Overview of the linguistic diversity of Arnhem Land – drawing parallel between languages and traditional didgeridoo playing styles.
At the time of colonisation in the late 18th century, Aboriginal people of Australia spoke hundreds of distinctive languages. Even though many of these languages are lost since, there are still hundreds of them spoken throughout the continent today. Across the country, here has been a significant effort made to restore some of the lost languages, revitalise those that are considered endangered, and record spoken languages in order to teach the future generations.
Similar to spoken language, the traditional didgeridoo playing techniques use lip and tongue movements to form different sounds, many of these sounds are unique to Aboriginal languages. Since Indigenous didgeridoo players use the same tongue movements as they use in spoken language, it make sense to look into how languages affect the sound of the didgeridoo. A good example for how traditional players in Northeast Arnhem Land think about this, is the Yolŋu word waŋa that has multiple meanings: its primarily meaning is to speak, but – depending on the context -, it can also mean to play a didgeridoo: dhuwal ŋayi ga yiḏaki waŋa – there he is playing the didgeridoo. To be able to grasp the very basics of the traditional playing styles, it is vital to learn some of the foundations of Aboriginal languages, especially orthography (the study of pronunciation of a particular language), phonetics (the study and classification of speech sounds) and linguistics (study of a language and its structure).
Before colonisation the use of the traditional didgeridoo was restricted to the northernmost part of the continent, so below we focus on languages that are spoken in this region. We will look at how we can use the basics of the language to better understand traditional playing styles. As mentioned above, still today, Aboriginal people of Northern Australia speak hundreds of languages, most of them are linguistically different to each other. From the early 20th century different methods were developed by Australian linguists and native Indigenous speakers to understand, analyse and write down these languages. Aboriginal languages across the continent use sounds that are different from the sounds in English language – therefore, to be able to develop a written language, phonemes were introduced. The phoneme is the smallest unit of speech, distinguishing one word, or word element from another (as the element p in “tap,” which separates that word from “tab,” “tag,” and “tan”). Each phoneme has a written form, made up by one or two letters (see below). Even though different Aboriginal languages use different written structures and phonemes, there are some similarities in pronunciation. While learning about the traditional playing styles, it is vital to understand some of these phonemes and be able to make a distinction between some of the sounds in languages of Northern Australia, and other foreign languages, like English.
To discuss the correlation between the traditional didgeridoo and languages, we will culturally, linguistically and musically distinguish East Arnhem Land and West Arnhem Land by drawing a vertical line on the map (see the map to the right/below). The languages spoken across Northeast Arnhem Land belong to a large group, called Yolŋu Matha (Yolŋu means people or person, Matha means tongue). There are several different Yolŋu languages are spoken by many related clan groups, each of them have their own cultural and ceremonial traditions. As we discussed elsewhere, modern musicology defines the traditional didgeridoo playing style of this region as ‘type b‘, or, in informal-language, ‘yiḏaki-style‘. On the other hand, to the west, People speak distinctively different languages and play different didgeridoos in particularly different styles – these playing styles are referred to as ‘type a‘, or ‘mago-style‘. The West Arnhem Land region, and other regions further to the west all the way to the Kimberly’s in Western Australia, are one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. We do not want to discuss in-depth the different languages of the areas concerned, instead, only highlight the cultural and musical diversity, but also some of the similarities that affect and define the traditional sounds of the didgeridoo.
The connection between language and didgeridoo-playing has been under-researched and under-estimated; didgeridoo players could learn a lot from studying linguistics, that would give them a better understanding of the sound itself, but also the pre-colonial history of playing the didgeridoo. As one of the most prominent Australian musicologist, Dr Alice Moyle highlighted in her paper (The Australian didjeridu: a late musical intrusion), merely listening to the different playing styles and looking at the linguistics at a surface level can leave us with some very interesting observations. If we look at the above mentioned two main types of playing styles, we can see one significant difference: type-a style is overtone absent (no trumpet or toot played), while type-b style uses the trumpet sound, played either long or short (‘dups’ as we know it). This difference seems to in-line with the two main language types spoken across the region: while type-a players speak pre-fixing languages (non-Pama-Nyungan) and play overtone-absent style, type-b players speak suffixing languages (Pama-Nyungan) and play trumpet notes an toots. It sounds like mosts linguists agree, that Pama-Nyungan languages (in our case, Yolŋu Matha speakers of Northeast Arnhem Land) were introduced to the area in a later stage – perhaps a few thousand years ago -, while non-Pama-Nyungan speakers occupy the region longer. Even though these observations won’t lead us to any conclusions until the intricate connection between didreridoo-playing and languages researched in-depth, but we can assume that the difference between the two playing styles are cultural-ceremonial, and linguistics can only inform the historical background of the instrument.