Ancestral Language Facilitator (ALF): Jan Goetesson

Language name: Guugu Yimidhirr

Austlang code: Y82

ISO639-3: kky

Historical overview of Guugu Yimidhirr Nation:

The Guugu Yimidhirr language nation was the first Aboriginal people whose language was partially recorded by James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1770. One of the recorded words was “kangurru”, which has been borrowed into most of the world’s languages.

European invasion began with the Plamer River gold rush in 1973. The Guugu Ymidhirr were severely decimated by genocidal policies. The majority of the remnants of the Guugu Yimidhirr population were moved to a Lutheran mission in the late 19th century.

Confinement into a mission reduced dialectal variation in GY and traditional knowledge was suppressed. But a costal dialect of GY was encouraged by German missionaries who mastered the language because they saw it as a means to reach the people with their religious message. In 1946 the first book in an indigenous language in Queensland was published, a GY Order of Service and Hymns.

The first Northern Protector of Aborigines, Walter Roth, also produced significant records of GY.

Sources: History of Guugu Yimidhirr Nation (publications, recordings, film etc.)

Haviland, Leslie K. and John B. Haviland. “How much food will there be in heaven? Lutherans and Aborigines around Cooktown before 1900.” Aboriginal History IV (part 2), pp. 118-149. (1980)

Haviland, John B. “The Life history of a Speech Community: Guugu Yimidhirr at Hopevale.” (First part in PDF; 2nd part in PDF) Aboriginal History, 9 (1985): 170-204. (1985)

Overview of previous documentation efforts.

The descriptions of GY by Northern Protector Walter Roth were good for their time. German Missionaries’ efforts were practical in nature (establishing a GY-speaking congregation) but their experience of GY informed Walter Roth’s published grammar of GY.

Until the 1970s there were no in-depth studies of GY. Work by Jan de Zwaan and others provided valuable recordings but did not add much to our knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary of GY.

The bulk of our knowledge of classical GY stems from the work of Prof. John B. Haviland. John Haviland published a sketch grammar, compiled an unpublished wordlist (available as a text file), and published several important papers on aspect of the GY language. The bulk of preserved mythological stories were collected by John Haviland.

In recent decades the GY speaker Eric Deeral and Ellen White have added information to John Haviland’s wordlist.

In 2010, Cape York Institute initiated efforts to revitalise and record GY. The Pama Language Centre continues CYI’s work.

Sources relating to documentation of Guugu Yimidhirr

Haviland, John B. “Guugu Yimidhirr.” In R.M.W. Dixon and B. Blake (eds.), Handbook of Australian Languages Vol. 1, Canberra: ANU Press. pp. 27–180. (1979)

Haviland, John B. “Guugu Yimithirr Cardinal Directions.” Ethos 26(1) (March 1998), pp. 25-47. (1998)

Haviland, John B. “Guugu Yimidhirr Wordlist” (unpublished). Several versions available as printouts and computer files

Deeral, Eric and White, Ellen “Guugu Yimithirr Wordlist” (unpublished). Hardcopies available in Hope Vale but not deposited in AIATSIS

Roth, Walter Edmund, North Queensland Ethnography: Bulletins No. 1–18 Brisbane: Government Press (1901–1916)

In should be noted that the change to the spelling of the GY wordlist were made with a simple FIND AND REPLACE operation. Therefore all wordlists in use today are not alphabetically ordered: Instead of the alphabetical ordering A, B, D, Dh, Dy, G, I, L et cetera, wordlist entries are listed in this order: A, B, D, Th, J, H, I, L et cetera.

Previous maintenance and revitalisation efforts:

In 1996, the Queensland Government began a trial of Guugu Yimidhirr as a LOTE (Language Other Than English). The trial ended at an unknown date. Before this trial some efforts had been made to produce GY material for the Hope Vale School.

In 2012, The Cape York Academy and the Institute started the current effort to teach Guugu Yimidhirr in the Hope Vale Campus of the Cape York Academy.

Sources of information relating to and resources produced by previous revitalisation efforts

Calley, Karin Malcolmsdotter, Yirrgii Guugu Yimidhirrbi (Guugu Yimidhirr course for primary school, Cape York Institute 2012–)

Hammett, Irene, Dharnggan Cape York Institute (2013)

Hammett, Irene, Bidhagurr Wuurili Bunhdhiwi Cape York Institute (2014)

Hammett, Irene, Yuwalin and Other Poems in Guugu Yimidhirr (2014)

Ridley, Annette, “The Guugu Yimithirr Languages Other Than English Program at Hope Vale”. PhD thesis, James Cook University (2002)

Rosendale, Wayne, At the Beach: Year 1 and 2. Translations into Guugu Yimithirr of students’ stories. Queensland Department of Education (1991)

AUSTLANG Documentation Score

Word list                     Large (more than 200 pages)                           4

Text Collection           Medium (100–200 pages)                               3

Grammar                     Large grammar (more than 200 pages)         4

Audio-Visual               More than10 hours                                              3

Current situation of the Guugu Yimigdhirr language

Current EGIDS rating:

Shifting (7) The child-bearing generation knows the language well enough to use it with their elders but is not transmitting it to their children

Intergenerational transmission Intergenerational transmission is mainly taking place where a limited number of grandparents are making a conscious choice to speak to their grandchildren.
oracy A group of less than 100 adults maintain conversations in GY on a daily basis.
literacy Half a dozen adults have obtained copies of wordlists and pride themselves in being literate.
# speakers grandparent generation 60% (estimate)
# speakers parent generation 20% (estimate)
Other observations 1. Guugu Yimidhirr

Guugu Yimidhirr: Language Status

Number of speakers

(estimate) number of fluent speakers: <100

NILS endangerment Grade (0–5)

Grade 2

NILS language proficiency and usage scale

1–19 years     20–39 years  40–59 years  60+

2                                  2                      4                      7


Current language maintenance activities and programs
Program Description
Cape York Academy and Cape York Institute School Programme A Guugu Yimidhirr teacher delivers 4 half hour lessons weekly using materials developed by the GGSA /Institute Guugu Yimidhirr Revitalisation Project.


Aspirations of Language Nation

Date: period of 4 January to 25 January 2016

Location: Hope Vale

“An effort needs to be made to bring young people out on country to learn traditional knowledge and Guugu Yimidhirr language.”

Tim Mc Green – Guugu Yimidhirr Cultural Expert and Elder


“The tradition of singing in Guugu Yimidhirr needs to be revived as a means to help young people to learn to pronounce and speak GY.”

Lillian Bowen – Guugu Yimidhirr Language Teacher Hope Vale Shool

Existing and potential resources

Existing resources Description
Word list /dictionary

“Guugu Yimidhirr Wordlist”

Author: John Haviland

Date: 1975


Not a full dictionary since it has few notes on usage and phraseology. Some important lexemes not included. Not published but circulated as hardcopies and MS Word files.
Word list /dictionary

“Guugu Yimidhirr Wordlist”

Author: Deeral, Eric and White, Ellen

Date: ?


Contains more information than John Haviland’s wordlist (on which it is based), but is still not a full dictionary.

“Guugu Yimidhirr.” In R.M.W. Dixon and B. Blake (eds.), Handbook of Australian Languages Volume 1.

Author: John Haviland

Date: 1979

A seminal work that contains a wealth of information which would not be possible to elicit today. Inaccessible to people who have not studied linguistic terminology.

Various journal articles such as “Guugu Yimithirr Cardinal Directions.” Ethos 26(1) (1998)

Author: John Haviland


Certain aspects of Guugu Yimidhirr are only described well in articles that Prof. Haviland published after his main grammar was published. For example, all Directions in GY were not well understood at the time of the publication of “Guugu Yimidhirr.” in Handbook of Australian Languages.


Long-term goals (vision)


Because of language shift in recent decades the majority of children in the Guugu Yimidhirr language nation have limited knowledge. The best speakers among children are semi-speakers. The vision statement is written to reflect this reality.


Our vision for Guugu Yimidhirr:

That the Guugu Yimidhirr language and its corpus of literature and traditions are completely recorded and made available in user-friendly form, and ancestral language is recognised by governments and society, so that young people can either develop their partial knowledge into a more fluent command of ancestral language or, if they have little knowledge, return to ancestral language so that there will be a community of Guugu Yimidhirr speakers across the world.

That the Guugu Yimidhirr Language Nation will be reconnected with our Language Legacy.

That future Generations will learn Guugu Yimidhirr as their first language.

That our children will be fluent speakers of their language who are literate in their language and have the possibility to study Guugu Yimidhirr as a serious subject at school, high school and university.

Medium-term goals


Research by the Pama Language Centre has established that the Guugu Yimidhirr lexicon is incompletely recorded. Previous researchers have recorded very valuable information, but when parts of existing wordlists were discussed with elderly speakers, the following observations were made:

  • some lexemes and phrasemes have not been recorded at all, including some lexemes that denote common things or actions;
  • the meaning of some recorded lexemes phrasemes have not been described in depth, or the meaning is slightly different compared to speakers’ (current)          knowledge; and
  • the recorded form of some lexemes and phrasemes is different to spoken forms.


The two overarching medium-term goals

Because of the incomplete recording of the language, two overarching medium-term goals have been articulated in discussions with language speakers: one purely linguistic goal and one socio-linguistic objective. The first goal is to capture all unrecorded information about the language and stories that is still kept by older speakers and make it accessible in a user-friendly form.

The second medium-term goal is to change the status of the language. Guugu Yimidhirr must grow from being an almost unwritten language used only in private contexts into a respected, visible language. The desired socio-linguistic change includes that:

  • ancestral language is displayed publicly in Hope Vale/Dhurrbil and if possible also in communities with a non-Indigenous majority such as             Cooktown/Gan garr;
  • language activities and everyday use of the language have a high profile; and
  • groups of people who actively work with the language are formed.

The medium-term goals – complete recoding in user-friendly form, pride in language, and active groups – will make it possible to achieve the long term goal described in our vision.

Ancestral Language Action Team

In January 2013, a Guugu Yimidhirr Ancestral Language Action Team was formed. The ALAT currently has 8 members.

Actions for 2015-16 and 2016+

The actions below are described in more detail in the Language Project Proposals (attached)

  1. Choirs for adults and children
  2. Writing of original Guugu Yimidhirr songs
  3. Adults’ Guugu Yimidhirr literacy classes
  4. Learning language and culture on country (youth holiday camps)
  5. Publishing original Guugu Yimidhirr books
  6. Guugu Yimidhirr writer’s group
  7. New Guugu Yimidhirr dictionary
  8. User-friendly explanation of Guugu Yimidhirr grammar
  9. Searchable corpus of Guugu Yimidhirr texts
  10. Bringing records and recordings from AIATSIS to language nation
  11. Benchmark study of student’s Guugu Yimidhirr proficiency (intergenerational transmission)
  12. Ruby Hunter Song Book Translation
  13. Ethno-botany poster project.

Of these actions, number 1–6 and number 13 are initiated by and driven by the Indigenous ALAT members; the others are mainly led by the non-Indigenous PLC staff in collaboration with the Indigenous team members.