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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin

Dictionary of Anatomy - Dhäruk Mala ga Mayali' Rumbalpuy (2010)


Aboriginal Resource and Development Services


Aboriginal Resource and Development Services







The Dictionary of anatomy - Dharuk mala ga mayali' rumbalpuy is the first dictionary to translate anatomical and medical terms from English to an ancient Aboriginal language. This dictionary has taken six years to complete, and translates over 200 anatomical terms; including everything from DNA to tear ducts, into Yolngu Matha, the main language used in east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It also includes innovative full colour graphics and examples of related pathology.

The health of Indigenous people is constantly put at risk because they do not know what doctors are talking about. This is a vital resource for Indigenous Health Workers, interpreters and health professionals working with Yolngu people who speak the Djambarrpuyŋu language.

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet abstract

When to use this resource

The production of this dictionary has required the blending of knowledge from two world views, the biomedical understandings of the Western world, and the world view and understandings of the Yolngu world in regard to the intricacies of our bodies and how they work. It has not always been an easy blend, but it has been stimulating working through the issues as we each come to an understanding of the other's world. There were several outcomes of this "blend" that we feel we need to explain.

1. ARDS educators have found that personalizing the functions of the body by using an inclusive "our" - "yours and mine" - helps the audience to relate to the information and even understand it better. Hence the use of "our" throughout the definitions.
2. The scientific descriptions of the anatomy have been worked through to fit both Yolŋu and Western world views as much as possible, without compromising on accuracy. Further, since the English is presented in a form that assists the translation process for Indigenous languages, Western medical experts may view the wording as "quaint" at times. Please keep in mind, two things: this is the very first dictionary of its kind in an Aboriginal language and so is very new information; and our primary concern is for Yolŋu to grasp an understanding of the concepts, so we may not fit the biomedical jargon world at this stage.
3. Some Yolŋu know many of the anatomical terms only in relation to the animals they butcher to eat, e.g. turtles or wallabies. When asked what the equivalent terms would be for humans, there didn't seem to be any. So, with permission, we have related many of the terms previously recognized for animals to humans.
4. The dictionary uses mainly the Djambarrpuyŋu language in the definitions and examples. This is because Djambarrpuyŋu has become the lingua franca of a large part of the Yolŋu lands. Most Yolŋu will recognize the words, even if they do not speak Djambarrpuyŋu.
5. We have found in making this dictionary that with this topic, the Yolŋu and Western world views often meet, but do not align. For example, there is no word for the English concept of "neck". Mayaŋ' means the front of the neck, inside and out - much like the English "throat". That is why we have had to include two terms: neck (front of _ ) and neck (back of _) Another term that caused much investigation is the term for muscle. The Yolŋu use the term ŋanak "flesh" for muscle, but to speak of "heart muscle" strains the meaning of ŋanak. Further to that, ŋanak can mean some tissue other than muscle. So compromises have had to be accepted in both languages.
6. For some entries, there were no Yolŋu words e.g. cell, platelet, creatinine. For these terms, phrases of description are used. When that occurs, the meaning is described in the definition and then the word is used as a borrowed word. This is necessary, as long descriptive phrases can detract from the flow of meaning especially when the information is new to the reader. So when you see the English term in the Yolŋu definition, it is because there was no equivalent word found in Djambarrpuyŋu. (Note that many of the English terms have been borrowed from Greek or Latin as well!)

ARDS Abstract

Contact details

Aboriginal Resource and Development Services
374 Stuart Highway
Box 36921
Winnellie NT 0821
Ph: (08) 8984 4174
Fax: (08) 8984 4192


Last updated: 1 September 2014
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