A look at Australia’s unusual language — Kala Lagaw Ya

The Torres Strait Islands are a group of more than 270 islands straddling the Torres Strait, which separates Australia from the island of New Guinea. On them, live about 4 500 inhabitants, according to a 2016 census. Some of them speak a language indigenous to the central and western Torres Strait Islands, although it is replaced on some islands by the Torres Strait Creole, an English based creole which contains influences from languages like Malay, some Papuan languages, and some Australian languages.

Kala Lagaw Ya today is spoken by around 1 000 native speakers, and an unknown number of non-native speakers, who may use a simplified or pidginised form of the language. Prior to colonisation, Kala Lagaw Ya was the lingua franca of the region, and it is still spoken today by some Papuans and indigenous Australians. In fact, it is among the more intensely studied languages of Australia by academics, for how unique this language is in Australia.

So, where do we start? How about as we usually do — looking at the sounds of Kala Lagaw Ya.

Looking at its consonant inventory, Kala Lagaw Ya may seem like a typical Australian language. However, it is the only known Australian language that has both the /s/ and /z/ sounds, which are not found in languages like Upper Arrernte. They do come with allophones that sound like the consonant /c/ and its voiced counterpart. Additionally, Kala Lagaw Ya has only one rhotic, one /l/ and one /n/.

Kala Lagaw Ya also has a vowel inventory larger than many Australian languages, with eight phonemic vowels that may be contrasted by vowel length. The long vowel “รนรน” can only be found in Kala Lagaw Ya as well. It also has low-level vowel shifts, these are changes in vowel value due to stress domination or stress patterns in words and phrases. Long vowels can be shortened, and short vowels raise (for example, from /e/ to /i/) when a words is preceded by morphemes like adjectives, prefixes, and demonstrative articles.

Another weird thing about Kala Lagaw Ya is its unusually low cognation with even its closest linguistic cousin, Urradhi, at only 6%. It suggests extensive influence by the Papuan and Austronesian languages, as pronouns are typically Australian, many kin terms come from Papuan languages, and important maritime or canoe terms and agricultural words come from Austronesian languages. In fact, previous classifications have grouped Kala Lagaw Ya as among the Papuan languages, while more recent classifications have identified it as a Pama-Nyungan language.

The Kala Lagaw Ya pronouns may vary by dialect, but are consistently Australian. These pronouns not only differentiate between the inclusive and exclusive we, but also do so in dual pronouns. This means that the pronoun “we” (exclusive dual) and “you and I” (inclusive dual) have different words describing them. Note that there will be substantial variation in Kala Lagaw Ya words by dialect.

Kala Lagaw Ya grammar follows an interesting split-ergativity system. This means that some clause constructions use the ergative system, while other constructions use the nominative-accusative system, following some criteria. What happens in an absolutive-ergative language is that the recipient, also known as the “experiencer”, of an action in an intransitive verb (verbs that do not require a direct object), and the target of a transitive verb are treated the same grammatically. In the nominative-accusative system, however, it is the actor in a clause with a transitive verb, and the experience in a clause with an intransitive verb that get treated the same grammatically.

Split-ergativity, while special, does not make Kala Lagaw Ya particularly unique. Similar systems are found in languages like Hindi, Urdu, Chol, and Sahaptin. However, the contexts or circumstances that necessitate one system instead of the other differ between languages.

In Kala Lagaw Ya, a perhaps more interesting, albeit not particularly unique feature is the tense system in its verbs. Instead of the normal “present”, “past”, and “future” we are mostly familiar with, Kala Lagaw Ya takes it at least a couple steps further. Not only does it distinguish the distant and recent past, Kala Lagaw Ya also distinguishes this from the past or future for today, although the near future and today future tenses are merged. It also has a seventh tense, that is the last night past, used to describe actions that occurred the preceding night. When combined with number, aspect, voice, and mood, this makes a single Kala Lagaw Ya verb have over 100 different forms.

Overall, Kala Lagaw Ya is a fascinating language with sounds that are atypical from what you normally hear in indigenous Australian languages, and words with various regional influences from Papuan and Austronesian languages. Its seemingly unique characteristics makes this language stand out among the 200 or so other Pama-Nyungan family, and attracts anthropologists and linguists alike to study the language even more deeply.

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