In some languages we find that nouns belong to classes in terms of some broad meaning that they share, and their membership in a noun class is evident because of some shared grammatical behaviour. In Ngan’gi we find such a system of noun classes, and they primarily show up through a system of prefixes that attach to nouns. In the sets below, for example, you can see animal names and plant names each with a distinctive prefix;

Animal names Plant names
a-tyalmerr barramundi mi-damuy seed
a-niyen sand frog mi-dirwi green plum
a-fungi mosquito mi-furra fig
a-dawurr butcher bird mi-meli purple plum
a-dany bull shark mi-mukun bush tomato
a-ngandirr corella mi-ngugurr tamarind

There are 9 such prefixes in Ngan’gi, and what makes them interesting is that in addition to attaching to nouns, they also attach to other words in a phrase. So in the examples below you can see adjectives like ‘big’, and ‘bad’, demonstratives like ‘this’ and ‘that’, and numerals like ‘three’, all also carrying the same prefix that attaches to the noun they modify.


61)      wa-yedi wa-kinyi wa-lenggirr

M-man   M-this     M-bad

this bad man


62)      a-matyi              a-kerre     a-wuni

Anim-kangaroo Anim-big Anim-that 

that big kangaroo


63)      mi-meli              mi-kinyi      mi-warrakma mi-ngayi

Veg-purple plum Veg-this   Veg-three       Veg-mine

these three purple plums of mine


This process of taking the class prefix on the noun and repeating it on other words is what linguists call ‘agreement’. Where Ngan’gi gets even more interesting is that agreement of this type also crops up with a small number of generic nouns that are free words rather than prefixes. In the example below you can see the generic word syiri which stands for all striking weapons and we gloss as ‘striker’, appearing as a free word before the noun kunyunggun ’boomerang’, and also repeated in agreement before the word kinyi ’this’.


64)         Syiri   kunyungun syiri   kinyi ngunyi ta merrendi!

Strike boomerang Strike this 1sgSSlash2sgO hit WARN

(Look out or) I’ll hit you with this boomerang!


If we take this property of agreement as being definitive of what makes a noun class, then we find that the Ngan’gi noun class system consists of about 16 classes, as in this table.


Table: Noun class prefixes and generic nouns in Ngan’gi

  Noun class Free generic word Prefix form
1 female   wur-
2 male   wa-
3 group   awa-
4 bodyparts   de-/da-
5 animal gagu a-
6 vegetable miyi mi-
7 canines wuwu wu-
8 tree/thing yewirr/yawurr yerr-
9 bamboo spears yawul yeli-
10 fire yenggi  
11 language ngan’gi  
12 strikers syiri  
13 canegrass spears kurum  
14 drinks kuri/kuru  
15 woomeras tyin  
16 grass wurr  


One of the ways in which noun class is relevant to this dictionary, is that some nouns can take more than a single noun class prefix. For example we find pairs of animals and plants based on the same root, eg.

a-werrmisye fresh water crocodile a-furra freshwater mussel
mi-werrmisye red plum mi-furra fig, Ficus scobina


We also find nouns referring to certain human lifestages, or conditions which co-occur with both the ‘male’ and ‘female’ noun class prefixes, eg.

wur-nugumang female orphan wur-mulurru female cripple
wa-nugumang male orphan wa-mulurru male cripple


Throughout the dictionary you’ll find that we have included information about these kinds of derivations. If for example, you look up mulurru ’cripple’, it will include reference to ‘Derivations: wamulurru, wurmulurru’. For some of the most common derivations, we have also included the prefixed form as a headword. So, sticking with mulurru as our example, the dictionary also includes under ‘w’ listings for both wamulurru and wurmulurru. Noun class is a fascinating aspect of Ngan’gi, and raises on many interesting questions – such as ‘What do freshwater crocodiles and red plums have in common?’.

More depth? If you’d like to know more there is a detailed linguistic treatment of Ngan’gi noun class in:

Reid, N.J. 1997. Class and Classifier in Ngan'gityemerri. In Harvey, M. & N. Reid (eds) Nominal Classification in Aboriginal Australia. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.