Torres Strait Island languages

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There are two languages indigenous to Torres Strait Islanders, and an English-based Creole. The western-central language is an agglutinative language which however appears to be undergoing a transition into a declensional language, while Meriam Mìr is more clearly agglutinative. Brokan is a non-typical Pacific English Creole.

The Western-Central Torres Strait Island Language

The language of the western and central islands of Torres Strait is related to languages of the Australian mainland and is a member of the Pama–Nyungan family of languages, which covers most of Australia. This language is known by its dialect names : Kalau Lagau Ya, Kalau Kawau Ya, Kulkalgau Ya and Kaiwaligau Ya (this latter also called Kowrareg, which is from the mid-19th century Kowrareg dialect form kauraraiga/kaurarega islander. Kalau Lagau Ya is often called Kala Lagaw Ya in the literature. From here on it is known as Kalau Lagau Ya as per the High Court Decision on 7 August 2013.

Volume 3, "Linguistics", 1907, by Sydney H. Ray, of the 6 volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits is the main description of the language. It contains a vocabulary list of both Mabuiag (as called by the Cambridge Expedition) and Meriam Mìr. In 2001 & 2003, Ron Edwards published the Torres Strait Languages vocabularies of Sydney H. Ray. This is the only dictionary available for use by Torres Strait Islanders and people who want to teach, learn and speak the Torres Strait languages. Unfortunately, neither the Ray work nor his vocabularies are very good, and contain many mistakes. The dictionaries can only be used in conjunction with knowledgeable native speakers to point out errors and corrections.

The four dialects of the Western-Central Language are very close to each other, somewhat like Standard American and Standard Australian English are to each other. Its vocabulary is potentially 80% non-Australian; much of the non-Australian content is Papuan (Trans-Fly) and Austronesian (South-East Papuan – see for example Bruno David, Ian McNiven, Rod Mitchell, Meredith Orr, Simon Haberle, Liam Brady and Joe Crouch, “Badu 15 and the Papuan–Austronesian Settlement of Torres Strait”. In Archaeology in Oceania; 1/7/2004). It is an interesting language in having feminine and masculine gender, though no neuter gender [this is typical among Australian languages that have gender as well as many of the neighbouring Papuan languages] – and the difference is semantically significant in that many words can be masculine or feminine according to basic reference or culturally significant reference. For example, za as masculine means 'an important topic/subject', and as feminine is 'thing, object'. Gœiga when masculine means 'sun', and when feminine means 'day'.

The Eastern Torres Strait Language

The language of eastern Torres Strait is Meriam Mìr. This is a Papuan language and is related to the languages of the nearby coast of Papua New Guinea. Meriam Mir is the only Papuan language indigenous to Australia, and used to have two dialects, Erubim Mìr and Meriam Mir.

Both languages are strictly speaking mixed languages, Meriam Mìr having some Australian/Kalaw Lagaw Ya influence as well as Austronesian. It is probably the case that Meriam Mìr settlers 'overlaid' Kalaw lagaw ya speakers on the Eastern islands (these non-Meriam people who have always been resident on the Eastern Islands are called Nog Le 'Common People', Lawrie).[citation needed]

Torres Strait Creole

The third 'indigenous' language of the Torres Straits is a creole that has developed since around the 1880s. This Torres Strait Creole is also known as Blaikman Tok, Broken/Brokan and Yumplatok. It has five dialects – Papuan, Western-Central, Eastern, TI and Cape York.

Sign language

Both languages have signed forms, though they are not reported to be particularly well-developed compared to other Australian Aboriginal sign languages.[1]


The table below shows how some example phrases differ in the Western language Mabuiag. The western dialects are Kalau Kawau Ya, Kala Lagau Ya, Kulkalgau Ya and Kaiwaligau Ya, 'old' Kaiwaligau Ya. [Kauraregau Ya - Kowrareg). Sydney H. Ray and AC. C. Haddon used the blanket term Mabuiag to refer to these dialects as a group, and specific island names fir specific sub-dialects. The eastern language of Torres Strait is Meriam or Meriam Mìr. The Torres Strait Creole is called Brokan, and also Yumplatok, Blaikman or Big Thap.

Ngai lagau mabaig, ngai kaiwau mabaig

Comparison of phrases in Torres Strait Islander Languages and Dialects
English I am an Islander I go home/to the house
Kalau Kauau Ya Ngai kauau mœbaig

Ngai kaualaig

Ngai lagapa [uzariz]
Kaiwaligau Ya Ngai kaiwau mabaig

Ngai kaiwalaig

Ngai mudhapa [uzari]
Kalau Lagau Ya Ngai lagalaig, ngai kaiwalaig

Ngai lagau mabaig, ngai kaiwau mabaig

Ngai mudhaka [uzari]
Kulkalgau Ya
Meriam Language / Meriam Mìr Kaka kaur le nali, kaka ged le nali Ka metaìm bakeamuda
Brokan Ai ailan man Ai go aus


  1. Kendon, A. (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press