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The People and their Traditional Country

Martuthunira country is located around the coastal plains between the Fortescue and Robe River area in the south-western Pilbara region of Western Australia. It extends inland across the town of Pannawonica and west to the Indian Ocean, north to the Maitland River and south almost to Cane River. The southeastern boundary is bordered by Kurrama language country. Waluru Pool marks the eastern boundary.


In 2004 there were estimated to be less than five speakers of the Martuthunira language. Dench estimated that only one speaker remained as at 1994. A number of people are partial speakers, have a passive knowledge of Martuthunira and many more identify as being from Martuthunira heritage. Martuthunira is classified as a near extinct language. The few remaining speakers and part speakers live near the coastal town of Onslow.


Dench (1994) attributes the loss of the Martuthunira language as being due to social upheaval, death, disease and other misadventures due to European settlement of Martuthunira country.


Martuthunira traditional country near the Fortescue River. (Picture by Nadine Hicks)

Language Resources and Recordings

The first times this language is mentioned in documents appear to be 1916 by R.C.E. Long in ‘Some Australian classes, named and nameless’ and in 1913 ‘Three Tribes of Western Australia’ by Radcliffe-Brown. Dench worked extensively on the recording of Martuthunira with the last full speaker and produced a descriptive grammar in 1994. In 2001, Wangka Maya Language Centre produced the Martuthunira Wordlist.


Language Information

Martuthunira is part of the Pama-Nyungan language family; a large group of indigenous languages spread over much of the Australian continent. It belongs to the Ngayurta subgroup of languages along with Ngarla, Nyamal, Palyku, Banyjima, Kurrama, Yindjibarndi, Ngarluma, Kariyarra, Nhuwala and Jurruru.


Past spellings of the Martuthunira language include Mardudunera, Mardudjungara, Mardudhunera, Mardudhoonera, Mardutunira, Mardatunera, Mardudunera, Marduduna, Mardathoni, Mardatuna, Maratunia or called Jawunmala (by Yindjibandi).


Written Examples of the Martuthunira Language

(From Alan Dench’s Martuthunira Grammar 1994)


Ngayu wayularru manhamanhanpanguru, kangkungulayi wiru nganajuwumulyarra ngurramulyarra.

My legs were unsteady, I want to be taken home.


Ngunhu puliyanyja punilha marraryirta.

That old man went for news.


Ngayalharru, karlwalayi ngurrartanpalayirru.

Having cried, they get up and go home now.


Ngunhaa ngarnngarnkukariyalyarra nyinanguru nganajuwurrini.

That fellow is pointing his chin towards me.


Robe River. (Picture by Nadine Hicks)