Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Yolngu are an indigenous people inhabiting the Northeastern Arnhem Land of Australia. Their culture embodies a system of knowledge in many ways different from that of Western culture, one which may be roughly described as viewing the world as a related whole rather than as a collection of objects. Yolngu knowledge also places far less importance on number systems than Western knowledge and employs a recursive system of genealogical names, relations, and hierarchies called 'gurrutu' that is used to order and pattern understandings of the world.
Three members of the Deakin University Social Studies of Science department—Wade Chambers, David Turnbull and Helen Watson—produced several collaborative, cross-cultural works investigating Aboriginal knowledge systems in reaction to what they regard as Western ethnocentrism in science studies. One of these works, Singing the land, signing the land by Watson, explores the relation of Yolgnu and Western knowledges using the Yolgnu idea of ganma, which metaphorically describes two streams coming from land (Yolgnu knowledge) and from the sea (Western knowledge) engulfing each other so that "the forces of the streams combine and lead to deeper understanding and truth" (Watson 5).
The Yolngu refer to their language by specific names for each dialect. Whilst there is quite extensive variation, the group as a whole can be referred to as Yolngu matha (matha means tongue or languge). To illustrate the grammatical differences between Yolngu matha and English, Watson conducted an experiment where she gave two Australian girls—one a native speaker of English and the other of Yolngu matha—an image of boats which the English speaker described as "canoes are lying on a beach" and the Yolngu speaker as (translated to English) "beach-on staying canoe" (Watson 14). The difference can be attributed to the fact that word order is not used to indicate grammatical relations as it is in English. Rather, suffixes are used to indicate whether a noun is the actor, object or place in the sentence; in this example "rangi-ngur" -beach-on.
Dictionaries have been produced by Beulah Lowe, David Zorc and Michael Christie.
- Watson, Helen (with the Yolngu community at Yirrkala and David Wade Chambers). Singing the land, signing the land. Deakin University.
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