In order to introduce the Jiwarli language and its last speaker, Jack Butler, here is the beginning of a traditional story that Jack recorded on 3rd November 1983 and transcribed and translated with Peter Austin on 17th May 1984.
The story tells the tale of the bird kapakurta ‘spotted nightjar’ (Eurostopodus argus) and the bat mikalyaji ‘type of bat’ (species unknown). These two are related as ngathal ‘same sex cross-cousins’; the term ‘cross-cousin’ means either the child of one’s father’s sister or the child of one’s mother’s brother. Since the two protagonists are understood to be male, ngathal here can mean either ‘father’s sister’s son’ or ‘mother’s brother’s son’. In Jiwarli this kind of cousin is distinguished from punkali ‘opposite sex cross-cousin’, that is, for a woman it would be her father’s sister’s son, or mother’s brother’s son. For a man punkali refers to his cousin who is his father’s sister’s daughter or his mother’s brother’s daughter.
The two protagonists kill a man called Pipijunkurru, boss of all the people. After some travels they secretly spear him while he is lying in a bough shade. They are caught by Pipijunkurru‘s group and punished for their misdeeds by being speared and beaten with boomerangs and women’s yamsticks. Their legs were broken so that today both creatures lie on the ground when they land and they must both drink water on the wing, rather than being able to stand and drink like other animals. As with other Australian Aboriginal groups, traditional stories like this come from the Dreamtime, described in Jiwarli as ngurra pularalapurra ‘when the earth was soft’, and they provide a foundation for understanding the characteristics and behaviour of the animals and places as they are today. Such stories often also involve extensive travel through named places (called in English ‘Dreaming tracks’ or ‘Songlines‘) — we will discuss this more in a later blog post.
Here we present the first five lines of the story as told by Jack Butler:
We can write this in Jiwarli as follows (see Spelling for details of the letters and the way we spell Jiwarli):
Kapakurta mantharta and mikalyaji
Paja yananyja manthartawu yiniyi pipijunkurruwu
Maatha ngunha manthartanyjarriyi pipijunkurru
Warri nhukuparnti ngunha paja yananyja
Ngunhakayi kajiriwari kamparninyjalu kajiriyi kamparninyja ngunhipa yirrara
We can translate this into English as follows (note that spears are heated over the fire in order to straighten and strengthen them):
‘The nightjar man and bat. Nightjar (and) bat. They were angry with a man named Pipijunkurru. That Pipijunkurruwas the boss of the people. They didn’t go along angry from nearby. After having first heated their spears at Mt Florrie, they heated them there at the top.’
The rest of the story deals with their further adventures and we will return to it later, once some details of the structure of Jiwarli are presented. This will enable readers to understand the grammar and translation of the full Jiwarli story.