Languages of Australia — Muruwari

In Australia, lies a micronation no one recognises. Spanning the territory along the state border of New South Wales and Queensland, Australia, this corresponded to the traditional homeland of the Murrawarri people. It declared its independence in 30 March 2013 from Australia, and even brought their sovereignty campaign to the United Nations to request for recognition of the Murrawarri Republic as the world’s newest country. Yet, the Government of Australia has not acknowledged this declaration of independence.

The Murrawarri Republic has an interesting geography. In fact, its territorial claims, while sort of defined, does show some inconsistencies in measurement. Its website identifies its territory as being roughly triangular in shape, with its north-westerly apex close to the Queensland town of Cunnamulla and its southwesterly apex at the confluence of the Darling and Warrego Rivers. It stretches around 200 km from east to west and about 250 km from north to south. Claiming to be 81,796 km2 large, in reality, its area only occupies around 22,170 km2. A more interesting characteristic is, although its population is estimated to be around 3500 – 4000, its purported capital “city”, Barringun, has only 7 people, according to a 2016 census.

This micronation also has a cool-looking flag, with the brown and the light blue representing Mother Earth. The brown represents the land and the light blue represents the sky from where Murrawarri spirits reside until their return on the falling star, as well as the water and the people. The white star in the upper left corner has eight points which represent the eight clan groups of the Murrawarri Republic. Yeah, symbolic.

But now, for the main topic. In addition to Australian English, the Murrawarri Republic recognises the Muruwari language as its official language. It is part of the Pama-Nyungan language family, which contains most of the indigenous languages spoken in Australia. However, what is more obscure, or rather, unknown, is the status of the language today. Muruwari is thought to have gone extinct in the late 20th century, but the Endangered Languages Project suggested that there were perhaps three native speakers as recently as 2006. Glottolog suggests that while the Muruwari language has gone extinct at some point, there are some signs that suggest that the language is lying dormant, waiting for a revitalisation movement.

What we know about the Muruwari language is normally from a compilation of tapes, papers, transcriptions, and sketches recorded by Jimmy Barker of Brewarrina, Emily Horneville and Shillin Jackson of Goodooga, and Robin Campbell of Weilmoringle. Perhaps the most prominent publication was the the paper by Ian Sims, Judy Trefry, Janet Mathews, and Lynette F. Oates (1988), which was based on some of the recordings made by Jimmy Barker and Janet Matthews, and Bill Campbell and Judy Trefry. Oates also conducted fieldwork in Goodooga with some of the last few remaining speakers of Muruwari, such as Robin Campbell and Emily Horneville.

One unique characteristic of Muruwari is its purported relationship with Barrabinya, a language or dialect which went extinct in 1979. With 44% in cognate counts, and essentially the same grammars, Muruwari and Barrabinya most likely share a dialect relation, forming an isolate branch within the Pama-Nyungan language family.

The Muruwari language has also received influences from the geographically neighbouring languages the speakers interacted with. This included the Wiradhuric languages to the east and south, the Maric languages to the north, and the Kumu dialect of the Paakantyi dialect continuum to the west. Furthermore, the Muruwari language was probably influenced by the Karnic languages, and even the languages spoken in the Western Desert.

Most of the characterisation of the Muruwari language we will cover here is based off Oates’ field studies in the 1980s. The Muruwari language has 19 consonants and three vowels, an inventory which is extremely similar to its Barrabinya counterpart. Among the consonants, the retroflex consonants, alveolar lateral, trill, and flap consonant sounds could not be used in the start of a word. Additionally, the three vowels could be distinguished by length, as short and long vowels.

There are still many gaps in knowledge surrounding how the Muruwari language works. For one, Muruwari is known as a “suffix transferring” language, where suffixes could be transferred from the verb to other words in the clause or sentence. While this characteristic has been identified, the exact function of this characteristic is still largely uncertain.

With the declaration of independence of the Murrawarri Republic from Australia, some of the aims highlighted on their website aimed to protect the heritage, and revitalise the culture of the Murrawarri people. This also included the reintroduction of the Muruwari language, although the exact plan of the revitalisation process is largely unclear. With material scarce and many aspects of the language still unknown, bridging the gaps could very well be the first obstacle when it comes to language revitalisation.

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