The Bilingara, also known as the Bilinarra, are an indigenous Australian people of the Northern Territory.

Native toAustralia
Native speakers
1 (2013)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Coordinates: 14°56′50″S 129°33′15″E


The Bilinarra language is classified as an eastern variety of one of the Pama-Nyungan Ngumbin languages.[2] It is mutually intelligible with Gurindji and the dialect spoken by the neighbouring Ngarinman people. Bilinarra is considered a dialect of Ngarinyman, though it shares more vocabulary with Gurindji. There are no structural features that are completely unique to Bilinarra and linguists would consider all three languages to be dialects of a single language, but speakers of these languages consider them to be different. Elements of their tongue were first recorded by a police constable W. H. Willshire in 1896.[3] By 2013, only one person was alive who spoke it as their primary language though it inflects the variety of Kriol spoken by Bilinarra children.[2] Bilinarra is native to the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory of Australia[4]:1. The name of the language most likely refers to the surrounding country, as bili means ‘rock’ or ‘hill’, followed by an unknown suffix[4]:2. Massacres by early colonists, poor treatment on the cattle stations, and mixing of languages at the cattle stations caused Bilinarra to lose prominence as more dominant languages took over, leading to the endangerment of Bilinarra[4]:11. According to Ethnologue, Bilinarra is rated an 8a (moribund) level of endangerment[5].


Norman Tindale estimated Bilinarra tribal land to cover some 7,500 square miles (19,000 km2) covering the areas of the Moray Range, Delamere, and, in its southern extension, down to the Victoria River Downs and Pigeon Hole stations and the junction where the Victoria and Armstrong rivers join. Its eastern boundaries lay beyond Killarney.[6] Numbers lived around the Billiluna Station in the 1920s.[7] Bilinarra territory was predominantly characterized by blacksoil plains, limestone gorges and sandstone outcrops.[8] Their neighbours are the Mudburra to the east, the Gurindji people to the southwest, and the Ngarinyman to the northwest. Most Bilinarra people now live at Pigeon Hole (Balarrgi)[9]

Cultural practices and beliefs

In order to manufacture a gum for use in fixing tufts of flax to the bodies of dancers in their corroborees, the Bilingara used to call on one of the clan who would not be participating in the dance itself. Once handed a piece of string woven from human hair, the person who was to supply his blood used it as a ligature of his biceps, and then cut into an artery with a stone, jabbing away until an ample flow was secured, which was caught in a bark basin at his feet. What was not used for making gum was given to dingos to lap up.[7]

Their native pharmacopeia drew on things like lemon grass (gubuwubu) and Dodonaea polyzyga (yirrigaji) for preparing a medicinal drink or lotion, mixed with a slurry of termite mound earth (mardumardu) to treat congestion, for example.[8]

With regard to conception, the Bilinarra consider that children pre-exist their actual births, in the form of spirits that linger around an outcrop of rocks at a site called Gurdurdularni ('the place of women's children). Even the spirits of the dead (yirrmarug) may reincarnate themselves by shifting into the foetus of a pregnant woman.[10] Numerous foods were taboo for such women, the bans being related to beliefs that such meats might damage the unborn child. Turtle (gurwarlambara) meat for example was forbidden because it was thought that, were it consumed, the child would grow up walking with a turtle-like waddle.[11]

History of contact

The first non-Aboriginal (gardiya), that is, European, to venture into the Victoria Downs area was John Lort Stokes in 1839. The first major exploratory expedition followed in 1855-1856 when the area was surveyed by Francis Gregory and his brother Henry, and they reported favourably on its prospects for pastoral development. In 1883 Charles Fisher and Maurice Lyons set up the Victoria River Downs Station on an area that extended over Bilingara and Karrangpurru lands.[12]

The Bilinarra suffered from massacres during the period of their dispossession as their land was taken over for pastoral development, and even thereafter, on the stations where they sought employment, were treated harshly. Like other tribes in the area, they suffered from the standard three successive waves of colonial devastation: introduced disease, land-clearing massacres[lower-alpha 1], and forced labour on the new pastoral leases. Meakins and Nordlinger state that with the establishment in 1894 of a police station run by Willshire "massacres became the officially sanctioned method of population control."[16] Their numbers rapidly declined.[17]

In Bilinarra oral history accounts, two massacres in particular are recorded for this early period. One group of tribesmen were rounded up and brought into the Gordon Creek police station, where they were tethered and then shot, with their bodies then burnt and dumped into a rubbish tip for cattle bones. In a further incident, a cook prepared a stew for some Bilinarra, lacing it with strychnine. Thereafter the site was named Poison Creek.[18][16] Survivors eventually made their way into Ngarinman territory, where many were killed as intruders, while women were taken as wives. Those women returned to Bilinarra lands on the demise of their husbands.[19]

Some time around 1922 a Bilinarra youth nicknamed "Banjo" killed the Billiluna station manager Condon and his white stockman, Sullivan, after the latter had abducted his woman for sexual purposes. Banjo remonstrated with the usurper, but to no effect, other than being dressed down. When the time came for the annual calf-branding, Banjo snuck into the station and, seizing a rifle on a table, shot Sullivan in the thigh, and he died of the wound soon after. He then aimed at Condon, who asked him not to shoot, and killed him. The other blacks thought of spearing him, but he had the upper hand with a rifle, and ordered some of them to report the murder to the manager of another station, while he slipped off to the Kimberley with his girl. Jack Flinders eventually tracked him down near Mary River and Louisa Downs, and shot him dead.[20]

Alternative names

  • Bilinara
  • Bilinurra
  • Bilyanarra
  • Bilyanurra
  • Plinara
  • Pillenurra
  • Billianera
  • Bulinara
  • Bringara
  • Boonarra[6]

Some words



Bilinarra contains 6 vowels, three distinct vowels with both the regular and long versions present[21]:43. The vowel phonemes are provided below.

Vowel Phonemes
  Front Central Back
High i(i),iː(ii) ʊ(u),ʊː(uu)
Low   ɐ (a), ɐː (aa)  

The long version of each vowel is present in the language but occurs rarely.


Bilinarra consists of 23 consonants for a total of 31 phonemes[21]:43:

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Retro­flex Lamino-palatal Velar
Stop p, b(b) t, d(d) ʈ, ɖ(rd) c, ɟ(j) k, ɡ(g)
Nasal m n ɳ(rn) ɲ(ny) ŋ(ng)
Lateral l ɭ(rl) ʎ(ly)
Tap/Trill ɾ, r(rr)
Glide w ɻ(r) j(y)

Syllable Structure

Template Example Translation
CV / prickle
CVC /jurr.gan/ forearm
CVCC /durrb/ pierce, stab

The above examples demonstrate the types of syllabic structure in Bilinarra [21]:58-59. For CVC syllable structure, all consonants except for can be the last consonant in this structure. CVCC structure is found much less often than CVC. CVCC structure appears in mostly coverbs, though some nominals also take this form. This structure is also found in monosyllabic words or as the last syllable in a disyllabic word. CVCC always contains the pattern /rr/, /l/, or /rl/ (liquid consonants) followed by /g/, /b/, or /ng/.


Stress in Bilinarra is very predictable. Primary stress always falls on the first syllable of the word. Words of two and three syllables only contain one stress. Examples as follows [21]:65:

Number of Syllables Word Translation
Two 'wardan big
Three 'janggarni forearm, hand

For words greater than three syllables, the primary stress occurs on the first syllable and secondary stress on the third [21]:65:

Number of Syllables Word Translation
Four 'jawulˌwarra king brown snake

In longer words, which include affixation and clitics or more than one syllable, a new stress domain follows. As an example consider the word, 'mangarri-'murlung-'gulu=rni='rnalu. The stress falls on the first syllable of each multisyllabic morpheme, and the clitic "=rni" receives no stress [21]:67.



In Billinarra, morphology consists exclusively of suffixation. The complete structure of the nominal word can be defined as follows:


Above, DERIV = derivational suffix, NUM = number suffix, ADNOM = adnominal suffix, and CASE = case inflection.

Derivational Suffixation

There exists derivational suffixation such as the nominalizer, -waji, which transforms a verb, in this case, into a noun [21]:100.











Jindagu girri-nggu yuwa-ni junggard-ngarna rurr-waji-la

one woman-ERG put-PST smoke-ASSOC sit-NMLZ-LOC

One woman put the packet of cigarettes on the chair

Zero-derivation also takes place in Bilinarra, where nouns can be derived from coverbs. For example, ngurra can mean "to camp" or "camp" depending on the context[21]:156.

Adnominal Suffixation

Adnominal suffixation is suffixation attached to nouns. As an example, consider the use of -gujarra, which means dual.







Nyila=ma=rna jayi-nya jagarr-ngarna-gujarra

that=TOP=1MIN.S give-PST cover-ASSOC-DU

I gave him two blankets.

For example, Nanagu-gari-lu, Subsect-OTHER-ERG, "The other Nanagu", describes not oneself but another [21]:99. Another example is Jagarr-ngarna-gujara, Cover-ASSOC-DU, "Two blankets", describes precisely two things (number suffix)[21]:100.

Derivational and inflectional suffixation can be combined in Bilinarra. For example, Rurr-waji-la, Sit-NMLZ-LOC, "On the chair" combines both the nominalizer -waji and -la indicating location [21]:100.


Clitics in Bilinarra generally have a semantic or discourse function in creation of a word. They are usually placed after inflectional and derivational morphology but before pronominal clitics with the exception of the DUBitative clitic[21]:92. The types of clitics included in Bilinarra are discourse clitic, pronominal clitic, and dubative clitic. The dubative clitic, =nga, in Bilinarra marks uncertainty or doubt:[21]:93.










Nyawa=ma=rna=nga lurrbu=rni=warla lurrbu, ngurra-gari-la.

his=TOP=1MIN.S=DUB return=ONLY=FOC go-POT return camp-OTHER-LOC

I might just go back, then return the next day.

Bilinarra has both "restricted" and "unrestricted" clitics. Of interest to note is the difference between restricted and unrestricted clitics. Unrestricted clitics can be attached to any part of speech. For example, =ma, TOPic, and =barla/warla, FOCus[21]:93:









Wanyji-ga=warla=n ba-ni nyila girrawa?

which-LOC=FOC=2MIN.S hit-PST that goanna

Where did you kill that goanna?

On the other hand, restricted clitics can only attach to certain parts of speech. The expectation modifier =rni, ONLY, can be attached to all words except inflecting verbs, and =rnigan, AGAIN, can only attach to nominals and coverbs: For example, diwu-waji=rningan, fly-NMLZ=AGAIN, "plane again" [21]:94.








Yala-ngurlu=ma=rna diwu-waji=rningan lab

that-ABL=TOP=1MIN.S fly-NMLZ=AGAIN pick.up do-POT

Then I’ll take plane again.


In Bilinarra, reduplication is used to encode plurality with nouns, intensity with adjectives, and participant plurality for coverbs. The most common form of reduplication in Bilinarra involves copying the first two syllables of the stem as a prefix, or just the first syllable in the case of monosyllabic stems, resulting in a full symmetric reduplication[21]:75:

wajja > wajja-wajja > 'hurry-REDUP'

For multi-syllabic words, this form of reduplication results in partial reduplication[21]:75:

jalyarra > jalya-jalyarra > 'dip into water'

Another type of reduplication applies only to coverbs and involves copying the final CVC syllable as a suffix to achieve reduplication[21]:76:

gudij > gudi-dij > 'standing around'

Case and Agreement

Case is very important in Bilinarra as it is used to encode grammatical relations and to mark different types of subordination and switch-reference.

Nominative and Accusative

The nominative case (intransitive subjects) and accusative case (transitive object) are always unmarked. For example, crocodile (warrija) takes the same form in the transitive and intransitive case [21]:116:







Warrija-gujarra=ma wardard-ba=wula garrinya

crocodile(NOM)-DU= TOPbask-EP=3UA.S be.PRS

'The two crocodiles were basking'







Ba-ni=wuliny nyila=gada warrija

hit-PST=3UA.O that=IMM crocodile(ACC)

'He killed those two crocodiles there'


The ergative case suffix marks the subject of a transitive sentence. Additionally, the suffix can be used to mark instruments. A variety of ergative suffixes exist for attachment to different words. The ergative case markers include -lu, -nggu, -gu, -gulu, -du, and -u. For example the ergative case suffix can be used as below [21]:117:







Gula=wuliny=nga baya-rni warrija-lu

NEG=3UA.O=DUB bite-PST crocodile-ERG

'The crocodile might not have eaten the two of them'







Gamba-la=yi nalija Nina-nggu

cook-PRS=1MIN.O tea NAME-ERG

'Is Nina making tea for me?'


Simple Sentences

Like most Australian languages, Bilinarra does not rely on a basic word order, as they are known for their non-configurationally and generally ‘free’ word order properties. Word order is generally determined by discourse principles rather than grammatical constraints, such that it is not possible to associate grammatical relations with fixed positions in the syntactic structure. Therefore, the pattern of words in a simple transitive sentence does not hold a simple structure. Below the first simple transitive sentence uses VOS word order and the second uses SVO structure and in both examples subsect refers to a group of kinship (Nanagu is a female subsection) [21]:350:









Mirlij-garra ba-ni durlwan Nanagu-lu

skin-CONT hit-PST bark subsect-ERG

'Nanagu chopped the bark off the tree'













Nanagu-lu wamib na ba-rra nyila gardbi

subsect-ERG spin FOC hit-PRS that hair

'Nanagu spins the hair'


  1. Bilingara oral traditions regarding these are said to be corroborated by W.H. Willshire's The land of the dawning.[13] Willshire was a constable at Gordon Creek.[14] Darrell Lewis writes of him that:"Willshire is the most notorious policeman in Northern Territory (and possibly) Australian history. He was based in Central Australia in the 1880s, a time of severe conflict there between the Aborigines and settlers. In 1891 he was charged with the murder of a number of Aborigines, but in spite of strong evidence against him he was found not guilty. He was not sent back to Central Australia, but after several short-term postings in South Australia, he was sent to another region where severe problems with Aborigines existed - the Victoria River District.. Victoria River Aborigi8nal oral history speaks of the first policeman shooting people in the same general areas where fights with Aborigines are documented in Willshire's book..when Willshire was stationed at Gordon Creek there was a sizeable Aboriginal population in Bilinarra country, but for decades after he left the Bilinarra were numerically one of the weakest tribes in the entire Victoria River District."[15]


  1. The Bilinarra grammar found there to be only one native speaker in 2013. Meakins, Felicity, and Rachel Nordlinger. A Grammar of Bilinarra : An Australian Aboriginal Language of the Northern Territory, De Gruyter, Inc., 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  2. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 1.
  3. Willshire 1896, pp. 95–97.
  4. Felicity., Meakins,. A grammar of Bilinarra : an Australian aboriginal language of the Northern Territory. Nordlinger, Rachel, 1969-. Boston. ISBN 9781614512745. OCLC 874162898.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  5. "Ngarinyman". Ethnologue. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  6. Tindale 1974, p. 22.
  7. Terry 1926, p. 129.
  8. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 12.
  9. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 1,17.
  10. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 13.
  11. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 15.
  12. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 16.
  13. Willshire 1896, p. 41.
  14. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, pp. 16–17.
  15. Lewis 2012, pp. 104.106.
  16. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, p. 17.
  17. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, pp. 12,15.
  18. Rose 1991, p. 45.
  19. Meakins & Nordlinger 2014, pp. 17,19.
  20. Gaunt 1932, p. 4.
  21. Felicity., Meakins,. A grammar of Bilinarra : an Australian aboriginal language of the Northern Territory. Nordlinger, Rachel, 1969-. Boston. ISBN 9781614512745. OCLC 874162898.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)


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