The Language Today

Muurrbay is focussed on offering a range of Gumbaynggirr Language classes:

  • Weekly Zoom classes make Gumbaynggirr accessible to those on and off-country.
  • One or two-day intensives can be arranged to focus on one aspect e.g. Games and activities for the Language Classroom supporting teachers from many different languages.
  • The Certificate III Gumbaynggirr Language and Culture Maintenance, in 2017-18 mainly for those teaching in schools, currently under revision.
  • An introductory online course is available to learn some Gumbaynggirr language.
  • Language classes for  focus groups are available on request, such as some currently designed for National Parks.
  • Gumbaynggirr For All Language classes, with Muurrbay Chairperson Micklo Jarrett, meets weekly on the banks of the Bellinger River.



1986: The Gumbaynggirr Language and Culture Group was formed by a group of Elders and Brother Steve Morelli, they began language research and community-based language learning. This developed into Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative which still services Aboriginal languages between Broken Bay and Queensland.


1996 – 2013: Muurrbay could see a need for certified training programs to support language learners’ career pathways. We qualified as a Registered Training Organisation, developing two courses, Cert II and IV in Gumbaynggirr Language and Culture Maintenance. At the same time we presented Community language courses through TAFE and non-certificate community courses.


2011: Muurrbay started a pilot program aimed at Gooris (Aboriginal people) working in education: pre-schools, schools, TAFE, and other institutions and organisations. Support from local school Principals of several schools made this viable, for employed people were released to attend the course three hours/week as part of their work in schools. Unfortunately schools haven’t done this more recently.


2014: The State Government’s Ochre Plan saw Gumbaynggirr included as one of five NSW language nests. Michael Jarrett was appointed Head Teacher.


2017-18: Muurrbay developed and delivered the Certificate III Gumbaynggirr Language and Culture Maintenance. 15 students graduated from this part-time course. We developed our own course as the alternatives at the time did not meet learners’ needs or recognize the centrality of culture in Aboriginal language courses. Participants experienced the Gumbaynggirr culture as well as learning Language and gained a foundation in linguistics and teaching methods. The course catered for Gumbaynggirr people who work in education, the arts, tourism and Indigenous small businesses.


The people

Many people from Grafton (Jadalmany) through Coffs Harbour (Garlambirla) to Nambucca (Nyambaga) and inland of these identify as Gumbaynggirr.  Gumbaynggirr descendants also now live off-country too. Muurrbay has held many Language classes on Gumbaynggirr country, while those off-country have benefitted from online courses and summer schools.


Neighbouring languages

Gumbaynggirr people share the same language, though a slightly different dialect as the Baanbay people of the Tablelands in the West. They are bordered to the North by the Yaygirr people who live around the mouth of the Clarence. The Yaygirr and Gumbaynggirr languages share some features. They also had the same family system so people would know for example who their cousins and possible marriage partners were in the other language group.

Also having the same family system are the Dhanggati people to the south. They also shared the same initiation ceremonies, though they and groups close to them (like Burrgadi and Ngambaa) have a quite different language.

To the North are the many Bundjalung languages (Bundjalung, Wahlubal, Yugambeh etc) whose language is quite different.



Along the Pacific coast, the Gumbaynggirr lands stretch from the Nambucca River in the South to around the Clarence River in the North and the Great Dividing Range in the West.



When the original way of life of Gumbaynggirr people was all but destroyed much of the language was buried. However, through the determination of Elders and supporters the Gumbaynggirr language has re-emerged. One group: Maggie Morris, Andrew Pacey, Jane Brown, Joyce Knox and Ivy Smith (who was fluent in the Nymboidan dialect) began reviving Gumbaynggirr in 1986. Muurrbay Language Centre at Nambucca Heads is continuing the revival that they began.



What is a ‘dialect’? People from two areas might speak slightly differently; but they understand each other; so they are talking different dialects of a language. 

There are three dialects of Gumbaynggirr: 

  1. The North Lowlands dialect to be found, for example, at Grafton. A major source of knowledge for this dialect came from the informants who worked with Dr W Smythe and resulted in his Grammar of the Gumbaynggar Language. Audio recordings of Clarence Skinner and Ray McDonald also give examples of this dialect.
  2. The Southern dialect, bordered by the Nambucca River. Harry Buchanan (Maruwanba, Maruungga) was the main informant for linguists Terry Crowley and Diana Eades. Harry ‘Tiger’ Buchanan and Les Nixon were informants for Brian Fillery. Diana Eades working with this Southern dialect produced the first accurate and professional grammatical analysis of the language in 1974, entitled: Gumbaynggir [sic]. This Southern dialect, spoken from the Nambucca to the Bellinger, has been the one most thoroughly documented on audio tapes available from AIATSIS, Canberra.
  3. The Nymboidan dialect reached inland to around Guyra and Tingha. It was spoken by Philip Shannon and Philip Long. Philip Shannon, Garrbuungga was a Nymboidan living near Maclean in 1929, he was Laves’ main informant, enabling him to write more than two thousand pages of  Gumbaynggirr sentences, stories and other information. Our knowledge of Nymboidan was later supplemented by recordings of Phillip Long by Hoddinott and Howard Creamer.

Each region has some unique words. For example ‘biguurr’ is used for ‘tree’ in the South, but ‘jaliigirr’ in the other two regions. The grammar varies a little too.


Books etc

See Publications page for all Muurrbay books.


Culture and land 

Singing the Coast Tony Perkins and Margaret Somerville, 2010.   “Singing the coast offers readers a rare opportunity to visit the heart of Gumbaynggirr culture and trace the shaping of place and identity in coastal Australia. By recording their stories Gumbaynggirr people invite us to share their intimate connection with their land. The stories are brought into a contemporary present at Muurrbay through deep mapping of the songlines that cross Gumbaynggirr country to reveal how people, place and identity are connected.” Available through AIATSIS Bookshop or at 

Aboriginal Women’s Heritage: Nambucca, a collection of stories from nine Aboriginal Women Elders of the Nambucca Valley, National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2003. Free download at 


Sound recordings

AIATSIS Sound Collection. Gumbaynggirr compilation tapes. (Compilation of Gumbaynggirr language material from the AIATSIS sound archive, 11585-15600).

Creamer, H. 1973. Audio-taped Gumbaynggirr language elicitation and cultural discussion with Len De Silva at Armidale, N.S.W. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15593, Tape 5048A].

Creamer, H. 1977. Audio-taped discussions with Gumbaynggirr men (Harry Buchanan at Nambucca Heads and Philip Long at Nymboida and Armidale), including some Gumbaynggirr words. AIATSIS Sound Collection A15600; Tapes 5039A, 5040A; 9544A.

Crowley, T. 1973. Audio-taped Gumbaynggirr speech, mainly elicited from Mr. Harry Buchanan, Nambucca Heads. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A13393-4; Tapes 2763A, B; 2764A, B. Data is incorporated into Eades (1979).]

Eades, D. 1974. Audio recordings of Gumbaynggirr speech elicited from Mr. Harry Buchanan. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15595-9; Tapes 4497A – 4502B ; data incorporated into Eades (1979)]

Fillery, B.J., 1967, Audio Recordings of Gumbaynggirr language from Harry Buchanan and Les Nixon. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15589-91. Tape 416A, B; 417A, B]

Gibbons, B.C. 1966. Audio Recording of Gumbaynggirr language and transcript. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15588; Tape 434B]

Gordon, J.A. 1968. Audio recordings of Gumbaynggirr songs and speech. [AIATSIS Sound Collection A15591-2; Tape 1219A; 1220A, B]

Hoddinott, W.G. 1965. Gumbaynggirr songs, stories and texts., (Field tapes) Original version field tape numbers 36, 37, 38; AIATSIS Sound Collection 14081 – 14086. (Tape LA 1395B; 1396 A,B; 1397A)

Hoddinott, W.G. 1977. Language elicitation, stories from Armidale area, NSW (Field tapes) AIATSIS Sound Collection Tape 4503 – 4509.


Other published books or chapters

Eades, Diana. 1979, ‘Gumbaynggir’ in Handbook of Australian Languages. vol 1. Canberra: ANU Press, and Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp 245-361.

Mathews, R.H. 1909. ‘Language and sociology of the Kumbainggeri tribe, New South Wales’ Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science – Report, v.12, 1909; 48543. Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer.

McDougall, A.C, 1900, 1901. ‘Manners, customs and legends of the Coombangree Tribe’, Science of Man, August, 22, 1900, v.3 no.7, no.9, v.4, no.1, no.3, no.4; 116-117; 145-146; 8; 46-47; 63

Smythe, W.E. 1949. Elementary grammar of the Gumbáinggar Language (North Coast, New South Wales). Sydney: Oceania Linguistic Monographs. Reprinted from Oceania 19, 130-191, 254-299 (1948); 20, 29-65 (1949); corrigenda in Oceania 21, 73-76 (1950).


Layton, Nanny, 1890? ‘Aboriginal words of the Goom-Bayne-Geere Tribe’, compiled by Nanny Layton for Mr Ellis’ Gumbaynggirr to English wordlist, MS, Clarence River Historical Society.

Laves, Gerhardt, 1929-1932, Papers, mainly field notebooks, correspondence and language cards, part of 7 boxes (MS 2188). Linguistic notes for languages of North Coast  particularly Gumbaynggirr.  Index prepared by L.G. Cromwell available On-line AIATSIS. See Following:

Department of Lands, 2003. Geographical Names Board of NSW, tiff & pdf  images of RASA Manuscripts – Dated 1900, on CD, Title page: ‘Anthropological Society of Australia, microfilmed by W&F Pascoe Pty Ltd’. [Almost all handwritten documents separated into five sections,  See Following extracts of this compilation, all handwritten].