Languages of Australia — Tiwi (Tunuvivi)

In the field of language isolates, finding examples which maintain a sizable speaking population today is quite hard. Many language isolates are after all, extinct, or teetering to the brink of extinction. And on the other extreme, there are language isolates which still enjoy a vibrant status like Korean. The language we are covering today is somewhere in between, but it is still one of the few Australian languages still being learned by children. This is Tiwi.

The Tiwi language is not quite spoken on the Australian mainland; more rather, its speakers are mainly found on the Tiwi Islands, or Ratuwati Yinjara (literally “two islands”), just off the coast of the Northern Territory of Australia, about 60 kilometres north of the city of Darwin. Consisting of Melville (Tiwi: Yermalner) and Bathurst Islands, the Tiwi Islands were first settled by indigenous Australians about 40,000 years ago, and about 2,000 Tiwi still live on the islands to this day.

But the Tiwi language is not universally referred to as “Tiwi”; there are various names used to refer to the language, established by other Australian residents living geographically close to Tiwi speakers, neighbouring indigenous communities, or even by those who have close interactions with the Tiwi speakers.

This includes the name “Tunuvivi”, coined by the indigenous communities on the Tiwi Islands. It is the original name for the language itself, literally meaning “we the only people”. The Tiwi name came later, from the anthropologist C.W.M Hart in the 1930s to have a “discernible” tribal name representing the Melville and Bathurst indigenous members. This term was eventually accepted by the islanders, who also incorporated the name as a constituent of their social identities.

Tiwi was not the only western name used to refer to the language. An Australian writer and author named William Edward Harney, or Bill Harney, used the term “Nimara” to refer to the Tunuvivi (or Tiwi) language, carrying the meaning of “to talk”, or “language”.

The nearby Iwaidja community used the word “Woranguwe” or “Worunguwe” to refer to the indigenous residents of the Melville Islands specifically, while using the word “Wongak” to describe the Tunuvivi or Tiwi language.

The Tiwi language has undergone rather major shifts in recent generations, creating a split in the language into two “dialects” along generational lines — Traditional Tiwi, and New Tiwi. Traditional Tiwi was known for its polysynthetic nature, and is spoken mainly by speakers over the age of 50. However, this grammatical complexity was lost among the younger generations, creating the New Tiwi spoken mainly by these younger speakers.

New Tiwi has also received many influences from other languages, such as loanwords from the English language. Other features include the omission of object prefixes, as well as a shift in word order, as you could see in the comparison here:


She (the sun) is shining over there in the morning(Lit. She is walking over there in the morning with a light)

Traditional Tiwi:

(Nyirra) ampi-ni-watu-wujingi-ma-j-irrikirnigi-y-angurlimay-ami.

(she) she.NPST-LOC-morning-CONT-with-CV-light-CV-walk-MOV

New Tiwi:

Japinara jirra wokapat ampi-jiki-mi kutawu with layit.

morning she walk she.NPST-CONT-do over.there with light

Despite Tiwi’s status as a language isolate, it still shares several consistencies with many of Australia’s indigenous languages. One of this is the sound system — Tiwi has four phonetically distinct types of coronal stops, that is, consonants which are articulated using the flexible front part of the tongue. These types are the plosive, nasal, rhotic, and the lateral. Another feature is the distinction between alveolar and retroflex consonants, something that is rather common among the Australian languages. Additionally, typical of an Australian language, Tiwi lacks fricative consonants, so there are no /f/ or /v/ consonants in Tiwi (or most Australian languages for the matter).

Tiwi has three approximant consonants, including the velar approximant consonant /ษฐ/, a feature that is rather unusual. It also features four phonemic vowels, /a/, /i/, /u/, and /o/, but each of these exhibit a range of possible allophones that can overlap with those of other vowels, such as the vowel /ษ™/ย when used in unstressed syllables.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of [Traditional] Tiwi is its polysynthetic nature, which does remind of some languages spoken in Nunavut and Yukon like Iรฑupiaq. With heavy use of noun incorporation, Tiwi makes it possible for all the elements of a sentence to be contained in a single “word”, but a really long one. As noted in the differences between Traditional and New Tiwi, the incorporated forms of a word can differ significantly from the free-floating form of the word. A proposed reason, by Dixon (1980), suggested that some words have undergone this change due to grammaticalisation, and some words that differ rather drastically did so due to lexical replacement or taboo.

With this structure, comes many types of markings that can be tagged onto verbs and nouns to change their expressed meanings. While these marking include the “typical” grammatical categories of person, number, tense, gender, aspect, mood, and voice, Tiwi verbs can also be marked based on the time of day (morning or evening), stance, emphasis, and location or direction.

As Tiwi, like many indigenous Australian languages, does not distinguish between the noun and the adjective, nominal markers are used for both word types. These include gender and number, though the plural is ungendered. So there are three nominal categories for grammatical gender and number — the masculine, the feminine, and the plural. There is also a distinction made between human and non-human nominals, but they are usually marked on numbers.

The Tiwi language has enjoyed a traditional classification as a language isolate because of its seemingly large scale of differences from other languages on mainland Australia. However, this could be shaken up a bit, from a study done in 2020. Using historical linguistic techniques, linguists have proposed that the Tiwi language could actually be part of the Gunwinyguan language family, which contains languages spoken on North Central Australia. The Gunwinyguan family, though, has been traditionally grouped from shared morphology in their verbal inflections. Would this piece of research ultimately change the official classification of Tiwi? Only time will tell.

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