ngilina  gamay.

(Birrugan) fell      (He) pulled out  this       spear


Resource materials

Teaching resources

There are some good cultural resources available online, including:

Aboriginal Women’s Heritage: Nambucca, a collection of stories from nine Aboriginal Women Elders of the Nambucca Valley, produced by National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2003.


Sound recordings:

AIATSIS Sound Collection. Gumbaynggirr compilation tapes. (Compilation of Gumbaynggirr language material from the AIATSIS sound archive, 11585-15600).

Creamer, H. 1973. Audio-taped Gumbaynggirr language elicitation and cultural discussion with Len De Silva at Armidale, N.S.W. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15593, Tape 5048A].

Creamer, H. 1977. Audio-taped discussions with Gumbaynggirr men (Harry Buchanan at Nambucca Heads and Philip Long at Nymboida and Armidale), including some Gumbaynggirr words. AIATSIS Sound Collection A15600; Tapes 5039A, 5040A; 9544A.

Crowley, T. 1973. Audio-taped Gumbaynggirr speech, mainly elicited from Mr. Harry Buchanan, Nambucca Heads. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A13393-4; Tapes 2763A, B; 2764A, B. Data is incorporated into Eades (1979).]

Eades, D. 1974. Audio recordings of Gumbaynggirr speech elicited from Mr. Harry Buchanan. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15595-9; Tapes 4497A – 4502B ; data incorporated into Eades (1979)]

Fillery, B.J., 1967, Audio Recordings of Gumbaynggirr language from Harry Buchanan and Les Nixon. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15589-91. Tape 416A, B; 417A, B]

Gibbons, B.C. 1966. Audio Recording of Gumbaynggirr language and transcript. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15588; Tape 434B]

Gordon, J.A. 1968. Audio recordings of Gumbaynggirr songs and speech. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15591-2; Tape 1219A; 1220A, B]

Hoddinott, W.G. 1965. Gumbaynggirr songs, stories and texts., (Field tapes) Original version field tape numbers 36, 37, 38; AIATSIS Sound Collection 14081 – 14086. (Tape LA 1395B; 1396 A,B; 1397A)

Hoddinott, W.G. 1977. Language elicitation, stories from Armidale area, NSW (Field tapes) AIATSIS Sound Collection Tape 4503 – 4509.

Written documentation

A. Published Books

Eades, Diana. 1979, ‘Gumbaynggir’ in Handbook of Australian Languages. vol 1. Canberra: ANU Press, and Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp 245-361.

Gumbaynggir Language and Culture Group. 1992. Gumbaynggir Dreamings Volume 1. The stories of Uncle Harry Buchanan. (English edition) [translated edited and published by Gumbaynggir Language and Culture Group.

*Gumbaynggir Language and Culture Group (eds). 1992. Gumbaynggir Yuludarra (Gumbaynggir dreamings): Volume 1: the stories of Uncle Harry Buchanan, (Full Gumbaynggir and English Edition), translated edited and published by Gumbaynggir Language and Culture Group, (unpublished typescript version held at AIATSIS.)

Mathews, R.H. 1909. ‘Language and sociology of the Kumbainggeri tribe, New South Wales’ Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science – Report, v.12, 1909; 48543. Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer.

McDougall, A.C, 1900, 1901. ‘Manners, customs and legends of the Coombangree Tribe’, Science of Man, August, 22, 1900, v.3 no.7, no.9, v.4, no.1, no.3, no.4; 116-117; 145-146; 8; 46-47; 63

Morelli, Steve. 2008. Gumbaynggirr Dictionary and Learner’s Grammar. Nambucca Heads, NSW: Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative

Smythe, W.E. 1949. Elementary grammar of the Gumbáinggar Language (North Coast, New South Wales). Sydney: Oceania Linguistic Monographs. Reprinted from Oceania 19, 130-191, 254-299 (1948); 20, 29-65 (1949); corrigenda in Oceania 21, 73-76 (1950).

B. Manuscripts

Layton, Nanny, 1890? ‘Aboriginal words of the Goom-Bayne-Geere Tribe’, compiled by Nanny Layton for Mr Ellis’ Gumbaynggirr to English wordlist, MS, Clarence River Historical Society.

Laves, Gerhardt, 1929-1932, Papers, mainly field notebooks, correspondence and language cards, part of 7 boxes (MS 2188). Linguistic notes for languages of North Coast  particularly Gumbaynggirr.  Index prepared by L.G. Cromwell available On-line AIATSIS. See Following:

Department of Lands, 2003. Geographical Names Board of NSW, tiff & pdf  images of RASA Manuscripts – Dated 1900, on CD, Title page: ‘Anthropological Society of Australia, microfilmed by W&F Pascoe Pty Ltd’. [Almost all handwritten documents separated into five sections,  See Following extracts of this compilation, all handwritten].

Gumbaynggirr Language Map

Gumbaynggirr Language Map