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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





as in a boy



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



like qu in quiet


as in like


as in mighty



like mp in company



like mw in slimwaisted


like n in now



like ng in singing



like ngw in ringworm



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



like nk in thinking



like nt in interest



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



like in tripwire


like r in cheery, but with tongue curled back



like l in lake, but with tongue curled back



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



like t in take, but with tongue curled back



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.