The creation of this record of Yolŋu signs aligns two strands of research—one on the ethno-linguistics of alternate sign language and the other on the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous Australian culture. (Adone, James, Kendon).

The Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is at the centre of the research presented in this book. This research, directed by the Yolŋu signers and speakers of this rare endangered language, has been conducted over the last 25 years on the homelands and in the communities of North East Arnhem Land.

The importance of passing on this language to a new generation of Yolŋu children is bonded to the need to share YSL with all Australians. As each indigenous language disappears all our worlds are diminished. For this reason, we bring together some five hundred signs of YSL collected from the east to the west of Yolŋu Country.

This book is dedicated to the gracious contributors who have passed away since we began this work and the spirits of those who have gone before; ŋaḻapaḻ and ŋurruŋaŋgal, the elders, those who shaped the land and sea and named the stars that light the world. Their spirits continue to exist, in memories hidden deep within, their whispering on the wind, like footprints in the sand, show us the way. We celebrate the spirit inside this special language as old as time and as new as tomorrow. This magical gift for learning is created to enrich a new generation of children walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.

What is YSL?

YSL is an alternate sign language.3 An alternate sign language is a language that coexists with spoken languages, not a signed version of the language, but a language in its own right, with its own grammar and vocabulary.4 YSL augments everyday communications and is the primary mode of communication for the non-hearing members of the Yolŋu community. Alternate sign languages are different from primary sign languages, such as AUSLAN, because they are used by hearing people as an alternative way to communicate.

Who are the Yolŋu?

Yolŋu are people of North East Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Yolŋu is the name Yolŋu use for people speaking suffixing languages collectively known as Yolŋu matha (lit: people’s tongue).1 Yolŋu languages belong to Yolŋu people. Because Yolŋu language is an ancestral inheritance, deep respect is called for in rendering and recording of the signs of this language. Approximately 7,000 Yolŋu people retain and honour their ancestral laws (Rom). They do not do so without struggle, because they also live under the strict regulation of Commonwealth and Territory governments, particularly the special ‘prescribed’ race laws granted by the Commonwealth under Section 51(26) of the Constitution. The history of human occupation in Australia stretches back over 50,000 years. Yolŋu culture is part of this history, indissolubly linked to the spiritual and physical foundations of land and sea country. Yolŋu custodianship of the country is evidenced in the carefully tended forests and foreshores of their homelands. A web of sacred places and songlines connects this system of ancestral sites to the complex meshwork of universal kinship. Yolŋu culture is rich with history, art, song, dance, magic, ceremony and connectedness, a way of life in harmony with the spirit of care for kin and country. Yolŋu people and their unique way of life on the homelands are now, more than ever, under threat from the harsh assimilation policies of the Settler State.