First Footprints, Farsd Fatbrontz, Verst Pitprands: Spelling as if the language matters

I have watched the excellent series First Footprints a couple of times. It is a great overview of the origins of human occupation of Australia, with fantastic visual effects and photography. It starts with the declaration that “First Footprints seeks to treat Indigenous cultures and beliefs with respect”. Respecting Indigenous Australian languages should involve at least treating them the way you would any other language and checking that words in Australian Indigenous languages were written accurately. Think of the times you have watched a film that had misspelled English subtitles in it and what it makes you think of the care the subtitler took. It only took me a little effort to check on the following mistakes by web-browsing and by talking to people with experience in the particular languages.

I was puzzled at the mismatch between what I heard Aboriginal people saying in the program and what was given in the program’s subtitles. My experience with Martu Wangka speakers allowed me to identify that what was given as Marngunyi (in ‘Marngunyi the Dreaming Serpent created this spring’) should have been  Manguny(-ju), and to know that the translation is ‘Dreaming’ rather than ‘Rainbow serpent’ as it was given (jila in the video is the ‘snake’ part of the Rainbow Serpent).

The bush known as jinyjiwirrily (Solanum centrale, referenced for example in Fiona Walsh’s work ) was subtitled as jinjiuwirryi.

These words are also readily findable in Jim Marsh’s dictionary of Martu WangkaBallala was given for ‘bush turkey’ but there is no need for double ‘l’ and the Martu spelling system uses voiceless symbols so it should have been written as palala. I can’t find any reference to palala for ‘bush turkey’ in dictionaries of Martu or close varieties.

The placename given as Karjara was unusual as ‘r’ before ‘j’ is uncommon (and I didn’t hear it there) and the last ‘r’ sound was a trilled ‘r’ and so should have been ‘rr’. In fact a quick web search shows the placename recorded as Kajarra.

In Bininj (Gunwok) I heard ka[‘t]bi  and read Gutby (I wasn’t sure what the consonant was before the ‘b’, but Murray Garde tells me the word is kakbi ‘north’). I heard Yingarna and read Yingana (‘mother who came from the north’).

In a Cape York Wik language I heard Yu’ungka and read Young. I heard mamanji and read mamaji.

Browsing the web to see if others had similar quibbles and I found the following:

“Nawarritj has his name spelt in two different ways. The initial spelling is correct (caption on footage of him explaining the Earth Mother rock art image). The later version (Narrawitj) in the final credits is incorrect.” (

A series like this clearly had years of planning and lots of expert input, but it’s a shame that linguists were not included in the effort. Would these mistakes have been made if the language was French, German or Italian? Hardly. There is still a long way to go in recognising that Aboriginal languages are languages deserving the same respect as any others.


Thanks to Peter Sutton for information about the Wik example and Murray Garde for confirming the reference in Bininj Gunwok.

4 thoughts on “First Footprints, Farsd Fatbrontz, Verst Pitprands: Spelling as if the language matters”

  1. Curtis is a very talented film maker and all round clever person. But he has not had training in translation or in language work more generally. His father, Desmond Taylor, was also credited for his work on First Footprints, and he has been trained at Batchelor and was involved in setting up Wangka Maya with me in Port Hedland. I’m not able to say why the Martu words ended up the way they did.

  2. Yes, just for the record, Yu’ungka is immediately recognisable as a geopolitical term based on the site Yu’engk (which I mapped with traditional owners many years ago) which lies on the eastern side of the mouth of the Kirke River on western Cape York Peninsula, just near Cape Keerweer (Thewen). Between early records and about the 1960s ‘Yonka mob’ (Yu’ngkem, < Yu'engk+ABL) was a current term for people of the wider Cape Keerweer spectrum (and of frequent use in Aurukun mission records), now usually referred to as Cape Keerweer people. It has no linguistic reference per se, but refers to clans with estates in the relevant lower drainage division of the Kirke system. These clans have/had Wik-Elkenh, Wik-Ngathan and Wik-Mungkan varieties as their own, all of which were also owned by other clans NOT part of the Yu'engk spectrum. Only two of these (the first two) are mutually intelligible.

  3. I also enjoyed the first footprints doco, not least because a Mawng speaker, Ronald Lamilami, featured in the show quite prominently and in one scene, spoke in Mawng. It was a little surprising that while speaking Mawng his speech was cut off after he said ‘ta’, an word that never occurs at the end of the utterance. This indicates he was half-way through saying something. But this is not something that would bother most people in the audience.

    I think we need to be fair to filmmakers who have a very complex task and seem to do a pretty good job of it. They do a huge amount on a small budget. Their main aim is to make sense to the wider audience, not linguists. And they had plenty of archaeologists to deal with and Indigenous stakeholders etc. without tracking down linguists as well. I think like a lot of other professionals when they are writing down words in Indigenous languages, they tend to check it with a local Indigenous person, rather than saying ‘do you know of a linguist who could check this for us?’. which really wouldn’t necessarily sound that respectful would it?

    I’m sure that Ronald was not that concerned about being cut off half way through a sentence and quite happy about being able to talk about his people’s Maccassan history and art sites to such a wide audience.

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