Tiwi language

Tiwi /ˈtwi/[4] is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by the Tiwi people on the Tiwi Islands, within sight of the coast of northern Australia. It is one of about 10% of Australian languages still being learned by children.

Native toAustralia
RegionBathurst and Melville Islands, Northern Territory
EthnicityTiwi people
Native speakers
2,040 (2016 census)[1]
  • Traditional Tiwi
  • New Tiwi
Language codes
ISO 639-3tiw
Tiwi (purple), among other non-Pama-Nyungan languages (grey)

Traditional Tiwi, spoken by people over the age of fifty by 2005, is a polysynthetic language. However, this grammatical complexity has been lost among younger generations. Tiwi has around one hundred nominals that can be incorporated into verbs, most of them quite different from the corresponding free forms.[5]

Tiwi has long been regarded as a language isolate.



Like most Australian languages, Tiwi has four phonetically distinct series of coronal stops. (See Coronals in Indigenous Australian languages.) There are contrasting alveolar and postalveolar apical consonants, the latter often called retroflex. However, the two laminal series are in complementary distribution, with postalveolar laminal [t̠] (sometimes described as alveolo-palatal) occurring before the front vowel /i/, and denti-alveolar laminal [t̪] occurring before the non-front vowels, /a/, /o/, /u/. That is, phonologically Tiwi has at most three series. However, some analyses treat postalveolar [ʈ] as a sequence /ɻt/, since it only occurs in medial position.

Plosive p [p]k [k]j [t̠] ~ [t̪]t [t]rt [ʈ]
Nasal m [m]ng [ŋ]ny [n̪]n [n]rn [ɳ]
Rhotic rr [r]r [ɻ]
Lateral l [l]rl [ɭ]
Approximant w [w]g [ɰ]y [j]

In addition, Tiwi has a velar approximant, which is somewhat unusual for an Australian language. Typically for an Australian language, there are no fricatives.

Tiwi allows consonant clusters in medial position. Besides the possibility of /ɻt/ for [ʈ], these include other liquid-stop clusters and nasal-stop clusters such as /mp/. However, there is little reason to choose between an analysis of /mp/ as being a cluster as opposed to a prenasalized stop.[6]

There is also a glottal stop (ʔ) in the inventory of speech sounds in Tiwi, but as Osborne notes, it functions to mark the end of a sentence and as such, is best analysed as a part of Tiwi prosody.[7]


Tiwi has four phonemic vowels.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Open a o

The frequency of the open-back vowel /o/ is relatively low. It is neutralised with /a/ following /w/, and does not occur initially or finally.[7] However minimal pairs exist, albeit few in number, to prove its existence as a distinct phoneme:

/jilati/ knife
/jiloti/ forever

Each phonemic vowel exhibits a broad range of allophones, many of which overlap with allophones of other vowels, and three vowels (/i/, /a/ and /u/) reduce to /ə/ in many unstressed syllables.[8] All vowels are phonemically short, while long vowels occur when medial glides are reduced. For example:

/paɻuwu/ [paɻu:] (placename)


Tiwi is characterized by its highly complex verb morphology. Tiwi is a polysynthetic language with a heavy use of noun incorporation such that all elements of a sentence may be expressed in a single morphological and phonological word as in the following example.[7]

He came and stole my wild honey this morning while I was asleep

Around one hundred nominals may be incorporated into the verb in Tiwi, but the incorporated forms often differ significantly from the corresponding free forms, or their closest semantic correspondent as illustrated below.[5]

Incorporated formFree formGloss
-maŋu-kukuni'fresh water'

Dixon (1980) suggests that while some forms have merely undergone phonological reduction as a result of being grammaticalized, others bear no phonological resemblance to their corresponding free form due to lexical replacement and taboo.

Verb morphology

Osborne (1974) identifies eleven grammatical categories that can be marked on verbs. They are listed below using his terminology. All verbs must be marked for tense, person and number, and third person-singular subjects and objects are also obligatorily marked for gender. All other categories listed below are not grammatically obligatory.

Verbal categories after Osborne (1974)[7]
PersonPerformer and/or undergoer of the event with respect to the speaker and hearer.
NumberEither Singular or Plural.
GenderEither Masculine or Feminine.
TenseEither Past, Non-past or Future.
AspectThere are five aspects in addition to the unmarked: durative, repetitive, moving, beginning and inceptive.
MoodThe moods are an unmarked indicative, imperative, subjunctive, compulsional and incompletive.
VoiceThe voices are reflexive, reciprocal, collective and causative.
Location/directionThe marked location is 'at a distance' or, when marked on a motion verb, 'from a distance'.
Time of dayThe times of day that can be marked are either early morning (up until noon) or evening.
StanceVerbs can take stance markers to indicate whether the event was carried out while standing or while walking along.
EmphasisVerbs in the imperative mood can additionally take emphasis.

The terminology Osborne uses for the grammatical categories, in particular the aspects and voices, does not conform to more recent cross-linguistic standards (see terms for various aspects). For instance, Osborne glosses verbs containing the beginning aspect as started to, which closer aligns to what is now called the inceptive or inchoative, while the aspect that Osborne calls inceptive is glossed as about to, which is more reminiscent of the prospective.

Nominal morphology

Tiwi, like many Indigenous Australian languages, does not distinguish between nouns and adjectives. Both things and properties or qualities of those things are encoded by the nominal word class. Nominals in Tiwi are marked for gender and number. However, the plural is ungendered, resulting in three categories: masculine, feminine and plural.


Gender is sexually assigned for humans and animals, but semantically assigned for inanimate objects on the basis of shape. Things that are thin, small and straight are assigned to the masculine gender, and objects that are large round and ample are assigned to the feminine. As a result, nominals in Tiwi may take either gender depending on the context and reference. Grass, for instance, is masculine when referring to a blade of grass, but feminine when referring to a patch or expanse of grass.

Masculine nominals are marked either by the suffix -ni or -ti, and feminine nominals by -ŋa or -ka. Furthermore, many nominals are implicitly masculine or feminine and lack overt marking. However, as nominals denoting properties always take regular gender suffixes that agree with the object they modify, the covert gender of these nominals can be ascertained.

The table below from Osborne (1974:52)[7] lists the suffixes marking each gender as well as their rate of occurrence among 200 tokens from each class.

-ni (54.0%)-ŋa (54.0%)
-ti (17.0%)-ka (24.5%)
(29.0%) (21.5%)


Nominals in Tiwi can be marked for plural either by a plural suffix -wi or -pi. The plural suffix fills the same morpheme slot as gender suffixes and as a result, plurals do not contrast for gender. Some nominals (Osborne counts nineteen) undergo partial reduplication of the stem when pluralised. The form of the reduplicant is always Ca- (where C becomes the initial consonant of the stem), thus muruntani 'white man' and muruntaka 'white woman' pluralise to mamuruntawi 'white people'.

Human and Non-human

Osborne also identifies a distinction among Tiwi nominals as to whether they belong to a Human class or a Non-human class. However the category is covert on nominals themselves, and is only marked on numerals.

Human Masculine Non-human Feminine Non-human
two juraɻa jiraɻa jin̪t̪aɻa
three jurat̪ərima jirat̪ərima t̪at̪ərima

Modern Tiwi

Since contact with Europeans, Tiwi has been undergoing changes to its structure that have resulted in a modern version of the language that is quite typologically distinct from Traditional Tiwi.[8] These changes have affected the verb morphology and lexicon of Tiwi, resulting in a language that is relatively isolating, compared with its polysynthetic predecessor.

Contact with English has also resulted in a number of other varieties of Tiwi, such as Children's Tiwi and Tiwi-English, in which Tiwi people have varying levels of proficiency. In 1993, Traditional Tiwi was spoken only by people over 55, with Modern Tiwi being spoken by everyone up until the age of 30.[8]

The main change that separates Traditional and Modern Tiwi is the level of complexity in the verb. Traditional Tiwi is a polysynthetic language while Modern Tiwi is isolating, with some inflection. The examples below show the difference between a sentence rendered in Traditional Tiwi and Modern Tiwi.

Traditional Tiwi
(Nyirra) ampi-ni-watu-wujingi-ma-j-irrikirnigi-y-angurlimay-ami.
(she) she.NPST-LOC-morning-CONT-with-CV-light-CV-walk-MOV
She (the sun) is shining over there in the morning
(Lit. She is walking over there in the morning with a light)
Modern Tiwi
Japinara jirra wokapat ampi-jiki-mi kutawu with layit.
morning she walk she.NPST-CONT-do over.there with light


  1. "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". stat.data.abs.gov.au. ABS. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tiwi". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. N20 Tiwi at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  5. Dixon, R.M.W. 1980. The languages of Australia. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge language surveys)
  6. Anderson, Victoria Balboa, and Ian Maddieson. 1994. "Acoustic Characteristics of Tiwi Coronal Stops". In UCLA Working Papers in Phonetics 87: Fieldwork Studies of Targeted Languages II
  7. Osborne, C.R. 1974. The Tiwi language. Canberra: AIAS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies)
  8. Lee, Jennifer R. 1993. Tiwi Today: A study of language change in a contact situation Canberra: Pacific Linguistics (Series C – No. 96)
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