About Gumbaynggirr

The Gumbaynggir people

Perhaps one thousand Gumbaynggir people lived on the coast of south-east Australia before the disruption of white settlement. They shared many things, such as a common language, initiation, section names and stories. At the same time, they were fiercely loyal to their own clan jagun (homeland), dialects and traditions.

Harry Buchanan’s Bagabaga (Nambucca) ancestors belonged to the sea and the rainforested river. Philip Shannon’s homeland was inland around Nyimbuy (Nymboyda). The high plateau of the Great Dividing Range was where Baanbay clans lived. The northern sea-coast was the land of the Wiigulga (Woolgoolga) people, and the Clarence River in the north had its own clans. In each area, the people were as distinct as the landscape itself.

Each jagun had its sacred paths and areas where the life passed on by the Dreaming heroes was remembered and renewed, but only by those clans who were guumunbu — belonged to or were related to — each place.

Auntie Ivy Smith’s clan is guumunbu to the diamond-headed snake miirral near Tyringham, South of Grafton.

These clans were united especially by the women, who were expected to marry outside their own clan but inside the Gumbaynggir Tribe.

North of the Clarence, the Banjalang peoples have very different customs from the Gumbaynggir, but the Yaygir people around Yamba are very close. To the south too, the Ngambaa people of Warrell Creek seemed to be fairly close: Birrugan was reckoned to be related to them. Although the Thungutti to the south have a language that is closer to some languages in coastal Victoria than it is to Gumbaynggir, they share common section and initiation names with the Gumbaynggir and several other coastal groups. Harry Buchanan often said that the section names (there are four men’s and four women’s names) are like the points of the compass, for he could go to a neighbouring tribe and know how he was related to each of the people there.


The meanings of some place names

  • GAYAARR: white cockatoo
  • GUUWAMILARR: fog sacred place
  • MARRGAAN: wallaroo
  • YARIAPINI: (Thungutti word) koala rolling down
  • BAGABAGA: knee (Birrugans knee)
  • YURRUUNGA: long place
  • GALAAMBILA: she-oak (Casuarina) along (Corrambirra Point)
  • WIIGULGA: black apple (a rainforest fruit tree)
  • NGAALGAN: ear

A note on Gumbaynggir sentences

Many Aboriginal languages change endings on words to get different meanings. Bunjalung has very many word endings, Thungutti a few and Gumbaynggir is somewhere in between. In some ways, all these languages are ‘harder’ than English. For instance, in Gumbaynggir, there are twenty-four forms of the word ‘you’: ngiinda (one of you), bulaa (two of you) and ngujawiny (three or more of you) and each have eight forms. One word can carry lots of meaning: ‘guubunyay’ means ‘turns into a mopoke’, ‘ngalimbandigay’ means ‘belonging to us two but not you, the person we’re talking to’.

The sounds of Gumbaynggir:

  • a   as in butaa as in path
  • i   as in bitii as in feet
  • u   as in put uu as in boot
  • g   as in gag (NEVER as in age)
  • j   no exact English sound (closer to dew than jew)
  • ng   as in sing (may start a word)
  • ny   as in onion (NEVER as in many – may end a word)
  • r   as in arrow
  • rr   no exact English sound (like Scottish r)
  • w   as in wow
  • y   as in yet (NEVER as in why)

With some words containing ‘l’ or ‘rr’, Gumbaynggir people may flap the tongue forward to make a sound halfway between these sounds: ‘ngaarru’ (water) can sound like ‘ngaarlu’, or even ‘ngaalu’. These words are written two ways in the wordlist: – with ‘-RR-‘ and with ‘-L-‘. A way of writing this sound has still to be found.

Gary Cattanach from Nambucca Heads High School published in 2015.