Home > Culture > Language

Be mindful of the spread of COVID-19 we request mask wearing, keeping distances and hand sanitise where possible.

Language

The Tiwi language, which is the first language for most of the 2,500 people living on the Tiwi Islands, is one of the largest Aboriginal language groups in Australia. Over the years Tiwi has undergone, and is still undergoing, considerable change. The traditional style of Tiwi is only spoken by older Tiwi. Middle-aged and younger Tiwi can understand some ‘old Tiwi’, however many cannot speak it, particularly the hard verb forms, which have very complex structures. ‘New Tiwi’, which is spoken by younger Tiwi, is a half-and-half language containing many English loan words. Older Tiwi speakers also use some English loan words necessary to describe contemporary subjects.

Tiwi spelling is linked closely to the sound of the word, though the letters used may not have the same sound as in English. Set out below is a general guide to the pronunciation of the letters and letter groups used in writing Tiwi. The strongest accent or stress in a word is on the second last syllable. Secondary (or lighter) stress may occur on the first syllable and some other syllables in longer words.


Tiwi Alphabet and Pronunciation

Alphabet 

 

Pronunciation

 

as in a boy

ay 

 

like e in met

 

as in g in get, but with friction

 

in mid word mostly as in bit, at the end of words mostly as in beet

 

 

before ‘i’ or ‘u’ usually pronounced like the ch in cheek, except the sound is made with the blade of the tongue not the tip;

when preceding ‘a’ or ‘o’ usually pronounced like a fronted ‘t’, also with the blade of the tongue

 

link k in kicking

kw 

 

like qu in quiet

 

as in like

 

as in mighty

mp 

 

like mp in company

mw 

 

like mw in slimwaisted

 

like n in now

ng 

 

like ng in singing

ngw 

 

like ngw in ringworm

nj 

 

is more correctly written as nyj, but nj is used for simplicity

nk 

 

like nk in thinking

nt 

 

like nt in interest

ny 
 

 

before ‘i’ or ‘u’, is like ‘n’ in menu, with tongue blade along roof of mouth; before ‘a’ or ‘o’ in old Tiwi is pronounced like a fronted ‘n’ with tongue blade along roof of mouth; in modern Tiwi it is pronounced like ‘n’ in menu

 

is between the sound of o in gong and port

 

as in the second p in paper

pw 

 

like in tripwire

 

like r in cheery, but with tongue curled back

rl 

 

like l in lake, but with tongue curled back

rr 

 

like a trilled or flapped r sound common in Indonesian and Scottish

rt 

 

like t in take, but with tongue curled back

rnt 

 

like nd in ponder, but with tongue curled back

 

like the second t in tasty

 

like u in put

 

like w in wind, but with less rounding of lips

 

like y in yes


Words beginning with yi and wu

The words beginning with yi and wu have the y and w pronounced only slightly or not at all; no words in Tiwi begin with i or u.


Vowel glides

Vowel glides are written as ayi and awu. They may occur at the start, middle or end of words. The only cluster of two vowels written together is aa. This is only used occasionally in traditional Tiwi, and sometimes in modern Tiwi.


Long stressed vowels ending words

In some words, the stress occurs on the last syllable, rather than the second last. This happens in old Tiwi with i and u (not a) and is written as iyi and uwu.


Variations of sounds

Some sounds vary according to which other sounds precede or follow them. For example: i often becomes u when it is preceded or followed by p, b, m, ng, k, particularly if the next vowel is u.

i and u often sound like a as in about when not in a stresses syllable. The only consonants which can occur together in Tiwi are where the nasals (m, n, ny, ng) occur before p, t, j, or k, respectively (see pronunciation guide above). These pre-nasalisations are sometimes pronounced and sometimes not. In modern Tiwi, there are a number of differences in the pronunciation of words. Many of the retroflex sounds and vowel glides are no longer fully vocalised.


Nouns and adjectives

In the Tiwi world, everything is male or female including people, animals, plants, places, cars, etc.  Consequently, all nouns (naming words) have different forms depending on whether they are referring to male or female subjects. The adjectives (describing words that modify nouns) also have masculine and feminine forms. Nouns and adjectives may also have a plural form. The endings of words may differ to denote the masculinity, femininity and plurality of subjects.

Generally, words ending in -ni and -ti are masculine, -nga and -ka are feminine and -wi and -pi are plural. These endings are indicative only and there are variations.


Tiwi Dictionary

A Tiwi Interactive Dictionary consisting of approximately 5,000 words is available online. It is based on Nguwurranungurumagi Nginingawila Ngapangiraga: A Tiwi-English Dictionary compiled by Jennifer Lee and published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1993.