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Kalaw Lagaw Ya


Kalaw Lagaw Ya

Kalaw Lagaw Ya
Western Torres Strait
Region Western and Central Torres Strait Islands, Queensland
Ethnicity Torres Strait Islanders
Native speakers
700 (2005) to 1,200 (2006 census)[1]
  • Kalaw Lagaw Ya
Kalaw Lagaw Ya
Kalaw Kawaw Ya
Kulkalgaw Ya
Kaiwaligaw Ya
Western Torres Strait Islander Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 mwp
Glottolog kala1377[2]
Range of Kalaw Lagaw Ya (orange) in the Torres Strait

Kalaw Lagaw Ya (Kala Lagaw Ya), or the Western Torres Strait language (also several other names, see below), is the language indigenous to the central and western Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia. On some islands it has now largely been replaced by Brokan (Torres Strait Creole English).

Before colonisation in the 1870s–1880s, it was the major lingua franca of the area in both Australia and Papua, and is still widely spoken by neighbouring Papuans and by some Aboriginal people. However many second (or nth) language speakers it has is unknown. It also has a "light" (simplified/foreigner) form, as well as a pidginised form. The simplified form is fairly prevalent on Badu [Badhu] (Kala Lagaw Ya territory) and neighbouring Moa, particularly among younger people.


  • Names 1
  • Geographic distribution 2
  • Classification and external comparison 3
    • Personal pronouns 3.1
  • Pre-historic overview 4
  • Outside influences 5
  • Dialects 6
    • Dialect differences 6.1
  • Phonology 7
    • Kauřařaigau Ya Phonology 7.1
    • Development of ř 7.2
  • Orthography 8
    • Pronunciation of the letters 8.1
  • Grammar 9
    • Nominal morphology 9.1
    • Irregular Nouns 9.2
    • Demonstratives 9.3
    • Pronouns 9.4
    • Personal names and familiar kinship terms 9.5
    • Kauřařaigau Ya Nominal Morphology 9.6
    • Verb morphology 9.7
    • Sample verb declension : íma- 'see, observe, supervise, examine, try, test' 9.8
    • Kauřařaigau Ya Verbal Morphology 9.9
    • Miscellaneous paradigms 9.10
  • Sign language 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12


The language is known by several names besides Kalaw Lagaw Ya, most of which (including Kalaw Lagaw Ya), are strictly speaking names of dialects, spelling variants, dialect variants, and the like - and include translations of the English terms, Western Island Language and Central Island Language. The following list includes the commonest:

  • Kalaw Lagaw Ya/Kala Lagaw Ya [Western Island Language: back/west.GEN place.GEN speech],
  • Kalaw Kawaw Ya/Kalau Kawau Ya [Western Island Language],
  • Lagaw Ya/Lagau Ya [Place/Home/Home Island Language],
  • Kala Lagaw Langgus/Kala Lagau Langgus/Kalau Lagau Langgus [id.],
  • Kalaw Kawaw Langgus/Kalau Kawau Langgus [Western Island Language],
  • Lagaw Ya/Lagau Ya [Place/Home/Home Island Language],
  • Langgus [Language],
  • Lingo,
  • Kawalgaw Ya/Kaywalgaw Ya/Kaiwaligau Ya [Islanders' Language],
  • Kowrareg (Kaurareg) (Kaurareg/Kauraraiga ['Islander'] is the person, not the language, which was Kauraregau/Kauraraigau Ya [Islanders' Language; the modern form is Kaiwaligau Ya],
  • Kulkalgau Ya [Blood-Peoples' Language (Kulka 'Blood' was an important cult figure)], Central Islands,
  • Mabuiag (the name of one of the islands where it is spoken),
  • Westen or West Torres or Western Torres Strait,
  • Dhadhalagau Ya [Mid-Island/Central Island Language],
  • Sentrel or Central Islands.

One term used by Eastern islanders and neighbouring Papuans for Kala Lagaw Ya is Yagar Yagar, from the word yagar ( 'speech, etc.' + gár 'sympathy clitic' ('dear', 'please', etc.), often used by Western and Central Islanders in speech to show a sympathetic or nostalgic frame of mind.

In literature on the language the abbreviations KLY (Kalaw Lagaw Ya), KKY (Kalau Kawau Ya), KulY (Kulkalgau Ya), MY (Muwalgau Ya) and KY (Kaiwaligau Ya) are often used as abbreviations. According to Ober (2007), the preferred term in English is Kala Lagaw Ya.[3] The name "Mabuiag", pronounced "moby-agg", a European mispronunciation of Mabuiag /mabujag/, is fairly widespread as a name for the language, this having been established by the Cambridge Expedition to Torres Strait, whose main research on the language was with Mabuiag material. In a High Court decision on 7 August 2013, the decision was taken to officially term the language Kalau Lagau Ya.

When speaking to each other, speakers generally refer to the language as Langgus 'Language' or use phrases such as KLY/KulY ngalpudh muli, MY-KY ngalpudh/ngalpadh muli, KKY ngalpadh muliz, e.g. KLY/KulY ngalpudh muuli, thanamunungu tidailai!, MY-KY ngalpudh/ngalpadh muuli, thanamuningu tidailai!, KKY ngalpadh muli, thanamulngu tidaile! 'Speak in our language so they don't understand!'. Ngalpudh/ngalpadh literally means 'like us'. The construction X-dh mula+i- 'speak X-like' is used to refer to speaking in a language, e.g. KKY markaidh muliz 'speak [in] English', zapanisadh muliz 'speak [in] Japanese', dhaudhalgadh muliz 'speak [in] Papuan', mœyamadh muliz 'speak [in] Meriam Mìr', thanamudh muliz 'speak like them, speak [in] their language'. It is otherwise common for speakers to use nominal phrases like KLY/KulY ngalpun ya, MY-KY ngalpun/ngalpan ya, KKY ngalpan ya 'our language' to refer to the language when speaking to each other.

The other languages spoken on the Torres Strait Islands are the Meriam language and Torres Strait Creole.

Geographic distribution

Map of the Torres Strait Islands.

Kalau Lagau Ya is spoken on the western and central islands of Torres Strait, between Papua New Guinea (Naigay Dœgam Dhaudhai, alt. Naygay Dœgam Dhawdhay [Mission Orthography Naigai Dagam Daudai, Naigai Dögam Daudai "North-side Mainland/Continent", Mœgi Dhaudhai, Migi Dhaudhai, Mœgi Dhawdhay, Migi Dhawdhay] [Mission Orthography Migi Daudai, Mögi Daudai], KKY Mœgina Dhaudhai, Mœgina Dhawdhay "Small Mainland/Continent") and the Australian mainland (Zey Dœgam Dhaudhai, alt. Zey Dœgam Dhawdhay [Mission Orthography Zei Dagam Daudai, Zei Dögam Daudai] "South-side Mainland/Continent", Kœi Dhaudhai, Kœy Dhawdhay [Mission Orthography Köi Daudai] "Big Mainland/Continent"), though on some islands it has now been largely replaced by Brokan (Torres Strait Creole).

Before Colonisation in the 1870s-1880s, the language was the major lingua franca of the area in both Australia and Papua, and there is some folk history evidence that the language was spoken as a first language in a few villages neighbouring Torres Strait in Papua. It was also formerly spoken by the Hiámu (alt. Hiámo, Hiáma) of Daru (Dhaaru) to the north-east of Torres Strait, who were originally settlers from Yama [Yam Island] in Torres Strait, Hiámu/Hiámo/Hiáma being a Kiwai pronunciation of Yama. The main body of the Hiámu moved to the Thursday Island group to escape the Kiwai colonisation of the area some centuries ago.

Classification and external comparison

The language is classified as being part of the Pama–Nyungan languages. Mitchell (1995, 2015) regards it as a mixed language with an Australian core (Pama-Nyungan) with Papuan and Austronesian overlays, while Capell (1956) and Dixon (2002) classify it among the Papuan languages. The personal pronouns are typically Australian, most kin terms are Papuan, and significant sea/canoe and agricultural vocabulary is Austronesian.

Kalaw Lagaw Ya has only 6% cognation with its closest Australian neighbour, Urradhi, with a further 5% "common" vocabulary [loans of various origins] - and about 40% common vocabulary with its Papuan neighbour, Meriam Mìr (Mitchell 2015). Of the 279 Proto-Paman forms given in Sommer 1969:62-66, only 18.9% have definite realisations in Kalaw Lagaw Ya, with a further 2.5% which may be present. One word that illustrates the problems of 'may-be' relationship is kùlbai (KKY kùlba) 'old', which may be a metathetic realisation of CA *bulgan 'big; old'. Thus, potentially 80% of the vocabulary of the language is non-Australian, and includes Papuan and Austronesian items (Mitchell 1995:9).

The following are a few examples of different word stock in Kalaw Lagaw Ya.

(Common Australian)
(Proto–East Trans-Fly)
(Proto–Central District)
*nya-ga 'look'
naga+i- id.
*sipi 'root'
sipi id.
*gamo 'belly'
gamu 'body, torso'
*jana 'they'
thana id.
*p[ae]- 'that, there'
pi-/pe- 'specifically yonder'
*waura 'south-east'
wœur(a) id.
*ganyarra 'reptile'
kœnara 'k.o. tree snake'
*gabo 'cold'
gabu id.
*boro-ma 'pig'
bùrùm(a) id.
*galga 'spear'
kœlak(a) id.
*biro 'side'
bero 'rib; side of boat, hill, river, etc.'
*pu[lr]i 'magic, plant'
puy(i) (older puuri) id.

Oral tradition and cultural evidence recorded by Haddon (1935) and Laade (1968) shows that Austronesian trade and settlement in South-West Papua, Torres Strait and Cape York occurred, backed up by archaeological evidence (Bruno, McNiven, et al. 2004) and linguistic evidence - the languages have significant Austronesian vocabulary content (cf. Dutton 1972 and 1976, Verhoeve 1982), including items such as the following:

Kalaw Lagaw Ya meaning Meriam Mìr meaning Bine
meaning Proto-Oceanic
maapu heavy (beberbeber) (heavy) mæpu id. *mapa id.
paad(a) hill paser id. podo id. *pantar id.
OKY *Wœri
Venus wer star wale star *waRi sun
wœiwi mango waiwi id. wiwi id. *waiwai id.
waaku mat; sail papék id. waaku id.
(Kalaw Lagaw Ya loan)
*paqu id.
waaru turtle (nam) (turtle) waaru id.
(Kalaw Lagaw Ya loan)
*ponu id.

Some of the Austronesian content, as noted above, is clearly South-East Papuan Austronesian:

item Kalaw Lagaw Ya Gudang
(Central District, Papua)
Proto–SE Papuan Proto-Oceanic
nacre, mother-of-pearl maay(i)
(OKY maari)
maari mari mairi *mairi ?
outrigger sayim(a)
OKY sarima
charima sarima
SE Kiwai harima
darima *nsarima *saRaman
pig bùrùm(a) ---- boroma boroma *boro-ma *mporok
rope, cord wœru
KKY wœrukam(i)
uuru waro varo *waro *waro

The linguistic history of the Torres Strait area is complex, and interaction of well over 2000 years has led to many layers of relationship between the local languages, including many words that are obviously common, though whether through trade or 'genetics' is another story, such as the following "trade" words in Torres Strait area languages.

Kalaw Lagaw Ya Meriam Mìr Kiwai
tusk, knife, tusk/knife-life formation
tusk/knife-life formation
tusk, knife, tusk/
knife-life formation
? ? kiri/ghiri
? ---* tyughubha
long house, hall; church
ìut (alt- eut)
---- ? ? yutha
---- ----
any strange four-legged animal
---- ---- ? ? murruku
? marruku
marep marabo ? marrapi marrapi ? marrapi
esoau ? eso ? ? ? ?
paud ? piuda paaudha ? ? ?
warup warupa (w)arapa warrupa (w)arrupa (w)arrupa (w)arrupa
cutting tool
tulik turika turika
Bine turi/turikæ
? thurriya
  • The only Gudang word recorded in the mid-1800s by Europeans was choki, from the Malay-based English Pidgin English used by the British (and other) sailors of the time. The Malay word is variously coki or cuki.

However, the question of external relationships of Kalaw Lagaw Ya is also complicated by tantalising resemblances between the Paman (Australian) and the Trans-Fly (Papuan) languages. Though few, these may be significant, and include forms such as those noted below, not all of which appear in Kalaw Lagaw Ya. Such resemblances can point to a deep-level relationship dating back to before the flooding of Torres Strait at the end of the last age, as well as to later contacts (Mitchell 1995, 2015).

(or a specific North Cape York language)
meaning Proto-Trans-Fly meaning Kalaw Lagaw Ya meaning
*kaalu ear *Vtkuru hear kaura;
kùrusai- (compounds only)
*ŋaa(na) who *ŋana id. ngaa id.
*mini good *mi:nji id. miina real, true, very
Urradhi, Gudang
breath *ŋana id. ngœna id.
star *mpintom id. (thithuy(i)
OKY thithuri)
*nyupun one *[ni/yi/dVr]ponV id. wœrapùn(i)
(wara "one of a group")
*pama man, person *pama id. (mabaig lit. 'walker') id.

Personal pronouns

A comparison of the Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Meriam Mìr, Kiwai and Urradhi personal pronouns show similarities and differences in typology. In comparison to Urradhi, Kalaw Lagaw Ya has an archaic typology - or, rather, Urradhi has innovated. Kiwai does not have 1-2 pronouns, while Meriam Mìr does not have a dual and trial/paucal set of pronouns which correspond to its verb system. The Kalaw Lagaw Ya system, like that of Urradhi, is Australian:

Kalaw Lagaw Ya (KKY dialect)
number 1 1-2 2 3
singular ngai ---- ngi nui masculine
na feminine
dual ngalbe ngœba ngipel palai
plural ngœi ngalpa ngitha thana
Meriam Mìr
number 1 1-2 2 3
singular ka ---- ma e
non-singular ki mi wa wi, i

Note that except for Meriam Mir, the Trans Fly languages also have two-gender masculine-feminine systems, though not marked on the pronouns themselves. Wurm 1975:333-334.

number 1 2 3
singular mai rai nowai
dual nimoto rigoto neito
trial nimoibi rigoibi neibi
plural nimo rigo nei
number 1 1-2 2 3
singular ayu(va) ---- antu(va) ulu(va)
dual ampu(la) ali(va) ipu(la) ula(va)
plural (as dual) ana(va) (as dual) (as dual)

However, even though the system has no real surprises for Australian linguistics, it is clear that Kalaw Lagaw Ya has innovated in the 1st and 2nd pronouns, which have the following CA origins:

CA *ngali > ngœy [stem: ngœlmu- (old style singing ngalimu-, ngalemu-), ngœimu-] 'we, not you'; and with stem extensions ngalpa 'you and I/we' (old-style singing ngalipa/ngalepa), ngalbai/ngalbe 'we two (not you)', (old style singing ngalebai/ngalibai)
CA *ngana+pulV > ngœba 'you and I'.

The 2nd person dual and plural pronouns are based on forms that literally mean 'you-two' (ngipel) and 'you-they' (ngitha[na]), in much the same way as the demonstratives mark the dual and plural (see further below in Nominal Morphology).

The Kalaw Lagaw Ya pronouns and their Australian origins
English KLY KulY KY KKY Old KY
Proto-Pama–Nyungan origin
I ngay
stem: nga-
stem: nga-
stem: nga-
stem: nga-
stem: nga-
you and I ngœba ngœba ngœba ngœba ngœba *ngana+pulV
'we two, not you'
we two (not you) ngalbay ngalbai ngalbai/ngalbe ngalbe ngalbai/ngalbe *ngali+[?]
'you and me, you and us'
we (incl. you) ngalpa
stem: ngalpu-
stem: ngalpu-
stem: ngalpu-
stem: ngalpa-
stem: ngalpa-
'you and me, you and us'
we (not you) ngœy
stem: ngœlmu-
stem: ngœlmu-
stem: ngœymu-
stem: ngœimu-
stem: ngœři(mu)-
'you and me, you and us'
you (sing.) ni ni ngi/ni ngi ngi *NHina
you two nipel
stem: nipe-
stem: nipe-
stem: ngipe-
stem: ngipe-/nipe-
stem: ngipe-
you (pl.) nitha
stem: nithamu-
stem: nithamu-
stem: ngithamu-
stem: ngithamu-/nithamu-
stem: ngithana(mu)-
*NHina + *DHana 'they'
he nuy
stem: nu-
stem: nu-
stem: nu-
stem: nu-
stem: nu-
she na na na na na *NHan-
they two palay
stem: palamu-
stem: palamu-
stem: palamu-
stem: palamu-,
Boigu pale
stem: palemu-
stem: palamu-
they thana
stem: thanamu-
stem: thanamu-
stem: thanamu-
stem: thanamu-
stem: thanamu-
who nga nga nga nga nga *ngaaNH
(no independent nominative-accusative form)
mi- mi- mi- mi- *miNHa 'food; what'

Pre-historic overview

An examination of the various sub-systems (vocabulary, syntax, morphology) of Kalaw Lagaw Ya gives the following evidence of development (Mitchell 1990, 2015):

Australian (Paman) : Some basic and abstract vocabulary, all personal pronouns (inc. who and what/which), some verbs. Some grammar, such as nominal and verb morphology (subject, agent, object, genitive, -l locative, -ka dative, perfective, imperfective, -i/-iz(i) perfective active. These typological categories also exist in the Trans-Fly languages; the forms in Kalaw Lagaw Ya are clearly Australian.

Papuan (Trans-Fly) : Some basic and abstract vocabulary, some verbs. Some grammar, such as verb number and different stems for different number forms of some verbs. Use of state/movement verbs as existential and stative 'be' verbs. Two non-personal pronouns : naag/naga 'how', namuith 'when' (both in KKY, the dialect of the islands off the Papuan coast).

Austronesian : Some basic vocabulary, terminology dealing with agriculture, canoes, the weather, the sky and the sea, some abstract nouns, some verbs. Possibly some grammar in the form of function words, such as waadh (KKY waaza) existential emphasis (i.e. ‘it is true that...’).

The Australian word forms and structure found in Kalaw Lagaw Ya give every appearance of being retentions, i.e. inherited, in that the original Australian systems appear to be unchanged at the core level. Kalaw Lagaw Ya is not a pidgin/creole in origin, but an Australian language which has undergone quite a bit of external lexical and grammatical influence.

In this respect, Kalaw Lagaw Ya appears to be a classic case of shift (Thomason and Kaufmann, 1988:212), whereby speakers of one language, over a long period of time, retained multilingualism while taking over aspects of the target language. The Austronesian and Papuan overlay changed the originally Australian phonology and syntax profoundly. The contrast of Australian laminal nh/ny and lh/ly and apical n and l has been lost, voicing has become phonemic and s, z, t, d, o and òò have developed. This also affected the phonology of Australian vocabulary, such that these “foreign” sounds occur in such words.

Austronesian content in Kalaw Lagaw Ya (and the neighbouring Papuan languages) appears to be mainly lexicon (including verbs), particularly in the spheres of sea, farming, canoe and sky/weather/astrological terminology, with some possible syntactic words. This presents a picture (following Thomason and Kaufmann 1988:212) of a typically extensive borrowing situation with much lexical borrowing and some structural borrowing with a large amount of passive bilingualism with little active bilingualism.

Laade’s picture (1968) of Australian and Papuan settlement in Torres Strait supports the above scenario of Papuan and Austronesian speakers who shifted to an Australian language over a long period of time, the Austronesians being culturally a superstratum, however not in a position to impose their language. He presented folk history evidence that a few Austronesian traders (men) settled at Parema (north-east of Daru) and married local [Proto–Trans Fly speaking] women. To avoid further miscegenation, they soon moved and settled in Torres Strait, first to the Eastern Islands, then to the Central Islands, then to Moa, Badu and Mabuiag. At Mabuiag, Badu and Moa they found Aboriginal people, killed the men and kept the women (and presumably the children). Some moved on up to Saibai, Doewan and Boeigu to avoid this new miscegenation, hence the lighter colour of many Saibai, Doewan and Boeigu people. Boeigu folk history collected by Laade also shows direct East Austronesian genetic influence on Boeigu (Laade 1968).

The social milieu was that of a few Austronesian men who settled on the outskirts of an East Trans-Fly group, intermarried, and whose children were either bilingual, or speakers of their mothers’ language, with some knowledge of their fathers’ language. The local people did not need to speak the traders’ language, who in turn had to speak the local language. The children in turn would then speak the local language, with varying ability in the fathers’ language, particularly in areas that were culturally important for the fathers.

These people then shifted to Torres Strait - maintaining established ties with Papua as well as with Austronesian speakers further east, this latter being suggested by various characteristics if the Austronesian content in Kalau Lagaw Ya and overlaid an Australian population in such a way that the majority of women spoke an Australian language, with a significant number, mainly men, who spoke an South-East Papuan Austronesian language, accompanied by their Papuan wives and their perhaps bilingual children. Over time, the core structure of the local mothers’ language dominated, with retention of the newcomers' Papuo-Austronesian content in the appropriate cultural subsystems. In essence this would have been a ‘replay’ of the original settlement by Austronesian traders at Parema, with the women understanding the language of the men, but not really needing to speak it while retaining parts of their language for significant areas. The children then created a new language shift to an Australian language with a Papuan-Austronesian admixture.

Kalaw Lagaw Ya is thus a mixed language in that a significant part of its lexicon, phonology and grammar is not Australian in origin. The core nominal, pronominal and verb morphology is Australian in both form and grammar - though a certain amount of the grammar is common to Trans-Fly and Paman languages in the first place. Sme semantic categories, verb number morphology, and some other morphology are non-Australian in origin. Potentially 80% of its vocabulary is non-Australian. The interplay of the above within the subsystems of Kalaw Lagaw Ya lexicon, phonology and grammar points more to mixing through shift and borrowing rather than pidginisation and creolisation.

Outside influences

The language also has some vocabulary from languages outside the Torres Strait area, from the Indonesian, Malay, Filipino, English and other 'outsiders'. Where loan words from the Western Austronesian (Indonesian, etc.) loans are concerned, it is possible that some such came into the language in pre-European contact days, with the Makassans and similar fishermen/traders who visited northern Australia and Torres Strait.

Examples of post-European contact Western Austronesian loan words:

item Kalaw Lagaw Ya origin
coconut toddy thúba tuba (Eastern Indonesian or Filipino)
trumps (in cards) záru zaru/jaru (Eastern Indonesian or Filipino)
mate, friend, brother bala
Boigu variants: bœra, baya
bela/bala (Eastern Indonesian or Filipino)
blachan bœlasan Malay: belacan

Some words in the language, assuming that they are Western Austronesian loans, appear to be pre-contact words. This is suggested both by their forms, but also that their use in the language (and in neighbouring languages) seems to indicate this.

Possible pre-European contact Western Austronesian words in Kalaw Lagaw Ya

(some of these words are ultimately from Arabic and Sanskrit. Ngajedan 1987.)

Kalaw Lagaw Ya meaning possible source meaning
aya (KKY)
aye (KLY,KulY,KY)
come! (singular) Malay: ayo come!
bayu (KulY,KY)
baaiwa (KLY)
waterspout Malay: bayu
(Sanskrit: vayu)
ádhi huge, great (also as an honorific)
story (with cultural, religious or similar significance)
'story stone or rock', i.e. a rock or stone that represents
or is someone or something with sacred or
cultural aignificance, which is explained by the
story about the rock or stone
Malay: adi
(Sanskrit: adhi)
huge, great
(also as an honorific)
kœdal(a) crocodile Malay: kadal
Makasarese: kaɖalaq
pawa deed, action, custom Malay: paal [pa'al]
(Arabic: fa’la)
deed, action

In the KKY dialect of Kalaw Lagaw Ya, 'waterspout' is markai gùb(a) 'spirit wind'; waterspouts were one of the weapons of the markai who mainly came from the west/north-west (i.e. from what is now Indonesia) in the NW monsoon season (when waterspouts are common), and went back to the west/north-west with the SE trades.

The postulation of pawa as being an early loan from Malay is extremely hypothetical - and suggested not only by the form of the word, but also the loss of the final -l. Two early English loans underwent a similar change, which in essence is a back formation from what in the language appeared to be a plural. Most nouns (a) form the plural with an -l suffix, and (b) in the nominative-accusative singular elide the stem final vowel, as in tukuyapa- 'same-sex sibling', plural tukuyapal, nominative-accusative tukuyap, and under this model 'custard-apple' became katitap, plural katitapal, and the word 'mammy-apple' (pawpaw/papaya) became mamiyap, plural mamiyapal.

Assuming that Malay paal [pa'al] was borrowed as pawal, with the glottal stop being converted to w, as the language does not have the glottal stop, pawal would be seen as a plural, with the singular pawa, under the model of words such as kawal 'islands' : kawa 'island'.

Loans from modern Eastern Austronesian (Polynesian and Melanesian) into the language are mainly of religious or 'academic' use. In general, such words are terms for objects that are strictly speaking European goods. One exception is the last in the following table, which is commonly used instead of the traditional words imi 'spouse’s opposite-sex sibling', 'opposite sibling’s spouse' and ngaubath 'spouse’s same-sex sibling', 'same-sex sibling’s spouse'. These have also similarly been replaced in commin usage by the English loan woman (pronounced [woman]) in the meaning of 'sister/daughter-in-law'.

Kalaw Lagaw Ya meaning source meaning in originating language
thúsi book, document, letter, etc. Samoan: tusi (same meaning)
laulau table Samoan: laulau plaited coconut leaf used as a tray
wakasu anointment oil Dehu: wakacu coconut oil
(emotive form thawi)
brother/son-in-law Vanuatu: tawean brother-in-law

Other biblical loans are from Greek, Latin and Hebrew:

Kalaw Lagaw Ya meaning source meaning in originating language
basalaya kingdom Greek: basileia id.
aretho holy communion Greek: artos id.
Sathana Satan Hebrew: satan id.
Sabadh(a) Sunday Hebrew: sabbath Saturday (Sabbath)


There are four main dialects, two of which are on probably the verge of extinction, one (Kaiwaligau Ya) through convergence to the neighbouring Kalaw Lagaw Ya. Within the dialects there are two or more subdialects. The average mutual intelligibility rate, based on a Swadesh count, is around 97%.

  • Northern dialect : Kalau Kawau Ya (Kalaw Kawaw Ya) - Saibai (Saibai Village and Aith, also Bamaga/Seisia on Cape York), Dœwan (Dauan), Bœigu (Boigu);
  • Western dialect : Kalau Lagau Ya (Kalaw Lagaw Ya) - Mabuyag (Mabuiag) and Badhu (Badu). The western dialect also has a simplified form, particularly on Badhu, where quite a few foreign men of Malay and Southsea origin settled with their Island wivesin the late 1800s and early 1900s;
  • Eastern dialect (Central Island dialect) : Kulkalgau Ya - Yama, Waraber, Puruma, Masig and associated islands, now uninhabited, such as Nagi, Tudu and Gebar;
  • Southern dialect (South-West Islands) : Kaiwaligau Ya [Kauraraigau Ya] - Muralag, Ngœrupai (alt. Ngurupai) and the other islands of the Thursday Island group, Mua (alt. Moa), Muri (Mt Adolphus - now uninhabited); Muwalgau Ya / Italgau Ya - Mua. Now converging with Kalaw Lagaw Ya.

The Southern dialect has certain characteristics that link it closely to the northern dialect, and folk history dealing with the Muralag group and Mua reflects this, in that the ancestors of the Kowrareg (the Hiámo) originally came from Dharu (Daru, to the north east of Torres Strait) - and who had previously settled on Dharu from Yama in Central Torres Strait [Lawrence 1989].

Samples of the dialects

When Mum went home, she gave Dad the knife.
Kalau Kawau Ya: Ama na/nanga lagapa uzarima na/nanga, nadh Babalpa gi [alt. upi] manu [alt. maninu].
Kalaw Lagaw Ya: Ama na/nanga mudhaka uzarima na/nanga, nadh Babanika gi [alt. upi, thurik] manu.
Kulkalgau Ya: Ama na/nanga mudhaka uzarima/uzarimò na/nanga, nadh Babanika gi [alt. upi, thurik] manu.
Kaiwalgau Ya-Mualgau Ya: Ama na/nanga lagapa/mudhapa/mudhaka uzarima na/nanga, nadha Babanipa/Babanika gi [alt. upi, thurik] manul/manu.
Old Kawalgau Ya (Kowrareg): Ama na/nanga lagapa[ri]/mudhapa[ri] uzarima na/nanga, nadhu Babanipa[ri] giři [alt. upi, thurika] manulai.
Simplified Kalaw Lagaw Ya: Ama na kulai mudh ka uzari, nadh Baban ka gi [alt. upi, thurik] mani.

Underlying form:

Ama+Ø nanga (kul+lai) laga/mudha+pa[ri]/ka uzara+i+Ø+ma nanga,
na+dh Baba+ni+pa[ri]/ka gi/upi/thurika+Ø ma[ni]+Ø+Ø+nu.
(gi knife, tusk, canine tooth, upi knife made from bamboo, thurik cutting tool)
They cut down a big tree earlier today to make a canoe.
Kalau Kawau Ya: Thana kœi puy pathanu gulpa aymœipa.
Kalaw Lagaw Ya: Thana kœi puuyi pathanu gulka ayimka.
Kulkalgau Ya: Thana kœi puy pathanu[l] gulka aymœika.
Kaiwaligau Ya/Muwalgau Ya: Thana kœi puy pathanu[l] gulpa aymaipa.
Old Kawalgau Ya (Kowrareg): Thana kœi puuři pathanulai gulpa[ri] ayimařipa[ri].
Simplified Kalaw Lagaw Ya: Thana kulai kœi puy pathai gulka aymaik.

Underlying form:

Thana+Ø (kul+lai) kœi puuRi+Ø patha+Ø+Ø+nu[+lai] gul+ka/pa[ri] ayima+[R]i+ka/pa[ri].
TheyPL+NOM (before+LOC) big tree+ACC chop+ATT+SING+TodayPast[+LOC] canoe+DAT make+VN+Dat

Some isolect markers of the four dialects of Kalaw Lagaw Ya.

Kalau Kawau Ya Kaiwaligau Ya Kalaw Lagaw Ya Kulkalgau Ya Kauraraigau Ya
you SG ngi ngi ni ni ngi
house laag laag,
mùùdha mùdh laaga,
thunder gigi dhuyum dhuyum dhuyum dhuyuma
end, finish muasi-
(B muyasi-)
muasi- minasi- minasi- moasi-
heat kom kœmàn kœmààna kom kœmàna
steam kœman kœmàn kœmààna kœmàn kœmàna
Dative -pa -pa
-pa, -pari
Ablative -ngu(z),
Present Perfective
Active Singular
-izi, -izin
-i (Badhu -in),
-izi (Badhu -izin)

Dialect differences

1) Phonology:

Phonological differences between the dialects are rare, and in general sporadic. The only regular differences are the following:

a) Colloquial final unstressed vowel elision in Kulkalgau Ya and Kawalgau Ya:

  • maalu 'sea' > maal’
  • waapi 'fish' > waap’
  • thathi 'father' > thath’
  • waaru 'turtle' > waar’
  • ngadha 'appearance, looks' > ngadh’
  • mœràpi 'bamboo' (à shows the stressed syllable) > mœràp’
  • bera 'rib' > ber’
  • kaaba 'dance performance, knot in bamboo (etc.)' > kaab’
  • kaba 'oar, paddle' > 'kab’

Such elision is rare or sporadic in the other dialects.

b) Final vowel unstressed vowel devoicing and deletion in Kalaw Lagaw Ya

In Kalaw Lagaw Ya, such final vowels in correct language are devoiced, and deleted in colloquial language, except in a small class of words which include bera 'rib', where there is a short vowel in the stem and in which the final vowel is permanently deleted, with compensatory lengthening of the final consonant (thus berr).

Strictly speaking, the process is not final vowel devoicing, but rather stressed vowel lengthening accompanied by final vowel devoicing - except in the case of words such as bera 'rib' > berr, where the process is final consonant lengthening by the final vowel being 'incorporated' into the consonant. Note that in the following the word-final capital letter represents a devoiced vowel:

  • maalu 'sea' > maalU > maal’
  • waapi 'fish' > waapI > waap’
  • thaathi 'father' > thaathI > thaath’ (Badhu variant thath’)
  • waaru 'turtle' > waarU > waar’
  • ngadha 'appearance, looks' > ngaadhA > ngaadh’
  • mœràpi 'bamboo' > mœrààpI > mœrààp’
  • bera 'rib' > berr
  • kaba 'dance performance, knot in bamboo (etc.)' > kaabA > kaab
  • kaba 'oar, paddle' > kabb

In declined forms of such words, the long vowel is shortened, and the final vowel voiced, and in words like ber 'rib' the final vowel often reappears:

  • maalU 'sea' + -ka 'dative' > maluka
  • waapI 'fish' > wapika
  • thaathI 'father' > thathika
  • waarU 'turtle' > waruka
  • ngaadhA 'appearance, looks' > ngadhaka
  • mœrààpI 'bamboo' > mœràpika
  • ber 'rib' > beraka, berka
  • kaabA 'dance performance, knot in bamboo (etc.)' > kabaka
  • kab 'oar, paddle' > kabaka, kabka

This vowel shortening in affixed/modified forms exists in all dialects, however the other dialects have retained contrastive length to some extent, whereas Kalaw Lagaw Ya has largely lost it for ‘morphophonological’ length, where the stressed vowel in non-emotive words (see below) of one or two syllables is automatically lengthened in the nominative-accusative; this also applies to words of three syllables with second syllable stress (as in mœrààpI 'bamboo').

One of the very few length contrasts in the Kalaw Lagaw Ya dialect is kaaba 'dance performance, knot in bamboo etc.' vs kaba, kab 'paddle, oar' (kaba, kab in Old Kaiwaligaw Ya (Kaurakaigau Y) was kœRaba. œRa has regularly given short a in Kalaw Lagaw Ya in kaba, kab). Such length contrasts are more widespread in the other dialects.

The exceptions are (1) the small class or words that include ber rib and kab oar, paddle, and (2) emotive words. Emotive words are those that equate to a certain extent to diminutives in languages such as Irish, Dutch and German, where specific suffixes are added to show 'diminutive' status (-ín, -je and -chen respectively). Emotive words in the Kalaw Lagaw Ya dialect include familiar kinship terms [the equivalent of English Mum, Dad and the like] and words used in emotive contexts such as singing/poetry.

Word Non-Emotive Emotive
Mum (apuuwa, apùù, àpu - mother) Ama
Dad (thaathi, thaath - father) Baba
Child kaazi, kaaz kazi
Wife iipi, iip ipi
Home (Island) laaga, laag laga
Dust, Spray pœœya, pœœy pœya (also paya)
Bamboo mœrààpi, mœrààp mœràpi (also marapi)
Head kuwììku, kuwììk kuwìku, kuiku

c) Kalau Kawau Ya final i-glide deletion

A small class of words in KKY lose the final i-glide found in the other dialects, including the following:

  • 'banana plant' : KLY/KulY/KY dawai, KKY dawa
  • 'spot, stain' : KLY/KulY/KY burkui (bœrkui), KKY bœrku (burku)
  • 'blank skink' : KLY/KulY/KY mogai, KKY Saibai/Dœwan mogo, Bœigu moga
  • 'old' : KLY/KulY/KY kulbai, KKY kulba
  • 'a short while, first before doing something else' : KLY/KulY/KY mamui, KKY mamu
  • 'birth cord' : KLY/KulY/KY kùpai, KKY kùpa

Word forms in neighbouring languages as well in the Kauraraigau Ya (Kowrareg) of the mid-to-late 19th century, such as the Meriam Mìr kopor and Kauraraigau Ya kupar/kopar 'birth cord' show that in such words the final -i/Ø are the modern forms of older .

2) Syntax

The main syntactic differences are:

a) Verb negative construction:

In all dialects except Kalau Kawau Ya, the verb negative is the nominalised privative form of the verbal noun. As this form in itself a noun, its subject and direct object are cast in the genitive:

Ngath waapi purthanu 'I ate a fish'

Ngai stuwaka uzarima 'I went to the store'

Ngau wapiu purthaiginga 'I didn’t eat a fish'

Ngau stuwaka uzaraiginga 'I didn’t go to the store'

The Kalau Kawau Ya dialect uses the verbal noun privative form as an invariable verb negative:

Ngath waapi purthanu 'I ate a fish'

Ngai stuwapa uzarima 'I went to the store'

Ngath waapi purthaiginga 'I didn’t eat a fish'

Ngai stuwapa uzaraiginga 'I didn’t go to the store'

b) Verb Tenses/Aspects

The Kalau Kawau Ya dialect has the tenses and aspects listed in the section on verb morphology. The other dialects have largely lost the remote future tense, using the habitual instead; the remote future in the other dialetcs is retained most commonly as a 'future imperative', where the imperative refers to a vague period in the future. The Kalaw Lagaw Ya dialect also has a 'last night' tense, where the adverb bungil/bungel (reduced form bel) 'last night' has become grammaticalised as a verb ending, following the example of the adverb ngùl 'yesterday', which had previously become grammaticalised as a 'recent past' tense marker in all dialects, with reduction to -ngu in the Kalau Kawau Ya dialect. In the other dialects bongel 'last night' is a fully functioning temporal adverb used in conjunction with either the today past or the recent past.

The dialects differ in the forms of the following affixes:

  1. present imperfective/near future perfective/verbal noun dative:
    KKY/KY -pa, KLY/KulY -ka
  2. Recent past
    KKY -ngu, KLY/KY/KulY -ngul
  3. Today past
    KKY/KLY/KulY -nu, KY -nul (older -nulai)
  4. Habitual
    KKY -paruig/paruidh/-parui/-paru/-pu (-pu most commonly on stems of two or more syllables, and the bi-syllabic forms on stems of one syllable [the consonant final forms are emphatic forms])
    KLY/KulY -kuruig
    KY -kurui

c) Nominal Affixes

The main nominal affix difference is the dative ending, which has the following forms in the various dialects:

KLY/KulY -ka; -pa with kipa 'to here', sipa 'to there', paipa 'to ahead', 'pawupa 'to behind, off to one side'; -pa sometimes in poetry/singing

KY -pa; -ka in ngaikika 'to/for/towards me'; -ka often in poetry/singing.

KKY -pa in all cases; -ka often in poetry/singing.

The plural/HAVE suffix -LAI (underlying form) also shows a small amount of dialect variation with stems of two syllables, where Kulkalgau Ya differs from the other dialects in retaining the full form of the suffix -lai reduced to -l the other dialects. In stems of three or more syllables, the suffix is reduced to -l in all dialects, while retained as -lai (variants according to noun sub-class -thai, -ai, -dai) with stems of one syllable.

Three+ syllable stem: burum 'pig', stem: buruma-, plural burumal

Bisyllabic stem: lag, KLY laaga 'place, home, home island', stem: laga-, plural lagal, KulY lagalai

monosyllabic stems: all dialects identical

(1) Regular vowel final: ma 'spider', stem: ma-, plural malai

(2) Regular -i glide final: mui 'fire', stem: mui-, plural muithai, KLY muithail

(3) Regular -l final: pel 'fish tail, stem: pel-, plural pelai

(4) Regular -r final: wœr/wur/uur 'water', stem: wœr-/wur-/ur-, plural wœlai/wulai/ulai, KKY wœlai

(5) Irregular vowel final stem: ya 'speech, word(s), message, language, etc.', stem: ya-, plural yadai, KLY yadail

d) Vocabulary

The main differences between the dialects are to do with vocabulary, as can be seen in the following examples:

  • 'house/building' : KLY mùùdha (laaga), KulY mùdh (laag), KY laag (mùdh), KKY laag
  • 'mud' : KLY/KulY/KY berdhar (sœœya 'sandy mud/silt'), KKY sœœi (berdhar 'softness of food, mud, etc.')
  • 'grandad' : KLY/KulY/KY athe, KKY pòpu
  • 'frog' : KLY/KulY kœtube, kœtak, kaata, KY kat, KLY (Saibai-Dœwan) kat, (Bœigu) kœtuke, kat
  • 'axe' : KLY/KulY/KY aga, KKY agathurik (thurik 'cutting tool')
  • 'namesake' : KLY/KulY natham, KKY/KY nasem
  • 'small, little' : KLY/KulY/KY mœgi, Saibai/Dœwan mœgina, Bœigu mœgina, kœthuka
  • 'woman, female' : KKY yipkaz/yœpkaz [stem yipkazi-/yœpkazi-], KLY/KulY ipikaz (KLY variant iipka) [stem ipkazi-], KY ipkai/ipikai [stem ipkazi-/ipikazi-]
  • 'man, male' : KKY garkaz [stem garkazi-], KLY/KulY garka [stem garkazi-], KY garkai [stem garkazi-]
  • 'unmarried young/teenage woman' : KKY ngawakaz [stem ngawakazi-], KLY/KulY ngawka/ngoka [stem ngawkazi-/ngokazi-], KY ngawakaz [stem ngawakazi-]
  • 'song' : KLY naawu (plural nawul), KulY nawu (plural nawulai), KY nawu (plural nawul), KKY na (plural nathai)
  • 'moon, month' : KLY kisaayi, poetry mœlpal, KulY/KY kiisay, poetry mœlpal, KKY mœlpal, poetry kiisay


Kala Lagaw Ya is the only Australian language to have the alveolar fricatives /s/ and /z/. However, these have allophonic variants // and //, which are the norm in Australia languages (but non-contrasting). These latter two are allophones in that in all environments /s/ and /z/ can appear, while /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ can not appear at the end of a word; note that this allophony is very similar to that of the neighbouring Papuan language Bine. All the stops, except for the alveolars t and d, have fricative allophones, thus p can be [p] or [ɸ], k can be [k] or [x], b [b] or [β], and so on. Furthermore, it is one of the few Australian languages with fully functioning voiced-voiceless distinctions (p/b, t/d, s/z, k/g, th/dh) - and one of the few without retroflex stops.

The language is also one of the few Australian languages with only one rhotic, one l and one n. The earliest recorded dialect, Kaiwalgau Ya (Kauraraigau Ya [Kowrareg]), however, did have two rhotics, the tap and the glide; the rhotic glide has in general become /j/, /w/ or zero in the other dialects (and Modern Kaiwaligau Ya), rarely /r/. Neighbouring languages retain an /r/ in related words, such as :

sayima, sayim, sayma 'outrigger' : Kauraraigau Ya sařima, Kiwai (Papua) harima, Gudang (Australia) charima

babath 'opposite-sex sibling' : Kauraraigay Ya bœřabatha 'opposite-sex sibling', Meriam Mìr berbet 'sibling'

kupai, KKY kupa 'birth cord' : Kauraraigau Ya kupař, MM kopor

It is interesting to note, however, that in singing, /s/, /z/ and /r/ are pronounced [s], [z], and [ɽ] (the glide), and virtually never as [tʃ], [dʒ] and [r].

Consonants voiceless
nasal approximants
labial p b m w
dental th dh n l
alveolar t d - r
alveo-palatal s z - y
velar k g ng -
Vowels -round +round
+high,-mid i,ii u,uu
+high,+mid e,ee ù,ùù
-high,+mid œ,œœ o,oo
-high,-mid a,aa ò,òò


  1. The consonant /d/ varies to some extent with /r/, particularly in KKY/KY kadai-/karai-, KLY/KulY kad[a]/kad[a]/kadai/karai 'upwards'.
  2. The long vowel ùù is only found in Kala Lagaw Ya.
  3. Length is to a certain extent contrastive, and partly allophonic.
  4. The +/-round contrast is reminiscent of Papuan phonology.

The mid long vowels are allophonic variants of the mid short vowels that are in the process of developing phonemic status, while the short vowel ò is similarly in origin an allophone of òò.

Internal reconstruction and comparison with neighbouring languages suggests an underlying four vowel structure with contrasting vowel length, where underlying *i typically gives surface i and e, underlying *a typically gives surface a and œ, underlying typically gives surface o and ù, and underlying *u typically gives surface ù and u (there are other realisations as well, depending on rules of assimilation etc.):

Underlying Vowels -round +round
+high *i,*ii *u,*uu
-high *a,*aa *ò,*òò

The language undergoes low-level vowel shifts, caused by stress domination within clauses. Long vowels are shortened, and short vowels raise when the word is preceded by morphemes such as adjectives, demonstrative articles, prefixes and the like; the changes also occur within words when these are suffixed:

laag 'place' - senabi lag 'that place'

lagal 'places' - sethabi lœgal 'those places' (also sethabi lagal)

mœrap 'bamboo' - mœrœpil 'bamboo plants/poles/sticks' (also mœrapil)

guul 'sailing canoe' - senaubi gul 'that canoe'

thonaral 'times' - sethabi thunaral 'those times' (also sethabi thonaral)

zageth 'work' - zagithapa 'to/for work [dative]' (also zagethapa) (zageth is a compound of za 'thing' + geth 'hand')

The processes are low-level in that they are not 'automatic' - the changes do not have to occur and can be consciously 'blocked'. In normal speech, vowel shortening and the change of a to œ are the norm, which the changes of e to i and o to u are sporadic, and most common in unstressed syllables.

Assimilation of vowels to other vowels in the vicinity and consonants is also widespread, particularly of the vowel œ:

wœrab 'coconut' - wurab - urab

yœlpai 'lead' [verbal noun] - yilpai - ilpai

ngœnu 'whose' - ngunu

kœu 'belonging to here' - kou

ngœba 'you and I' - ngaba

Kauřařaigau Ya Phonology

The following summary of the phonology of Old Kauraregau Ya is compiled from MacGillivray (1852), Brierly (in Moore 1978), Ray and Haddon (1897) and Ray (1907). In general, there does not to appear to have been any great phonological difference between OKY and the modern dialects of Kalau Lagau Ya (apart from the retention of ř).


Stress appears to have been similar to that of the modern dialects, with stress patterns being most similar to that of modern Bœigu and Ngœrupai speech, the most conservative dialects in this respect.

(a) bisyllabic forms:

Stess is initial :
baba, baba, bapa : baba “dad”
kawp : kaapu “seed”
buai, bua, bue, booi, boy, boi, booee, boye : buwai “clan; prow”

A few forms (such as gru : gœrú “sugar cane”) show that contrastive stress existed in bisyllabic words.

(b) multisyllabic forms

Stress is either on the initial or second syllable:

(1) initial :
gugure : gagaři “bow”
myrabada : ngœiřabatha “father”s sister”
tukiapalli : tukuyapalai “same sex sibling PL”

(2) second :
bobata : bœbàtha “grandparent”
murrag : mœřààga “sweat”

Shifted stress also appears to have occurred as in the modern dialects:

purteipa : pùrthàipa “eat’’ attainative imperfective present singular / perfective today future”
pratipa : pùràthipa “eat’’ active imperfective present singular / perfective today future”

Vowels and Diphthongs

These appear to have been the same as in the modern language. Vowel length in general appeared in the same environments as in KKY, though some amount of vowel lengthening under the KLY model is evident, as in kawp : kaapu “seed”, Kalau Kawau Ya / Kulkalgau Ya kapu, Kalau Lagau Ya kaapu.

The exact extent of retention of underlying vowel length and the development of variant forms is difficult to measure, as the spelling systems used by Brierly and MacGillivray did not always mark vowel length. Further, as they obtained words through elicitation (which has a common “lengthening effect” on vowels when words are “slowed down”), there are a few cases where they marked vowel length wrongly. Ray marked vowel shortness when possible.

The various sound changes that the vowels and diphthongs undergo in the modern language also occurred in OKY. One change that occurred much more than in the modern dialects was that of ai monophthongisation to e. The resulting e then often raised to i in open unstressed syllables.

no change :
alai : alai “husband”, amai : amai “earth oven”

change :
buai, bua, bue, booi, boy, boi, booee, boye : buwai, buwe, buwi “clan. prow”
palai, pale : palai, pale “they dual”
kowraraiga, kowrarega : kauřařaiga~kauřařega “islander”
kowraraigali, kowraregale, kowrarigari : kauřařaigalai~kauřařegale~kauřařegali~kauřařigali “islanders”
wapi, wawpi' : waapi “fish” : plural/proprietive wapilai, wapile, wapili

In the modern dialects, these forms are:

“clan. prow” : buwai

“they dual” : KLY,KulY,S-D palai, B,KY pale

“islander” : KLY,KulY,KY-MY kaiwalaig, plural kaiwaligal / kaiwalgal, KKY kawalaig, plural kawalgal

“fish” : waapi, plural wapil, KulY wapilai

The change of ai to ei appears to have been very common elsewhere in the dialect:

adaipa, adeipa : adhaipa “go/put out’’ attainative perfective today future
amaipa, ameipa : amayipa “crawl” imperfective present
angaipa, angeipa : angaipa “carry” perfective today future
batainga, bateinga : bathainga “tomorrow”
baidama, beidama : baidhama “shark”

One form shows optional i insertion:

gassumu-, gassima- : gasama- ~ gasœma- ~ gasima- “catch, get”, modern dialects gasama- ~ gasœma-

Development of ř

OKY had one more consonant than modern WCL, transcribed ř. Though the actual pronunciation of this sound and its difference from r was not given by any early writer, it most likely was a rhotic glide, perhaps with a palatal “hue”. The loss of this sound in the other dialects (and in modern KY) occurred in the following rules; the changes were beginning to be evident also in OKY:

Ř between like vowels or in [ə]__V deletes.

  • OKY burugo (bùřùga) > modern dialects bùg, KLY bùùga 'marsh fly'
  • OKY sřinge, singe > modern dialects singe 'fish/head carrying loop'
  • OKY murrag (mœřaaga) > modern dialects maag, KLY maaga 'sweat, film'

When the resulting deletion forms a monosyllabic form, the remaining vowel becomes [+long]:

  • OKY dura (dœřàà) > modern dialects daa 'chest'

Ř sporadically becomes [+hi] when in ə__a and the following syllable is stressed.

  • OKY wœřàtha :: KY wœyath, KLY wiyeth/wœyeth, KulY uyeth, KKY wath 'year'
  • OKY norat (nœřàtha) :: KY nœyath/nath, KLY niyath, KulY niyath, KKY nath 'platform'
  • OKY waraaba (wœřaba) :: KY uwiba, KLY wiiba, KulY wiiba, KKY waba 'green dove'
  • OKY karrabie (kœřaba) :: KY kab(a) , KLY kab, KulY kœyaba, KKY kab 'paddle, oar'

Ř becomes a [+V] glide when between [-hi] and [+hi] vowels, and between [+bak] and [-bak] vowels.

  • OKY mari (maaři) :: KLY maayi, KKY maay 'pearl shell'
  • OKY sarima (sařima) :: KLY sayim(a), KKY sayima/sayma 'outrigger float'
  • OKY puri, prui (puuři, pœřuui) :: KLY puuyi, KKY puuy “tree, plant, magic”
  • OKY mekari (mekaři) :: KLY mekey, KKY mekay 'almond'
  • OKY tituri (thithuři) :: KLY thithúúyi, KKY thithuy 'star'
  • OKY Giralaga (Giřalaga) :: KLY Giyalaaga, KKY Giyalag 'Friday Island'
  • OKY Mora (Muřa~Mořa) :: KLY Muwa, KKY Muwa~Mowa

Vuř becomes /w/ when intervocalic.

  • OKY Maurari (Mauřaři) :: modern dialects Maway(i) 'Wednesday Island'
  • OKY tura (thuřa~thœuřa) :: modern dialects thœwa ~ thuwa 'shortness'

Ř optionally becomes /i/ when syllable final and following [-hi] vowels.

  • OKY kopar (kùpařa) :: KY,KLY,KulY kùpai, KKY kùpa 'umbilical cord'
  • OKY kaura (kauřa) :: KY kawa~kaiwa, KLY,KulY kaiwa, KKY kawa 'island'
  • OKY wauri (wauři) :: KY,KLY,KulY waiwi, KKY wawi 'arm-band shell'

Ř deletes when syllable final following high vowels.

  • OKY burkera (buřkera) :: KY bùker 'hot coal'

Ř disappears when followed by unstressed i and more than one syllable.

  • OKY ngörimuni (ngœřimùni) :: KKY,KY ngœimùn, KLY,KulY ngœlmùn 'our EXC PL'
  • OKY myrabat (ngœiřabatha) :: modern dialects ngœibath 'fathers sister'
  • OKY görigar, göriga (gœřigař[i]):: id. gœiga 'sun, day'
  • OKY kariki (kařiki) :: id. kaiki 'here non-specific locative'
  • OKY tyariki (seřiki) :: id. seiki “there non-specific locative”

Early spellings (e.g. möaga [məaga] 'sweat' and neet/naat/nöat/niet [nejat/nat/nəat/nijet] 'platform' show that ř disappeared first, leaving a hiatus (except in those cases where ř > y~i), with reduction of [V1-V1] and [ə-V1] to [V1], and [ə-VV] to [VV].

OKY underwent the same allophony and sound changes as the modern dialects, though z ~ dh and s ~ th variation appears to have been more general in OKY, as in the following (perhaps evidence of older allophony in the language which is now levelling out):

  • zaazi 'grass skirt' : Brierly juagee, djaajie, djaajie, dadjee, dadji, dadje, dadjie, MacGillivray daje, OKY zaazi, dhaazi
  • sagul adhamadha ~ azamadha 'be putting put on a dance!' : Brierly sagool adzamada, OKY sagul adhamadha ~ azamadha
  • wœsul 'dirty water' : Brierly ootzoo, oodthool, OKY uusul, uuthul
  • ngœzu 'my (feminine)' : Brierly udthu, oldzoo, udzoo, MacGillivray udzu, udz, OKY ngœzu, ngœdhu

An instance of optional r deletion before s is also attested in the following example, unless the first i in myaichipp (see below) is a misprint or misreading of *myarchipp:

maayi-arsipa 'wail, keen, weep' : Brierly myaichipp, MacGillivray maierchipa, OKY mayarsipa, mayasipa

Various forms in OKY showed metathesis of ř and r in the environment of u, i and au:

  • ngauřakai ~ ngauřakazi > naroka, nerawkaji 'maiden' (unmarried girl), cf. KKY ngawakaz
  • gœřiga ~ gœřigař > gyrriegi, gurrigi, goraigor 'day, sun', cf. KKY gœiga
  • puuři > uperia, oopeere, ooperie, uperi, prui, upiri 'magic gear/charms/produce', cf. KKY puuy, KLY puuyi.
  • rigaboo, rugabu (rugœbaw) > modern dialects wœrugœbaw, urugœbaw, Bœigu wœrigœbaw, urigœbaw 'sweet potato'


Syllabification occurred as in the modern dialects, with the addition of ř also attested as a syllable final consonant. One word was recorded by Brierly and MacGillivray with a [+nas][-son] cluster, namely enti “spider”, however this appears to be a confusion; enti is probably Gudang (Australia) ant[h]i “sore”.

All consonants can be syllable initial (including ř) and syllables are vowel final or end in r, ř, l, glide i or glide u. Otherwise surface syllable final consonants have an underlying vowel.


There is no strict standard spelling, and three slightly different orthographies (and often mixes of them) are in use.

The three spelling systems used for the language:

The Mission Spelling (established at first by Loyalty Islands missionaries in the 1870s, then modified by Polynesian missionaries in the 1880s) : a, b, d, e, g, i, j, k, l, m, n, ng, o, ö, p, r, s, t, u, z, sometimes also th, dh, dth, tr, dr, oe, ë, w, y, j, and sometimes double vowels to show length. This spelling system was strongly inspired by the one used for the Drehu (Lifu) language in the very early period, though later with the change of non-European Mission personnel from Lifu to Polynesian, as well as the growing number of indigenous Torres Strait missionaries, the spelling system lost the overtly Drehu forms tr, dr and ë, which had no phonological basis in Kalaw Lagaw Ya. The mission system is the orthography used in the Reports of the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait (Haddon et al., 1898 and on, University of Cambridge) and in "Myths and Legends of Torres Strait" (Lawrie, University of Queensland, 1971). Ray, the linguist of the Cambridge Expedition, also used various diacritics to represent vowel length (short vowels) and quality.

Klokheid and Bani (established 1970s) : a, aa, b, d (alveolar), dh (dental), e, ee, g, i, ii, k, l, m, n, ng, o, oo,oe (/ə/), ooe (/əː/), p, r, s, t (alveolar), th (dental), u, uu, w, y, z

Saibai, Boigu, Dauan students (established late 1970s) : a, b, d (alveolar), dh (dental), e, g, i, k, l, m, n, ng, o, oe (/ə/), p, r, s, t (alveolar), th (dental), u, w, y, z (vowel length, though it exists, is rarely represented).

People not only use these three slightly differing spelling systems, but they also write words more or less as they pronounce them. Because of this words are often spelt in various ways, for example sena/sina 'that, there', kothai/kothay/kothei/kothey/kothe 'back of head, occiput'. Variation like this depends on age, family, island, and other factors such as poetic speech. It can be difficult at times to decide which is most correct - different people have different opinions (and sometimes have very strong opinions).

Though in general the pronunciation of older people has priority, some people can actually get quite offended if they think the language is written the ‘wrong’ way. Some insist that the mission spelling should be used, others the Bani spelling, and still others the KKY (Saibai etc.) spelling, and still again others use mixes of two or three, or adaptations thereof. Some writers of the Mabuiag-Badhu dialect (Kalaw Lagaw Ya), for example, write mainly in the Mission system, sometimes use the diagraphs oe, th, dh (variant dth) and sometimes use capital letters at the ends of words to show devoiced vowels, such as ngukI 'fresh water/drinking water, fruit juice' /ŋʊːki̥/. In the Bani/Klokheid orthograophy nguki is written nguuki, and in the other dialects the final vowel is either fully voiced, nguki /ŋʊki/), or elided, nguk /ŋʊk/).

The biggest bone of contention between the advocates of the "modern" orthographies and the "traditionalist" orthographies is the use of w and y to show the semi-vowels. In general native speakers in literacy classes seem to find y and w very difficult to learn, and that u and i are the 'logical' letters to use. Syllabification of words by untrained speakers suggests that u and i are really the underlying sounds. Thus, a word like dhaudhai 'mainland, continent' syllabifies as dha-u-dha-i, not dhau-dhai. In songs, the glide-u/i can also be given full syllable status. Historical considerations also point to the semi-vowels often being vocalic rather than consonantal. Thus, lagau, the genitive of laag[a] 'place' is in underlying form ; the full form of the genitive ending -ngu is only retained where the nominal has a monosyllabic stem (see the section on Nominal Morphology). Similarly, verbal nouns end in -i, e.g. lumai, stem luuma- 'search, look for, seek, hunt'. The mid-19th century to early 20th century records of Kauaraigau Ya show that the verbal noun ending was previously -ri (thus lumari), where the -r- was presumably the rhotic glide rather than the rhotic tap/trill.

A dictionary now in preparation (Mitchell/Ober) uses an orthography based on detailed study of the surface and underlying phonology of the language, as well as on observation of how people write in real life situations. It is a mix of the Mission and Kalau Kawau Ya orthographies with the addition of diacritics (the letters in brackets) to aid correct pronunciation, since many of the people who will use this dictionary will not be speakers of the language:

a (á), b, d, dh, e (é), g, i (í), k, l, m, n, ng, o (ó, ò, ò'), œ (œ'), r, s, t, th, u (ú, ù), w, y, z

Within this orthography, w and y are treated as consonants - this is their phonogical status in the language - while u and i are used as the glides where phonological considerations show that the 'diphthong' combination has vocalic status.

The typewritten forms of œ and œœ are oe and ooe.

Pronunciation of the letters

The English pronunciations given in the list below are those of Australian English, and are only meant as a guide. The letters in square brackets ([]) are the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

  • a (short) [a] : ‘u’ as in 'hut' - gath 'shallow, shallows', mathaman 'hit, kill'
  • a, á (long) (aa in the Bani orth.) [aː] ‘a’ as in father - áth 'bottom turtle shell' ('plastron'), ma 'spider', lág, laaga 'place'
  • b [b] as in English - Báb Dad, bibir 'power, authority'
  • d [d] as in English - da 'chest', idi 'grease, fat, dead-calm sea'
  • dh [d̪] similar to d, but with the tip of the tongue put against the top teeth- dha 'ladder, stairs', adhal 'outside', Bádhu 'Badu'
  • e (short) [e] ‘e’ as in bed - bero 'rib, side of boat, river bank, etc.', nge 'then', tete 'animal/bird leg'
  • e, é (long) (ee in the Bani orth.) [eː] ‘are’ as in bared - gér 'sea snake', dhe 'slime', sei 'there'
  • g [ɡ] as in English get, never as in general - gigi 'thunder', gugu 'owl'
  • i (short) [i] short ‘ee’ as in feet - midh 'how', sisi 'gecko', ipi 'wife'
  • i, í (long) (ii in the Bani orth.) [iː] ‘ee’ as in feed - síb 'liver, centre', gi 'knife', ígil 'life'
  • k [k] as in English - kikiman 'hurry up', kakayam 'bird-of-paradise
  • l [l] similar to English ‘l’ in lean, but with the tip of the tongue against the top teeth; never as in English kneel - lág 'place, home', li 'basket', gúl 'double-outrigger sailing canoe'
  • m [m] as in English - mám 'love, affection', Ama 'Mum, Aunty, ma 'spider'
  • n [n] similar to English ‘n’ in nun, but with the tip of the tongue against the top teeth - naawu, KKY na 'song', nan 'her, it', nanu 'her(s), its'
  • ng [ŋ] as in English sing; never as in English finger - ngai 'I, me', ngœrang 'armpit'
  • o (short) [o] more or less ‘o’ as is in got, though more rounded - sob 'slowness', mogai, Bœigu moga, Saibai-Dœwan mogo 'blank skink'
  • o (long) (oo in the Bani orth.) [oː] more or less ‘o’ as in god, though more rounded - gor 'tie-hole', so 'show'
  • ò (short) [ɔ] short version of ‘oa’ in broad - mòdhabil 'costs, prices', gòyal 'bald'
  • ò (long) (oo in the Bani orth.) [ɔː] ‘oa’ in broad - mòs 'lung, spittle', gòy 'baldness'
  • œ (short) [ə] ‘a’ as in about - bœtœm 'lean (animals)', bœga 'mallard'
  • œ (long) (ooe in the Bani orth.) [əː] more or less like ‘er’ in herd - wœr 'water', Wœy 'Venus', bœi 'coming'
  • p [p] as in English - papi 'noose, trap', áp 'garden', KKY Pòpu 'Grandad'
  • r [r] similar to ‘tt’ in better when said fast (that is to say, when better is pronounced ‘bedder’). Before another consonant and at the end of a word, it is often trilled (like in ‘stage’ Scottish English or 'rr' in Spanish). In singing, however, it is normally pronounced much like the American English ‘r’ - ári 'rain, louse', rùg 'rag, piece of cloth', ár 'dawn'
  • s [s] most commonly like English ‘s’ in sister; sometimes like English ‘ch’ in chew when at the beginning of a word or in the middle of a word; never like ‘s’ in ‘as’ (which is a ‘z’ sound) - sas 'style, showing off', sisi 'gecko', saguk 'game, fun, dance'
  • t [t] as in English - tádu 'sand-crab', tídann'return, understand', ít 'rock oyster'
  • th [t̪] similar to t, but with the tip of the tongue put against the top teeth - tha 'crocodile tail', thathi 'father', geth 'hand'
  • u (short) [u] short ‘u’ as in lute - buthu 'sand', gulai, KLY gulal 'sailing canoes'
  • u, ú (long) (uu in the Bani orth.) [uː] ‘oo’ in woo - búzar 'fat, blubber', thu 'smoke'
  • ù [ʊ] ‘u’ as in put - mùdh 'shelter, haven, back-yard, camp', kùt 'late afternoon, early evening', kùlai 'first, before'
  • w [w] Not as strong as English ‘w’ in we ; for most speakers of the language the only difference between w and short u is that w is shorter - wa 'yes', kawa 'island', báw 'wave'
  • y [j] Not as strong as English ‘y’ in yes; for most speakers of the language the only difference between y and short i is that y is much shorter - ya 'speech, talk, language', aye, KKY aya 'come!', máy 'well, spring; tears; pearl-shell, nacre'
  • z [z] most commonly like English ‘z’ in zoo, or English ‘s’ in has; sometimes like English ‘j’ in jump, or ‘dg’ in budge when at the beginning or in the middle of a word - zázi 'grass skirt', za 'thing, object', zizi 'crackle, crack, rustling noise'

Combinations of vowels (‘diphthongs’, such as ai, au, œi, eu etc.) are pronounced as written. Thus, for example, ai is a-i (basically very similar to ‘i’ in ‘mine’ with a posh accent). In singing and sometimes in slow speech, such vowel combinations can be said separately. In the Bani and Saibai (etc.) orthographies, the last elements can be written as y and w instead of i and u. The diphthongs are:

  • ei/ey - sei, sey 'there'
  • iu/iw - biuni, biwni 'kookoobuura, kingfisher'
  • œi/œy - bœi, bœy 'coconut frond'
  • eu/ew - seu, sew 'belonging to there'
  • ai/ay - Saibai, Saybay 'Saibai'
  • œu/œw - kœubu, kœwbu 'battle, war'
  • òi/oy - òi, oy 'hoy!, hey!' (reply to a call, vocative particle)
  • au/aw - kaub, kawb 'tiredness'
  • ui/uy - mui, muy 'fire'
  • ou/ow - berou, berow 'of a/the rib'


Nominal morphology

Where the morphology is concerned, the language is somewhere along the continuum between agglutinative and declining. Nominals have the following cases: nominative, accusative, instrumental (subsumes ergative), dative (subsumes allative, purposive), ablative (subsumes elative, avoidative), specific locative, nonspecific locative (subsumes perlative and comitative) and global locative. Nominals also have the following derived forms: privative, similative, resultative and proprietive, which also forms the noun nominative-accusative plural. All stems end in a vowel or a semi-vowel, except for a few monosyllables ending in -r and -l (which includes a very few reduplicated words, like tharthar 'boiling, seething', as well as ngipel 'you two' [a compound of ngi 'you singular' and -pal 'two']). For many nouns the surface nominative(-accusative) undergoes a final stem-vowel deletion rule; in the Kalaw Lagaw Ya dialect the rule results in final devoiced vowels accompanied by main vowel lengthening. There are three numbers, singular, dual and plural. Singular and dual are the same form in all nominals except the personal pronouns. Furthermore, the plural is only distinguished in the nominative-accusative - except for the personal pronouns, where the difference in number is shown by the stem.

There are two nominal classes, Common Nominals (common nouns, demonstratives, locative/temporal/etc. adverbs) and Proper Nominals (Proper names [personal names, boat names, emotive kinship terms], pronouns). The major difference between the two classes are 1) semantic - Proper Nominals have pronominal characteristics, and, 2) declensional, for example Proper Nominals have one locative case rather than the three of Common Nominals.

Common nominal declensions (Note that the following are in the Kalau Kawau Ya dialect.)

Case/Suffix Hoe/Adze Place/Home Knife Water Mud Middle looking giving, getting, being, moving, doing, etc.
stem type multisyllabic
-u final
multisyllabic monosyllabic
vowel final
-r/-l final
-i glide final
locative nominal
verbal noun
verbal noun
stem pábu- lága- gi- wœr- sái- dhadha- naga+i- má+i-
nom-acc. sing.-dual pábu lág gi wœr sái dhadh
(compounds only)
nœgai mái
nom-acc. pl. pabul lagal gilai wœrai saithai dhadhal
(compounds only)
--- ---
inst. pabun lagan ginu/gín wœrnu/wœran saithu dhadhan nœgain main
gen. pabu lagau gingu wœrngu saingu dhadhau nœgai mai
dat. pabupa lagapa gipa wœrpa saipa dhadhapa nœgaipa maipa
abl. pabungu lagangu gingu wœrngu saingu dhadhaz nœgaile maithaile
sp.loc. pabunu,
nœgainu mainu
n-sp-loc pabuya lagaya giya wœriya saiya dhadhaya nœgaiya maiya
gl-loc. pabuyab lagayab gipu wœrab, wœrpu saiyab, saipu dhadhayab nœgaiya maiya
prop. pabul(ai) lagal(ai) gilai wœrai saithai,
(compounds only)
nœgail(ai) maithai
priv. pabugi lagagi gigi wœrgi saigi dhadhagi
(compounds only)
nœgaigi maigi
sim. pabudh(a) lagadh(a) gidha wœrdha/wœradh saidh(a) dhadhadh(a)
(compounds only)
nœgaidh(a) maidh(a)
res. pabuzi lagazi gizi wœrzi saizi dhadhazi
(compounds only)
nœgaizi maizi

Irregular Nouns

There are few irregular nouns, the most common being

(1) ai 'food', ya'm 'speech, language, message, etc.', li 'basket', lu 'mound, bump, hump'

instrumental aidu, yadu, lidu, ludu specific locative/proprietive-plural aidai/aide, yadai, lidai, ludai

(2) KKY na, KLY naawu, KulY/KY nawu 'song'; KKY yu 'drying rack, cooking rack' (other dialects nuuwa, nu)

instrumental KKY nathu, KLY/KulY/KY nathun, nawun; KKY yuthu (other dialects nuwan)

specific locative/proprietive-plural KKY nathai, KLY/KY nawul, KulY nawlai; KKY yuthai (other dialects nuwanu, nuwa)

(3) za 'thing, object, matter, etc.'

This word has a fuller stem form, zapu-, which appears in certain forms:

instrumental zapun genitive zapu proprietive-plural zapul

In the locative forms both stems (za- and zapu-) appear:

specific locative zanu, zapunu, etc.

(4) gœiga 'sun, day'; bireg/bereg 'shelf'

The stems of these words have different forms to the nominative-accusative-

gœiga - stem: gœigœyi-, gœigi-; bireg/bereg - stem: bœreigi-, biregi-

(5) dœgam, KLK dœgaamu 'side, direction, point of compass, aspect'

This word has two stem forms, in free variation : dœgamu-, daguma-


The language has a closed class of demonstrative morphemes with special morphological characteristics:


pi-, pe- 'there in the distance in a specific position'

kai- 'there in the distance in a non-specific position' (in Kauřařaigau Ya kařa-)


ka- (non-specific), í- (specific) 'here, this'

se-, si- 'there, that (not too far away)'

-gu, KKY -gui, -mulu(KKY -ngùl in combined forms) 'down there'

-ka, -karai/-kadai 'up there' (variant forms of the one underlying stem)

-ngapa 'there beyond', 'there on the other side'

-pai, -pa, -paipa 'ahead there, up close there' (variant forms of the one underlying stem -pai), MY -kupai, KY also -kudhai

-pun[i], -puwa 'off from there, back from there, back over there, back there' (possibly variant forms of the one underlying stem)

The Kauřařaigau Ya forms recorded are the same as in the modern dialects, with the exception of kařa- 'non-specific yonder', modern dialects kai-, %ka- and -puwai 'ahead there', modern dialects -pai/-pa.

These demonstratives (as stem forms) can have masculine, feminine and non-singular forms (and as such are pronominal) as well as case forms. Í- 'here, this' and se/si- 'there, that (not too far away)' take the gender/number morphemes as suffixes, and the other demonstratives take them as prefixes. Note that ka- 'non-specifically here' and kai- 'there in the distance in a non-specific position' cannot appear with the gender/number morphemes, as these latter are specific by their nature. Í- and se/si- also take an article forming affix -bi to become demonstrative articles (e.g. KLY senuubi kaazi, KKY senaubi kaz 'that boy', KLY senaabi kaazi, KKY senabi kaz 'that girl', KLY sepalab kaazi, KKY sepalbi kaz 'those two children', sethabi kœzil 'those children').

ka-, i-, se-/si-
non specific
nom-acc kai in mas.,
ina fem.,
ipal dual,
itha pl.
senau mas.,
sena/sina fem.,
sepal/sipal dual,
setha/sitha pl
inst. kedha --- kedha ---
gen. kœu --- seu ---
dat. kœpa --- sepa/sipa ---
abl. kœzi --- seizi/sizi ---
sp.loc. kai in mas.,
ina fem.,
ipal dual,
itha pl.
sei/si senau mas.,
sena/sina fem.,
sepal/sipal dual,
setha/sitha pl.
n-sp-loc/gl.loc kaiki inuki mas.,
inaki fem.,
ipalki dual,
ithaki pl.
seiki/siki senauki mas.,
senaki/sinaki fem.,
sepalki/sipalki dual,
sethaki/sithaki pl.
sim. kedha kedha kedha kedha
article kedhabi inubi mas.,
inabi fem.,
ipalbi dual,
ithabi pl.
kedhabi senaubi mas.,
senabi/sinabi fem.,
sepalbi/sipalbi dual,
sethabi/sithabi pl.
the other
gui ka(rai) ngapa pai/pa pun/pawa
(forms without the pi prefix are more pronominal in function)
(pi)nugui mas.,
(pi)nagui fem.,
(pi)palgui dual,
(pi)thagui pl.
(pi)nuka mas.,
(pi)naka fem.,
(pi)palka dual,
(pi)thaka pl.
(pi)nungap mas.,
(pi)nangap fem.,
(pi)palngap dual,
(pi)thangap pl.
(pi)nupai mas.,
(pi)napai fem.,
(pi)palpai dual,
(pi)thapai pl.
(pi)nupun mas.,
(pi)napun fem.,
(pi)palpun dual,
(pi)thapun pl.
kaigui kaika kaingap kaipai/kaipaipa kaipun, kaipawapa
specific dat.
(forms without the pi prefix are more pronominal in function)
(pi)numulupa mas.,
(pi)namulupa fem.,
(pi)palmulupa dual,
(pi)thamulupa pl.
(pi)nukaripa mas.,
(pi)nakaripa fem.,
(pi)palkaripa dual,
(pi)thakaripa pl.
(pi)nungapapa mas.,
(pi)nangapapa fem.,
(pi)palngapapa dual,
(pi)thangapapa pl.
(pi)nupaipa mas.,
(pi)napaipa fem.,
(pi)palpaipa dual,
(pi)thapaipa pl.
(pi)nupawapa mas.,
(pi)napawapa fem.,
(pi)palpawapa dual,
(pi)thapawapa pl.
non-specific dat. mulupa karaipa/kadaipa kaingapapa (kai)paipa (kai)pawapa
abl. kizigui kizika kizingap kizipai kizipun
n-sp-loc/gl.loc neutral
(forms without the pi prefix are more pronominal in function)
(pi)nuguiki mas., (
pi)naguiki fem.,
(pi)palguiki dual,
(pi)thaguiki pl.
(pi)nukaki mas.,
(pi)nakaki fem.,
(pi)palkaki dual,
(pi)thakaki pl.
(pi)nungapaki mas.,
(pi)nangapaki fem.,
(pi)palngapaki dual,
(pi)thangapaki pl.
(pi)nupaiki/(pi)nupaipa mas.,
(pi)napaiki/(pi)napaipa fem.,
(pi)palpaiki/(pi)palpaipa dual,
(pi)thapaiki/(pi)thapaipa pl.
(pi)nupuniki/(pi)nupawapa mas.,
(pi)napuniki/(pi)napawapa fem.,
(pi)palpuniki/(pi)palawapa dual,
(pi)thapuniki/(pi)thapawapa pl.
n-sp/gl-loc kaiguiki kaikaki kaingapaki kaipaiki/kaipaipa kaipunki, kaipawapa


The personal pronouns three nominative-ergative-accusative in declension. Note that the third person pronouns are also used as definite articles, e.g. Nuidh garkœzin nan yipkaz imadhin 'The man saw the woman'.

Case/Suffix I/me you he/it
who what
nom. ngai ngi nui na nga mi- (miai, miza)
acc. ngœna ngin nuin nan ngan mi-
(miai, miza);
inst. ngath ngidh nuidh nadh ngadh midh
(miaidu/miden/midu/midun, mizœpun)
gen. ngau (mas.), ngœzu (fem.) nginu nungu nanu ngœnu mingu
(miaingu, mizœngu)
dat. ngayapa ngibepa nubepa nabepa ngabepa mipa
(miaipa, mizœpa)
abl. ngaungu(z) (mas.), ngœzungu(z) (fem.) nginungu(z) nungungu(z) nanungu(z) ngœnungu(z) mingu(zi)
(miaingu, mizœngu)
sp.loc. ngaibiya ngibiya nubiya nabiya ngabiya miaide/miainu,
n-sp-loc ngaibiya ngibiya nubiya nabiya ngabiya miaiya,
gl-loc. ngaibiya ngibiya nubiya nabiya ngabiya miaiyab,
proprietive/plural ---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- midel, mizœpul
priv. ngaugi (mas.), ngœzugi (fem.) nginugi nungugi nanugi ngœnugi miaigi,
sim. ngaudh (mas.), ngœzudh (fem.) nginudh nungudh nanudh ngœnudh midh
(miaidh, mizœpudh)
res. ---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- miaizi, mizœzi

Personal pronouns : dual

The dual and plural pronouns are nominative-accusative, except in KKY, where they are do not mark the nominative or accusative.

Case/Suffix we two you and I you two them two
(the two)
nom-acc-inst ngalbe ngœba ngipel palai
(Boigu pale)
gen. ngalben ngœban ngipen palamun
(Boigu palemun)
(as for singular)
dat. ngalbelpa ngœbalpa ngipelpa palamulpa
(Boigu palemulpa)
(as for singular)
abl. ngalbelngu ngœbalngu ngipelngu palamulngu
(Boigu palemulngu)
(as for singular)
loc. ngalbeniya ngœbaniya ngipeniya palamuniya
(Boigu palemuniya)
(as for singular)
sim. ngalbedh ngœbadh ngipedh palamudh
(Boigu palemudh)
(as for singular)

Ngawal 'who two' is constructed from nga 'who' plus the clitic -wal 'both, and two (dual conjunction)'.

Personal pronouns : plural

Case/Suffix we (not you) we (inc. you) you they
nom-acc-inst ngœi ngalpa ngitha thana ngaya
gen. ngœimun ngalpan ngithamun thanamun (as for singular)
dat. ngœimulpa ngalpalpa ngithamulpa thanamulpa (as for singular)
abl. ngœimulngu ngalpalngu ngithamulngu thanamulngu (as for singular)
loc. ngœimuniya ngalpaniya ngithamuniya thanamuniya (as for singular)
sim. ngœimudh ngalpadh ngithamudh thanamudh (as for singular)

Ngaya 'who many' is constructed from nga 'who' plus the clitic -ya 'and others (plural conjunction)'.

Personal names and familiar kinship terms

(Familiar kinship terms are the equivalent of English kin terms such as Dad and Mum, while non-familiar terms are the equivalent of Father and Mother; these latter are treated as common nouns in the language)

Case/Suffix Tom (mas.) Anai (fem.) Dad/Uncle
(cf. father/uncle)
(cf. mother/aunt
nom-inst Tom Anai Báb
acc-gen. Toman Anaina Baban
dat. Tomalpa Anailpa Babalpa
abl. Tomalngu Anailngu Babalngu
loc. Tomaniya Anainiya Babaniya
proprietive/plural ----------- ----------- babal
priv. ----------- ----------- babagi
sim. Tomadh Anaidh babadh
res. ----------- ----------- babazi

Kauřařaigau Ya Nominal Morphology

The earliest grammatical records of the language are those of the mid-1800s Kauřařaigau Ya dialect. This dialect is identical to the modern dialects, apart from retaining more archaic forms of some endings and suffixes.

Nominal suffixes and endings

Common Nominals

Nominative-Accusative :
Ergative-Instrumental : -n,-na,-nu,-Cu; demonstratives unmarked
Genitive : monosyllable stems : -ngu, multisyllables -u
Dative-Allative : -pa ~ -pari
Ablative-Causative : nouns -nguzi, verbal nouns -lai, adverbs/demonstratives -zi
Specific Locative : monosyllabic stem nouns -lai~-dai~-thai~-ai~-řai~-rai, multisyllabic stem nouns -nulai~-nule~-nuli~-nul, adverbs -l(a) , demonstratives -ři
Non-Specific Locative : -ya, adverbs/demonstratives -ki~-kidha
Proprietive/Plural : monosyllabic stem nouns -lai~-dai~-thai~-ai~-řai~-rai, multisyllabic stem nouns, adverbs -lai (>-le~-li), -rai (> -re~-ri), -řai (> -ře~-ři)
Privative : -gi
Imitative-Similative : -dha
Resultative : -zi

Proper nominals

No early writer recorded declined feminine forms, apart from the genitive. Ray (1907:20-21) implies (by default) that the OKY paradigm is basically the same as that of OKLY.

Nominative-Ergative-Instrumental :
Accusative-Genitive : masculine -ni, feminine -na-, dual-plural pronoun -ni~-mùni
Dative-Allative : masculine -nipa[ri] , feminine ?-napa[ri], dual-plural pronoun -nipa[ri]~-mùnipa(ri)
Ablative-Causative : masculine -ninguzi ~-nunguzi, feminine ?-nanguzi, dual-plural pronoun -ninguzi~-nunguzi~-mùninguzi~-mùnunguzi
Locative : masculine -niya, feminine -naya, dual-plural pronoun -niya~-mùniya
Imitative-Similative : -dha, dual-plural pronoun -dha~-mùdha

Kauřařaigau Ya Pronouns

Brierly (B), MacGillivray (M) and Ray (R) recorded the following forms of the singular pronouns of OKY:

1st - Brierly gni, ngi; Macgillivray ngai; Ray ngai
2nd - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ngi; Ray ngi
3rd masculine - Brierly ---; Macgillivray nue; Ray nui
3rd feminine - Brierly ---; Macgillivray na, nga; Ray na
‘’who’’ - Brierly gua; Macgillivray nga; Ray nga
‘’what’’ - Brierly ---; Macgillivray []mi; Ray mi-

1st - Brierly ana; Macgillivray ana; Ray ngana
2nd - Brierly gin; MacGillivray ngi; Ray nginö, ngin
3rd masculine - Brierly nooano; MacGillivray nudu; Ray nuinö, nuin
3rd feminine - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ---; Ray nanö, nan
‘’who’’ - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ---; Ray nganö, ngan
‘’what’’ - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ---; Ray ---

1st - Brierly nath, nut; Macgillivray ngatu; Ray ngata, ngatö, ngat
2nd - Brierly needtha, needthoo; Macgillivray ngidu; Ray ngida, ngidö, ngid
3rd masculine - Brierly nooide ; MacGillivray nudu; Ray nuida, nuidö, nuid
3rd feminine - Brierly ---; Macgillivray nadu; Ray nada, nadö, nad
‘’who’’ - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ngadu; Ray ngada, ngadö, ngad
‘’what’’ - Brierly meedan; Macgillivray mida; Ray mida midö, mid

1st - Brierly ngau, gnau, ngow masculine, udthu, oldzoo, udzoo feminine; Macgillivray ngow masculine, udzu, udz feminine; Ray ngau masculine, ngazu, nguzu feminine
2nd - Brierly gnee,ye noo, yeenow, niu, yenoo, meeno; Macgillivray yinu; Ray nginu
3rd masculine - Brierly noonoo ; MacGillivray ---; Ray nungu
3rd feminine - Brierly ---; Macgillivray nanue; Ray nanu
‘‘who’’ - Brierly ---; Macgillivray ---; Ray ngunu
‘‘what’’ – not recorded

Based on the above forms and the modern dialects, the OKY pronouns were most likely as follows:

person Nominative Accusative Ergative-Instrumental Genitive Dative Ablative Locative
1st ngayi ngana ngathu ngau (masculine)
ngœzu (feminine)
ngaikika ngaunguzi (masculine)
ngœzunguzi (feminine)
2nd ngi ngina ngidhu nginu ngibepa[ri] nginunguzi ngibiya
3rd masculine nui nuina nuidhu nungu nubepa[ri] nungunguzi nubiya
3rd feminine na nana nadhu nanu nabepa[ri] nanunguzi nabiya
who nga ngana ngadhu ngœnu ngabepa[ri] ngœnunguzi ngabiya
what miyai miyai midhu mingu mipa[ri] minguzi mizapuya

The accusatives, the ablatives and imitatives underwent optional final vowel deletion, while the ergatives optionally transformed the final u to a or œ, or deleted it, thus ngathu > ngatha > ngathœ > ngath.

The recorded dual-plural forms are:

1st Dual Exclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray albei; Ray ngalbai
1st Dual Inclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray aba; Ray ngaba
2nd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ngipel; Ray ngipel
3rd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray pale; Ray palai
‘‘who’’ Dual : Ray nga wal

1st Plural Exclusive : Brierly ari, churri; MacGillivray arri, uri; Ray ngöi
1st Plural Inclusive : Brierly alpa; MacGillivray alpa; Ray ngalpa
2nd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ngi-tana; Ray ngita
3rd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray tana; Ray tana

1st Dual Exclusive : Brierly abonnie, abuni, abani, aboni; MacGillivray ---; Ray ngalbaini
1st Dual Inclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray abane, abeine; Ray ngabani
2nd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ngipeine; Ray ngipeni
3rd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray palaman; Ray palamuni

1st Plural Exclusive : Brierly areen; MacGillivray arrien; Ray ngöimunu
1st Plural Inclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ---; Ray ngalpanu
2nd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ngitanaman; Ray ngitamunu
3rd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray tanaman; Ray tanamunu

1st Dual Exclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray albi nipa; Ray ngalbainipa
1st Dual Inclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray albynape; Ray ngabanipa
2nd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ---; Ray ngipenipa
3rd Dual : Brierly ---; MacGillivray pale nipa; Ray palamunipa

1st Plural Exclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray arri nipa; Ray ngöinipa, ngöimunipa
1st Plural Inclusive : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ---; Ray ngalpanipa, ngalpamunipa
2nd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray ---; Ray ngitanipa, ngitamunipa
3rd Plural : Brierly ---; MacGillivray tane nipa; Ray tananipa, tanamunipa

Ablative : recorded by Ray as -[mu]nunguzi

These can be reconstructed as:

person Nominative-Ergative-Instrumental Accusative-Genitive Dative Ablative Locative Imitative-Similative
1st Dual ngalbai ngalbaini ngalbainipa ngalbainingu
ngalbainiya ngalbainidha
1st-2nd Dual ngaba ngabani ngabanipa ngabaningu
ngabaniya ngabanidha
2nd Dual ngipel ngipeni ngipenipa ngipeningu
ngipeniya ngipenidha
3rd Dual palai
palamùni palamùnipa palamùningu
palamùniya palamùnidha
1st Plural ngœři ngœři(mù)ni ngœři(mù)nipa ngœři(mù)ningu
ngœři(mù)niya ngœři(mù)nidha
1st-2nd Plural ngalpa ngalpa(mù)ni ngalpa(mù)nipa ngalpa(mù)ningu
ngalpa(mù)niya ngalpa(mù)nidha
2nd Plural ngitha(na) ngitha(na)(mù)ni ngitha(na)(mù)nipa ngitha(na)(mù)ningu
ngitha(na)(mù)niya ngitha(na)(mù)nidha
3rd Plural thana thana(mù)ni thana(mù)nipa thana(mù)ningu
thana(mù)niya thana(mù)nidha

“Who” in the dual nominative-accusative (and optionally in the ergative-instrumental) had the forms ngawal (dual) and ngaya (plural).

Mi- ‘‘what, which’’ was used by the same way as in the modern dialects.

Verb morphology

Verbs can have over 100 different aspect, tense, voice, mood and number forms. Verb agreement is with the object (i.e. 'ergative') in transitive clauses, and with the subject in intransitive clauses. Imperatives, on the other hand, agree with both subject and object in transitive clauses.

There are three aspects ('perfective', 'imperfective', 'habitual'), two telicity forms ('active', which focuses on the verb activity and subsumes many intransitives, many antipassives and some transitives, and 'attainative', which subsumes many transitives, some antipassives and some intransitives), two moods ('non-imperative' and 'imperative' [which resembles a subjunctive in some uses], 6 tenses ('remote future', 'today future', 'present', 'today past', 'recent past', 'remote past' - KLY has developed a 7th tense, a 'last night' tense) and four numbers ('singular', 'dual', 'specific plural', 'animate active plural' - in form the animate active plural is the same as the singular, and is only found on certain verbs).

In most descriptions of the language the active and attainative forms have been mistakenly termed transitive and intransitive respectively. Transitive, intransitive, passive, antipassive and 'antipassive passive' in the language are syntactic categories, and are formed by the interplay of nominal and verbal morphology, clause/sentence-level characteristics such as word-order, and semantic considerations.

Verb morphology consists of prefixes (aspect, positioning, etc.), suffixes (telicity, number, and two fossilised multiplicative/causative suffixes) and endings (tense, aspect and mood, and a very limited extent number and telicity). The structural matrix of theverb is as follows. Note that the two fossilised suffixes are mutually exclusive; if a suffix is in the A slot, a suffix cannot appear in the B slot, and vice versa.

(prefix)+(prefix)+stem(+FOSSILISED SUFFIX A)+(TELICITY)(+FOSSILISED SUFFIX B)+(number)+ending(+ending).


pabalkabuthamadhin 'two were laid down across something' [which would clear in the context]

pabalkabuthemadhin 'two lay down (laid themselves down) across something' [which would clear in the context]

prefix: pa- 'telic prefix'

prefix: bal- 'positional - across'

stem: kabutha- 'place, lay'

telicity suffix: 'attainative', -i 'active'

number suffix: -ma 'dual' (absolutive agreement)

tense-aspect-mood ending: -dhin 'remote past perfective'


prefix: gar- 'collective'

stem: wœidha- 'place, put'

Fosslised suffix: ma 'intensive

telicity suffix: i 'active'

number suffix: ma 'dual'

tense-aspect-mood ending: dhin 'remote past perfective'

Sample verb declension : íma- 'see, observe, supervise, examine, try, test'

Tensed forms

Case/Suffix Perfective Attainative Imperfective Attainative Perfective Active Imperfective Active
remote future singular imane imaipu (imaiparui) imedhe imepu (imeparui)
dual imamane imampu (imamparui) imemadhe imempu (imemparui)
plural imamœine imamœipu (imamœiparui) imemœidhe imemœipu (imemœiparui)
near future singular imaipa imaipu (imaiparui) imepa imepu (imeparui)
dual imampa imampu (imamparui) imempa imempu (imemparui)
plural imamœipa imamœipu (imamœiparui) imemœipa imemœipu (imemœiparui)
present singular iman imaipa imiz imepa
dual imaman imampa imeman imempa
plural imamœin imamœipa imemœin imemœipa
today past singular imanu imadha imema imedha
dual imamanu imamadha imemanu imemadha
plural imamœinu imamœidha imemœinu imemœidha
recent past singular imangu imarngu imaingu imairngu
dual imamangu imamarngu imemangu imemarngu
plural imamœingu imamœirngu imemœingu imemœirngu
remote past singular imadhin imar imaidhin imai
dual imamadhin imamar imemadhin imemar
plural imamœidhin imamœi (imamir) imemœidhin imemœi (imemir)

Non-tensed forms

Case/Suffix Singular Dual Plural
Attainative Habitual imaipu (imaiparui) imampu (imamparui) imamœipu (imamœiparui)
Active Habitual imepu (imeparui) imempu (imemparui) imemœipu (imemœiparui)
Perfective Attainative Imperative (Singular Subject) imar imamar imamœi (imamir)
(Non-Plural Subject) imau (imaziu) imamariu imamœi (imamœiziu, imamiu)
Active Imperative imi imemariu imemœi (imemœiziu, imemiu)
Imperfective Attainative Imperative imadha imamadha imamœidha
Imperfective Active Imperative imedha imemadha imemœidha

Nominalised forms

Case/Suffix Verbal Noun Proprietive Privative Resultative
base form imai imail imaigi imaizi
independent impersonal form (nom-acc) imai imailnga imaiginga imaizinga
stem imai- imailmai- imaigimai- imaizimai-
independent personal form (nom-acc) ---- imailaig imaigig imaizig
stem ---- imailga- imaigiga- imaiziga-

Kauřařaigau Ya Verbal Morphology


These were the same as in the modern dialects.


The only suffix differences with the modern dialects were in the form of the plural and verbal noun suffixes. In OKY these were maři and ři respectively. The dual was ngauma on ma- 'take, give, move etc.' and otherwise uma.

Class 1 : wœidha- 'put, place, cook' wœidhamařinu~ wœidhamayinu~wœidhamain attainative perfective present plural object

wœidhaumanu~wœidhauman attainative perfective present dual object

wœidhemařinu~wœidhemayinu~wœidhemain active perfective present plural subject

wœidheumanu~wœidheuman active perfective present dual subject

wœidhàři, wœidhài verbal noun

Class 2 : ni-, niya- 'sit, stay'

niyamařipa[ri] imperfective present plural

nijaumapa[ri] imperfective present dual

niyàři, niyài verbal noun

Verb Endings

ATTAINATIVE INDICATIVE perfective singular perfective active
(where different)
remote future -kœrui --- -kœrui
future -pa[ri] --- -kœrui
present -nu -izi -pa[ri]
today past -nulai -ma -adha
recent past -ngùl --- -r(a)ngùl
remote past -dhin(i) --- -r(a)
ATTAINATIVE IMPERATIVE -r(a) SgS, -u PlS, -riu Dual -i -adha

On the whole, the OKY verb seems to have been declined like the Kalau Lagau Ya verb. This includes the loss of the suffix ma in the intransitive imperfective present/perfective today future singular. This loss, however, appears to have been optional in the today past equivalent (MacGillivray 1852:311):

OKY daneipa (danaipa) ' (sun)' (MacGillivray) :: KLY danaika, KKY danamipa 'load (self) up' present imperfective

OKY dadeipa (dhœidhaipa) 'die' (MacGillivray) :: KLY dhœidhaika (base dhœidhama-) 'be dizzy, dead drunk' present imperfective

OKY usimema, usima (usimima) 'douse' (MacGillivray) :: KLY usima, KKY wœsimima 'douse' today past perfective

Vowel/diphthong deletion and reduction in class 1b verbs was optional in OKY where it is now optional or obligatory:

OKY uzareuma- :: KLY uzareuma-, KKY uzarma- 'go dual'

OKY delupeipa (dœdupaipa) 'drown, sink' :: KLY dudupaka, KKY dœdupapa

The irregular verb yœwi- / iya- / yœuna- 'lie/slant/lean over/down' was recorded in the form iipa (eepah), indicating the stem ii- (the remote past form iir is found in modern KY, though not recorded in OKY). Otherwise, only yœuna- was recorded for OKY.

Miscellaneous paradigms

Three paradigms that have irregular morphology are:

Si[ ]kai 'Perhaps/Maybe/Possibly' (all dialects except Kalau Kawau Ya - which has invariable sike, sikedh)

masculine sinukai/senukai, feminine sinakai/senakai, general (singular, dual, plural) sikai


Singular yawa, Non-singular yawak

'Hey!' (word used to attract someone's attention)

mas. kame ~ kamedh, fem. kake ~ kakedh, non-singular kole ~ koledh

In sikedh, kamedh, kakedh and koledh, the -dh final is only found in more emphatic use.

Sign language

The Torres Strait Islanders have signed forms of their languages,[4] though it is not clear from records that they are particularly well-developed compared to other Australian Aboriginal sign languages.[5]


  1. ^ a b Kalaw Lagaw Ya at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kala Lagaw Ya".  
  3. ^ Kalaw Lagaw Ya at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. ^ Seligman, C. G., and A. Wilkin (1907). The gesture language of the Western Islanders, in "Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits." Cambridge, England: The University Press, v.3.
  5. ^ Kendon, A. (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Ford, Kevin; Ober, Dana (1991). "A sketch of Kalaw Kawaw Ya". In S. Romaine. Language in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 118–142. 

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