Documenting MalakMalak, an endangered language of Northern Australia

Documenting MalakMalak, an endangered language of Northern Australia

Language: MalakMalak
Depositor: Dorothea Hoffmann
Location: Australia
Deposit Id: 0166
Grant id: IPF0189
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

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.

Deposit 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 specialised 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.).

Deposit 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 fieldtrips 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.


Collection online
Resources online and curated


Dorothea Hoffmann
Affiliation: The University of ChicagoWoolianna, Daly River

Deposit Statistics

Data from 2021 October 21 to 2021 October 21
Deposit hits:1
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Showing 1 - 10 of 183 Items

This is a narrative about women part 1. It is about ways of sharing a wallaby. Two wives having an argument over a man and how he cannot interfere - the women eventually become friends. A large spear fight is described between groups of people. A a long walkabout of a husband who is sick of his fighting wives (?) is told and the story of a hungry boy.

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a narrative about women part 2. It is about duties of men and women -women getting yam and men hunting, women catching turtle. It is also about spear fighting of men over a woman where both die - one was shunned by everybody

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a narrative about women part 5. It is about more fights between men, food shortages and rules of sharing. It also tocuhes on collecting bush food

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

"This starts with elicitation of future inflecting verb forms. Then it turns into a personal narrative about walking between the coppermine and Woolianna and Bamboo Creek and about going hunting. "

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

"This is a personal narrative about travelling between Rapid Creek and Woolianna getting sore feet from walking "

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

In this narrative, speakers talk about a battle for land between (invading) Brinken and Maranunggu tribes and MalakMalak and Matngele tribes at Wuliana and Wunellen billabong

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a personal and historical narrative about a funeral, staying at the Coppermine. It then goes on to talk about leaving the coppermine for Daly River Mission. There is also talk about the fight of the MalakMalak against the Brinken and Marranunggu. Speakers are talking about the significance of the land to the MalakMalak for them as it is rich in food and custom

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a personal and historical narrative about two brothers fighting each other and some fighting among MalakMalak themselves at Bagot. It is also about planting mango trees and spearing a sister. The speakers also talk about preparing shark in the coals

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a personal narrative about TWs travels from the coppermine to Daly River, Woolianna and back, staying with his brother's and sister's kids. People find and hunt for bushfood and eat it. PP talks about different kinds of bushfoood

Recorded on: 2015-03-12

This is a personal narrative about the wedding between Terry Robertson and Nancy Nginyuwurl where TW was present and the policeman witness

Recorded on: 2015-03-12