It’s especially unusual because men and women speak different dialects; while women have a passive understanding of men’s language they do not speak it, and vice versa for the men.

The tiger shark was having a really bad day.

Other sharks and fish were picking on him and he was fed up. After fighting them, he met up with the hammerhead shark and some stingrays at Vanderlin Rocks in the waters of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria to speak of their woes before they set out to find their own places to call home.

This forms one of the oldest stories in the world, the tiger shark dreaming. The ‘dreaming’ is what Aboriginal people call their more than 40,000-year-old history and mythology; in this case, the dreaming describes how the Gulf of Carpentaria and rivers were created by the tiger shark. The story has been passed down by word of mouth through generations of the Aboriginal Yanyuwa people, who call themselves ‘li-antha wirriyara’ or ‘people of the salt water’.

As we sailed past the rocks and sandstone cliffs of Vanderlin Island, heading towards the mouth of the Wearyan River, dugongs and fish swam by. We were searching beneath the waves for a glimpse of shark fins, following in the path of the tiger shark in this creation story.

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The tiger shark’s journey was challenging as he forged his way through the Gulf, creating the water holes and rivers in the landscape. He was turned away by many other angry animals who did not want him to live with them. A wallaby even hurled rocks at him when he asked if he could stay with her. But as he swam, the dreaming story explains, the shark helped create the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria that we see today.

“Tiger sharks are very important in our dreaming,” said Aboriginal elder Graham Friday, who is a sea ranger here and one of the few remaining speakers of Yanyuwa language. Some people here still believe the tiger shark is their ancestor, and the Yanyuwa are known for their ‘tiger shark language’, as they have so many words for the sea and shark.

Tiger sharks are very important in our dreaming

The Yanyuwa traditionally fish these waters, catching and eating fish, turtle and dugong, but very rarely shark. Their heartlands lie over five main islands and more than 60 smaller, barren sandstone islets of the Sir Edward Pellew Group, which are scattered over 2,100 sq km. Vanderlin Island is the largest and furthest east, 32km from north to south and 13km wide. The 5.5m-long tiger shark, which travels over thousands of kilometres from these coastal waters to the Pacific Ocean each year, would have been a powerful mythological figure.

However, today conservationists are concerned about tiger shark numbers, with them currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Not many sharks any more. But this dreaming story shows there were once,” Friday said.

Changes to climate have reduced their numbers, with warming waters having a knock-on effect on their growth and ability to swim long distances, according to scientists from the University of Adelaide. Although the shark may not be seen much in these waters anymore, it is still spoken of with respect, as the giver of life and creator of this land.

Part of Friday’s job as a sea ranger is to patrol the Gulf islands to monitor the numbers of marine animals in the area and to educate people in the old ways of hunting – that you only take what you need to eat from the waters. But just as importantly, he is helping teach young Yanyuwa their language and the cultural significance of sea animals. The rangers also maintain ceremonial sites and burial grounds on the islands as well as the ancient rock art, which, although very weathered, still shows images of sharks.

“It makes sense to now have us, Aboriginal sea rangers, here to look after the seas; we know this country and how to fish sustainably,” Friday said.

Up here in ‘saltwater country’, I often heard the expression that everybody looks north towards the Gulf, where the sharks would come in from. But few Australians or tourists make it this far north. John Bradley, schoolteacher and linguist is one, and I first read about the region in his book, Singing Saltwater Country. The landscape here is flat, hot and sparse. To understand it you really need to understand the language and stories of its original owners who know it best: the Yanyuwa.

Yanyuwa's rhythms sound like the sea it so perfectly describes

Yanyuwa is a beautiful, poetic language. Its rhythms sound like the sea it so perfectly describes. The language precisely expresses a sense of place, often describing complex natural phenomenon in a single word, showing how attuned the Aboriginal people are to nature.

From the boat in the morning sun, I saw light beams shifting through water.

Yurrbunjurrbun,” my guide Stephen told me, who is partly Aboriginal and has family in the Gulf. He knows some of the language and this region.

As we sailed, passing clouds cast their shadows on the sea’s surface.

“This is ‘narnu ngawurrwurra’ in Yanyuwa,” Stephen said, describing exactly what I was seeing.

I repeated the words, feeling their weight and resonance.

What’s especially unusual about Yanyuwa is that it’s one of the few languages in the world where men and women speak different dialects. Only three women speak the women's dialect fluently now, and Friday is one of few males who still speaks the men’s. Aboriginal people in previous decades were forced to speak English, and now there are only a few elderly people left who remember the language.

Friday told me that the women in his family taught him to speak their tongue as a child. Then in early adolescence, he learned the men’s language from his male relatives. While women have a passive understanding of men’s language, they do not speak it, and vice versa for the men. No-one I spoke to could say why these different dialects originated. Perhaps it’s because men and women had different roles and spent little time together tens of thousands of years ago, or maybe it was a sign of respect to not speak another’s dialect.

Language brings about understanding of the shark

Some local Aboriginal people told me, “It’s just the way it’s always been.”

But what is known is that the Yanyuwa language is intertwined with the animal.

“Language brings about understanding of the shark. The five different words women and men have for shark shows how close a bond Yanyuwa have with the animal,” Friday said. 

Women’s words for the shark describe its nurturing side, as a bringer of food and life, while men’s words are more akin to ‘creator’ or ‘ancestor’.

You could be punished if you didn't speak the right dialect at the right time.

“See, there, to those rocks, if you broke the rules, you could be sent there!” Stephen said, as he gestured towards the barren Vanderlin Rocks.

I had a feeling he might have been adding a bit of drama to the situation, perhaps to stop me repeating his Yanyuwa words. But it’s true that the language’s beautiful tones belie the strictness surrounding its use. Men and women do not speak the other’s dialect as it shows disrespect in their culture or is considered rude. At the very least it sounds extremely odd if a man speaks the women’s dialect or vice versa.

But Yanyuwa does not stop at just dialects for men and women – there are yet more for ceremony and respectful language, too. There was also ‘signing language’, according to Bradley, useful for hunting when people needed to be quiet or sometimes to signal when travellers were entering a sacred place, but few people remember many sign words now. Children also learned ‘string language’ – tying straw or string together in specific patterns to represent sea creatures and food.

Preserving the Yanyuwa language is tied to preserving the culture and creatures of the sea. Linguists like Bradley are working with Friday and other Yanyuwa people to preserve this language in written form. Without their language, it will be hard for the Yanyuwa to preserve their deep understanding of the sea and their home.

“English just does not understand the sea like Yanyuwa,” Stephen said.

In 2015, parts of the Gulf were handed back to the Yanyuwa by the Australian Government, after a long fight as part of land claims in the region dating back to the 1970s. As I left tiger shark country, I felt pleased that it is being looked after by the rangers who know these waters so well, working to preserve this disappearing language and the creatures of these seas. 

“It’s what we call futureproofing,” Bradley said.

That’s saving an ancient sea language for future generations to enjoy.

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