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Damin (Demiin in the practical orthography of Lardil) was a ceremonial language register used by the advanced initiated men of the aboriginal Lardil (Leerdil in the practical orthography) and the Yangkaal peoples of northern Australia. Both inhabit islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Lardil on Mornington Island, the largest island of the Wesley Group, and the Yangkaal on the Forsyth Islands. Their languages belong to the same family, the Tangkic languages. Lardil is the most divergent of the Tangkic languages, while the others are mutually comprehensible with Yangkaal.

Created bythe Lardil people
Setting and usageInitiation language for men, used by the Lardil people of Mornington Island
Extinct1970s?[citation needed]
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)
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The Lardil word Demiin can be translated as being silent.



The Lardil had two initiation ceremonies for men, namely luruku, which involved circumcision, and warama, which involved penile subincision. There were no ceremonies for women, although women did play an important role in these ceremonies, especially in the luruku ceremony.

It is sometimes said that Damin was a secret language, but this is misleading since there was no attempt to prevent the uninitiated members of the Leerdil tribe from overhearing it. However it was taught during the warama ceremony and, therefore, in isolation from the uninitiated. At least one elder is known, who, though not having been subincised, had an excellent command of Damin, but this seems to have been a unique case.

Damin lexical words were organised into semantic fields and shouted out to the initiate in a single session. As each word was announced, a second speaker gave its Lardil equivalent. However, it normally took several sessions before a novice mastered the basics and could use Damin openly in the community. One speaker did claim to have learned to speak Damin in a single session, but on the other hand two senior warama men admitted that they lacked a firm command of the register.

Once Damin had been learned, the speakers were known as Demiinkurlda ("Damin possessors"). They spoke the register particularly in ritual contexts, but also in everyday secular life, when foraging, sitting about gossiping, and the like.

Linguistic featuresEdit

Damin is the only click language outside Africa.

Damin had a much more restricted and generic lexicon than everyday language. With only about 150 lexical roots, each word in Damin stood for several words of Lardil or Yangkaal. It had only two pronouns (n!a "me" (ego) and n!u "not me" (alter)), for example, compared to Lardil's nineteen, and had an antonymic prefix kuri- (jijuu "small", kurijijuu "large").

Grammatically, the Damin registers of the Lardil and Yangkaal use all the grammatical morphology of those languages, and so therefore are broadly similar, though it does not employ the phonologically conditioned alternations of that morphology.


Damin words have three of Lardil's four pairs of vowels, [a, aː, i, iː, u, uː]; the fourth, [ə, əː], occurs in grammatical suffixes. Vowel length is not contrastive, but depends on the preceding consonant. Damin uses only some of the (pulmonic) consonants of everyday Lardil, but they are augmented by four other airstream mechanisms: lingual ingressive (the nasal clicks), glottalic egressive (a velar ejective), pulmonic ingressive (an indrawn lateral fricative), and lingual egressive (a bilabial 'spurt'). Even some of the pulmonic egressive consonants are exotic for the Australian context: fricatives, voiceless nasals, and bilabial trills. The consonants of Damin, in the practical orthography and IPA equivalents, are:[1]

Damin lexical consonants
Bilabial Denti-
Alveolar Postalveolar Velar
laminal apical apical laminal
Plosive voiceless b [p] th [t̻] d [t̺] § j [t̠ʲ]
j2 [t̠ʲ\t̠ʲ, ɕ]
k [k]
ejective k' [kʼ]
Nasal voiced § § n [n̺]
(coda only)
§ ny [n̠ʲ]
(in fny, p'ny)
ng [ŋ]
voiceless ng* [ŋ̊]
Flap rr [ɾ]
Trill pr2 [ʙ\ʙ]
(in pr2y only?)[2]
Approximant central § y [j] w [w]
lateral §
Click nasal m! [ʘ̃] nh!2 [ʇ̃\ʇ̃] n! [ʗ̃]
n!2 [ʗ̃\ʗ̃]
rn! [ʗ̃˞ ]
(not secure)
oral egressive p' [pʼ, ʘ↑]
(in p'ny, p'ng)
Fricative voiceless f [ɸ]
voiceless ingressive l* [ɬ↓ʔ]
Affricate pf [ᵖɸ]

§ These sounds are found in standard Lardil, but not in Damin, apart from grammatical words and suffixes.

L* is described as "ingressive with egressive glottalic release".

There is no alveolar–retroflex distinction in Damin, with the possible exception of the clicks. (This distinction is neutralized word-initially in Lardil, as it is in most Australian languages.) However, Hale notes that the Damin alveolar and retroflex clicks (found in the pronouns n!aa, n!uu and in rn!aa, rn!ii respectively) might be in complementary distribution, and it is not clear that they are distinct sounds.

Some of the consonants listed above only occur in clusters. /n̺/ only occurs as a coda. A derivational rule seems to be to pronounce all onset nasals as clicks; it is likely that /ŋ/ is not a click because a velar click in the straightforward sense is not possible.


Damin consonant clusters at the beginning of a word are p'ny [ʘ↑n̠ʲ], p'ng [ʘ↑ŋ], fny [ɸn̠ʲ], fng [ɸŋ], fy [ɸj], prpry [ʙ\ʙj], thrr [t̻ɾ]. Words in normal Lardil may not begin with a cluster. However, Lardil has several clusters in the middle of words, and many of these are not found in Damin words, as Damin only allows n [n̺] and rr [ɾ] in a syllable coda. (The attested stem medial Damin clusters are rrd, rrth, rrk, rrb, jb (Hale & Nash 1997: 255), though j of jb is supposedly not allowed in that position. Other clusters, such as nasal–stop, are produced by Lardil grammatical suffixes.)

Hale & Nash posit that Damin syllables (not counting codas) may only be CVV or CCV. Purported CV syllables are restricted to C = [kʼ], [ŋ̊], [ɬ↓ʔ], suggesting that these are underlyingly iterated consonants. Hale suggests they might be k2, ng2, l2 /kk, ŋŋ, ll/ (rather as [ɕ] is a realization of j2 /t̠ʲt̠ʲ/) and also that thrr [t̻ɾ] might be d2 /t̺t̺/. (Note that transcription of vowel length is inconsistent, and the vocabulary given above does not follow these patterns.)

No consonant occurs before all three vowels.[3] Known sequences are as follows. Note however that with only 150 roots in Damin, and several consonants and consonant clusters attested from only a single root, there are certain to be accidental gaps in this list.

Precede [u] only p'ng [ʘ↑ŋ], p'ny [ʘ↑n̠ʲ], pr2y [ʙ\ʙj], fng [ɸŋ], fy [ɸj],
thrr [t̻ɾ], j2 [t̠ʲt̠ʲ], k' [kʼ], nh!2 [ʇ̃\ʇ̃]
Precede [i] only fny [ɸn̠ʲ], l* [ɬ↓ʔ], ng* [ŋ̊]
Precede [iː] only d [t̺], rr [ɾ], y [j], m! [ʘ̃]
Precede [i(ː)] only
(not clear if consonant is C or CC)
f [ɸ], pf [ᵖɸ]
Precede [a, u] n!2 [ʗ̃\ʗ̃]
Precede [aː, uː] k [k], ng [ŋ], n! [ʗ̃]
Precede [iː, uː] b [p], th [t̻], j [t̠ʲ], w [w]
Precede [aː, iː] rn! [ʗ̃˞ ]

/a/ is much less common than /i/ or /u/, the opposite situation from Lardil.

Samples and vocabularyEdit

Damin is spoken by replacing the lexical roots of ordinary Lardil with Damin words. Apart from a leveling of grammatical allomorphs, the grammar remains the same. For example,

Ordinary Lardil ngithun dunji-kan ngawa waang-kur werneng-kiyath-ur.
gloss my wife'[4] dog go-FUT food-GO-FUT
translation My brother-in-law's dog is going to go hunting.
Damin n!aa n!2a-kan nh!2u tiitith-ur m!ii-ngkiyath-ur.

Some vocabulary:[5]

n!aa 'ego', n!uu 'alter'
kaa 'now', kaawi 'not now'
l*i(i) 'bony fish', thii 'elasmobranch'
ngaajpu 'human', wuujpu 'animal', wiijpu 'wood' (incl. woody plants), kuujpu 'stone'
m!ii 'vegetable food', wii 'meat/food',[6] n!2u 'liquid', thuu 'sea mammal', thuuwu 'land mammal'
didi 'harm (affect harmfully)', diidi 'act', kuudi 'see', kuuku 'hear, feel', yiidi 'be (in a place)', wiiwi 'burn', wiidi 'spear', ngaa 'die, decay', fyuu 'fall; the cardinal directions'
n!aa thuuku 'point on body', wii 'surface on body', nguu 'head', k'uu 'eye', nguuwii 'hand, foot'
thuuku 'one, another; place', kurrijpi 'two; hither, close; short'

Antonymic derivation with kurri-:

j2iwu 'small', kurrij2iwu 'large'
thuuku 'one', kurrithuuku 'many'
kurrijpi 'short', kurrikurrijpi 'long'
kawukawu 'light', kurrikawukawu 'heavy'

Specific reference requires paraphrasing. For example, a sandpiper is called a 'person-burning creature' (ngaajpu wiiwi-n wuujpu human burn-NOM animal) in reference to its role as a character in the Rainbow Serpent Story, while a wooden axe is 'wood that (negatively) affects honey' (m!iwu didi-i-n wiijpu honey affect-PASS-NOM wood)

There is some suggestion of internal morphology or compounding, as suggested by the patterns in the word list above. For example, m!iwu '(native) beehive, honey' and wum!i 'sp. mud crab' may derive from m!ii 'food' and wuu 'mud shell clam'.[clarification needed]

The origin of DaminEdit

The origin of Damin is unclear. The Lardil and the Yangkaal say that Damin was created by a mythological figure in Dreamtime. Hale and colleagues believe that it was invented by Lardil elders; it has several aspects found in language games around the world, such as turning nasal occlusives such as m and n into nasal clicks, doubling consonants, and the like. Evans and colleagues, after studying the mythology of both tribes, speculate that it was the Yangkaal elders who invented Damin and passed it to the Lardil.

Current situationEdit

The cultural traditions of the Lardil and Yangkaal have been in decline for several decades, and the Lardil and Yangkaal languages are nearly extinct. The last warama ceremony was held in the 1950s, so nowadays Damin is no longer in use by either the Yangkaal or the Lardil. However, recently a revival of cultural traditions has begun, and luruku has been celebrated. It remains to be seen whether warama ceremonies will also be reactivated.


  1. ^ Kenneth Hale and David Nash, 1997. Lardil and Damin Phonotactics, pp.247-259 in Boundary Rider: Essays in honour of Geoffrey O'Grady, ed. by Darrell Tryon & Michael Walsh. Pacific Linguistics C-136.
    The IPA is not clear. For example, jj is described as alternatively a voiced fricative, but transcribed as a voiceless fricative [ʆ], an obsolete variant of [ɕ]. Other transcriptions are apparently wrong, such as transcribing supposedly apical rn! as laminal [ⁿǂ]. p' has dual transcriptions [pʼ, ʘ↑], suggesting it might be pronounced as either an ejective or a spurt, though this is not mentioned in the text.
  2. ^ Possibly also simplex pr [ʙ], or varies with pr [ʙ]
  3. ^ unless the retroflex click is an allophone of the alveolar click
  4. ^ See List of glossing abbreviations to explain abbreviations in small caps.
  5. ^ Hale & Nash 1997: 248–249
  6. ^ more generally, any amorphous food; also food in the abstract
  • R. M. W. Dixon, The Languages of Australia (1980)
  • D. McKnight, People, Countries and the Rainbow Serpent (1999)
  • K. Hale Deep-Surface Canonical Disparities in Relation to Analysis and Change (1973)
  • K. Hale and D. Nash, "Damin and Lardil Phonotactics". In Tryon & Walsh, eds, Boundary rider: essays in honour of Geoffrey O'Grady (1997)
  • P. Memmott, N. Evans and R. Robinsi Understanding Isolation and Change in Island Human Population though a study of Indigenous Cultural Patterns in the Gulf of Carpentaria

External linksEdit