Skin Names

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Full resolution PDF of all sheets plus an explanation page: File:Skin Names of West Arnhem.pdf

Kuninjku, Kune, Kundedjnjenghmi, Mayali – Maningrida-Bulman-Pine Creek Region
Kunwinjku – Gunbalanya Region
Kundjeyhmi – Jabiru Region

Getting Started

Learning the Bininj skin and kinship system is as rewarding as it is challenging. At first, the complexity is overwhelming. Yet it is not so different from multiplication tables or the periodic table; it takes years of immersion and application. Your Bininj friends will help you.

The terms vary depending on location; pick the right chart for your location but don't be surprised if your friends prefer different terms: people move around after all.

Step 1: Use people's skin names

Everyone has a skin name. You can use it to address them or refer to them, and this is preferable to using their name. There are just eight skin names, in male and female versions. It's not many, though you'll need to ask for help to pronounce them correctly.

You can ask someone to tell you their skin name with: baleh kunkurlah? Don't worry if you have to ask several times... people appreciate the fact that you're making an effort. You might add people's names to the chart.

Step 2: Learn the skin name patterns

Skin names are not randomly assigned. They flow from a mother to her children following the pattern Ⓐ→Ⓑ→Ⓒ→Ⓓ→Ⓐ. If you know a woman's skin name you can work out how to refer to her children. For each person you know, memorise the skin name of his or her mother, using the above pattern in reverse. For each woman you know, memorise the male and female skin names of her children. After a while you will have learnt all of the skin names, and the cyclic pattern.

Step 3: Know your moieties

In common with other Aboriginal societies, Bininj divide the world into halves (moieties), Yirridjdja and Duwa, and Ngarradjku and Mardku. These are important in ceremonies. Consult the chart to find out your moieties.

Notice that your siblings are in the same quadrant as you. So are your mother's sister's children and your father's brother's children* (parallel cousins), also known as cousin sisters and cousin brothers.

Your "right-skin", the category of people you can marry, have opposite moieties to you. You find them in the diagonally opposite quadrant. Your mother's brother's children and father's sister's children (cross cousins) are here as well (assuming right-way marriage).

Your mother shares one of your moieties: you are both Ngarradjku or both Mardku. Your father shares the other moiety: you are both Yirridjdja or both Duwa.

Step 4: Learn to disambiguate people

Try referring to people by their skin name, followed by their clan name in order to disambiguate. You can also disambiguate people according to age: wurdyaw (baby), wurdurd (child), yawkyawk (young woman), yawurrinj (young man), kamerlemdulmuk (pregnant), nakohbanj (old man), ngalkohbanj (old woman). Another option is to use descriptive words: kodjbarla (bald), nakimuk, ngalkimuk (big), ..................

Pronouncing the skin names

Here are recordings of the skin name cycles:

ngal.wa.mud, ngal.nga.rridj,, ngal.bu.lanj
Female "ngarradjku" skin names (western)
ngal.wa.kadj,,, ngal.ko.djok
Female "mardku" skin names (western)
kodj.djan, be.linj, ba.nga.rdi.djan,
Female "ngarradjku" skin names (eastern)
nga.rridj.djan, ka.manj, bu.lanj.djan, wa.mud.djan
Female "mardku" skin names (eastern)

Why it matters

Every culture has conventions about how to address people. The same individual might be referred to variously as: Kim, Dr Smith, Mum, Madam, and Kimmy. To use the wrong term of address would be a faux pas. Disinterest in learning the appropriate way to address people announces that you are an outsider, and shows disrespect of local custom.

In many Aboriginal cultures, it is rude to address someone by name. "The name is like an intimate part of the body, with which another person does not take liberties" (William Stanner, The Dreaming, 1953). Stanner continues:

[Aboriginal] creative 'drive' to make sense and order out of things has concentrated on the social rather than on the metaphysical or the material side. Consequently, there has been an unusually rich development of what the anthropologist calls 'social structure', the network of enduring relations recognised between people. This very intricate system is an intellectual and social achievement of a high order.

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