The Tiwi language: Grammar, myths and dictionary of the Tiwi language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands, northern Australia

Citation preview





Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2019 with funding from Kahle/Austin Foundation








THE TIWI LANGUAGE C.R. Osborne Grammar, myths and dictionary of the Tiwi language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands, northern Australia

Australian Aboriginal Studies No. 55 Linguistic Series No. 21


The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

© Copyright 1974 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, Australia. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part of this publication may be reproduced by any process whatsoever without written permission of the publisher.

National Library of Australia card number and ISBN 0 85575 037 5

Printed in Australia by Excelsis Press Pty Ltd, 76 Planthurst Road, Carlton, N.S.W. 2218 10.74.750




Symbols and abbreviations




1 The Language 1 1.1 Location 1 1.2 Physical isolation 1 1.3 Typological characterisation 2 1.4 Genetic relations 3 1.5 Dialects 3 1.6 The present state of the language 2 The description 4 3 Earlier work on the language 4 PART


chapter one


GRAMMAR Phonology


1 Phonemes 9 1.1 Phonemic systems 9 1.1.1 Consonant system 1.1.2 Vowel system 1.2 Realisation of the phonemes 12 1.2.1 Consonants 1.2.2 Vowels 1.3 Unstressed vowels 13 1.4 Restrictions on occurrence 15 1.5 Statistical data 15 2 SyUables 17 3 Word stress patterns 20 V



chapter two

Morphophonology 1 General processes 22 1.1 Vowel combination 22 1.2 Prenasalisation of intervocalic stops 24 1.3 Deletion of y and j 24 2 Verb morphophonology 24 2.1 Prefixes 24 2.1.1 Subject prefixes 2.1.2 Tense markers pa-andta- 2.1.3 Tense markers ra-and a2.1.4 na-,‘locative’ 2.1.5 mn-,‘subjunctive’ and a-,‘incompletive’ 2.1.6 ata-,‘morning’ 2.1.7 Object prefixes 2.1.8 w/iz/a-,‘durative’ 2.1.9 Ca-,‘connective-emphatic’ 2.1.10 Ca-, ‘future-imperative’ 2.1.11 ka-,‘evening’ 2.1.12 ^a-, ‘half way’ and raja-, ‘walking’ 2.2 ia-insertion 29 2.3 Stems 30 2.3.1 Theme-initial position 2.3.2 mnr/-4stem 2.3.3 Stem 4- stem 2.4 Suffixes 32 2.4.1 Unstressed final vowel 2.4.2 Un¬ stressed final a 2.4.3 -apa 4- suffix 2.4.4 Stressed final vowel 2.4.5 Stem 4- -ua 3 Nominal morphophonology 34 3.1 Prefixes 34 3.2 Suffixes 34 4 Enclitics 35 5 Sandhi 35


chapter three

Morphology 1 Verbs 36 1.1 Word structures 36 1.1.1 Grammatical concepts 1.1.2 Mor¬ phemes 1.1.3 Subject 1.1.4 Direct object 1.1.5 Indirect object 1.1.6 Tense 1.1.7 Aspect 1.1.8 Mood 1.1.9 Voice 1.1.10 Location/direction 1.1.11 Time of day 1.1.12 Stance 1.1.13 Emphasis 1.2 Theme structures 46 1.2.1 Structures 1.2.2 Incorporated forms



2 Nominals 51 2.1 Noun classes 51 2.1.1 Concepts 2.1.2 Formal processes 2.2 Plural forms 52 3 Pronouns 54 3.1 Personal pronouns 54 3.2 Emphatic pronouns 55 3.3 Possessive pronouns 55 3.4 Collective pronouns 56 3.5 Reflexive pronouns 56 3.6 Demonstrative pronouns 56 3.7 Interrogative pronouns 56 3.8 Negative pronouns 57 3.9 Impersonal pronouns 57

chapter four



0 Word classes


1 Sentences 59 1.1 Predication 59 1.2 Deletion and pronominalisation 61 1.3 Ordering 62 1.4 Expansion 65 1.5 Commands 66 1.6 Questions 67 1.6.1 Yes-no questions 1.6.2 K-questions 1.7 Negation 68 1.7.1 Predicate phrase negation 1.7.2 Noun phrase negation 1.7.3 Prohibitions 2 Sentence joining and embedding 2.1 Coordination 70 2.2 Subordination 70 2.3 Embedding 72


3 Phrases 72 3.1 Noun phrases 72 3.1.1 Coordination 3.1.2 Attribution 3.1.3 Apposition 3.1.4 Possessor orienta¬ tion 3.1.5 Goal orientation 3.2 Verb phrases 75 3.3 Relator-axis phrases 76




1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17




MYTHS Introduction 79 Purukupaali and Japara 81 Majimpunini 85 The first kualama 87 Kuaipurani and IJajiga 90 The first funeral dance (I) 93 The first funeral dance (II) 94 Mwarskati and Tujuni 96 Why the sea is salt 97 The first kwoka 98 Puruti 98 The first bark canoe 99 The first fire stick 100 Jarakapai 101 Hunting and gathering (I) 103 Hunting and gathering (II) 106 Dying 109 A funeral ceremony 111

DICTIONARY Introduction












Acknowledgments This work, which consists of a Tiwi grammar, a collection of texts and a dictionary, was begun in 1966 when the writer was a research scholar in Aboriginal Linguistics at the University of Queensland, continued during 1967-70 at the University of London, and completed in 1971-72 during a second period of field work in Australia. It was supported throughout by grants from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. The writer is most grateful to the Institute both for this support and for the cooperation which they gave in all other matters. An earlier version of the grammar was submitted for a Ph.D. at the University of London in 1970, and this was supervised in part by R.M.W. Dixon and in part by R.D. Huddleston. Both gave much good advice and encouragement, and I wish to thank them both for the many valuable improvements in the work which resulted from their suggestions. Thanks are also due to the Welfare Division of the Northern Territory Adminis¬ tration and to Bishop J. O’Loughlin for their permission to work on Melville and Bathurst Islands and for the assistance which they gave in all matters connected with the work. The success of my periods of field work on Melville and Bathurst Islands — nine months in 1966-67 and twelve months in 1971-72 — depended very greatly on the cooperation of the superintendents of the settlements at which I stayed. I have to thank Father John Fallon, Acting Superintendent of Bathurst Island Mission during my stay there, and Jack Doolan and Ian Rodger, Superintendents of Snake Bay Welfare Settlement at different periods, for their unfailing hospitality and cooperation during the time I spent with them. I am also indebted to Dr Maria Brandi for her kindness in devoting some of her valuable time to helping me to check some of my material. The heaviest debt of all of course is to the informants, who actually gave me the material and taught me their language, and especially to Laurie Nelson (i[ukuliai]3nila), Geoffrey Mungatopi (qapilimuquraja), Tobias Pilakwi (Juwujti), and Big Don (purupumaliua), who between them bore the main burden of many months of hard informant work with great patience and endurance. Their deep knowledge of the language and the perceptive way in which they explained it to me were the basis on which the description was built.


V ^ •' (,


'• ,I, J




f,f te|.ik . , - 4 (Kwu: .


'* t'

-f>v> v


• ■•*-«■■ ,

wr. N*» '/»• .-*'r» '%•_,>*.#• ■" —"fc


Kl'>fK4lf ^







‘ ^ I? wfW* M”u«

:■* »

*•.' '-' T ^

ftp'll ▼


Part One


Chapter One



1.1 Phonemic systems

1.1.1 Consonant system The Tiwi consonant system is a quite normal example of the general Australian type. This type has a maximum of six places of articulation — bilabial, dental, alveolar, alveo-palatal, retroflex and velar — but not all of these are used contrastively in every language. In many languages dental and alveo-palatal sounds are merged in a single phoneme, and, in some, alveolar and retroflex sounds are similarly merged. There are thus some languages with four, some with five, and some with six contrastive places of articulation. There is always a complete set of nasals, with one nasal corresponding to every stop. In addition there are always at least one lateral, an alveolar flap, a retroflex vocoid, and two semi-vowels (palatal and velar). There are generally no fricatives and features of a secondary type such as voice, aspiration, aflfrication, velarisation and glottalisation are not used contrastively. The result is a fairly simple system with usually not more than about fourteen to eighteen consonants. (See Capell, 1956 and 1962 for an account of the common Australian consonant system, and for some examples of the type.) The Tiwi system is one of those which have only four contrastive places of articu¬ lation, dental and alveo-palatal sounds being merged in a single phoneme, and similarly alveolar and retroflex. It differs from the norm in one trivial respect — the possession of a single fricative phoneme. There are fourteen consonant phonemes, as follows: four stops — bilabial, jpj, dental, /i/, alveolar, ///, and velar, /^/; four nasals with corresponding places of articulation — bilabial, /m/, dental, /«/, alveolar, /«/, and velar, //;/; an alveolar lateral, ///; an alveolar flap, /r/; a velar fricative, /y/; a retroflex vocoid, /i/; and two semi-vowels — palatal, ///, and velar, jwj. p








I r y




(The tabulation displays only contrastive places of articulation — hence the location of the palatal semi-vowel in the ‘dental’ column and of the retroflex vocoid in the

10 ‘alveolar’ column, as ‘palato-dental’ and ‘alveolar-retroflex’ are in fact single places of articulation in Tiwi.) Minimal or near minimal pairs are given below for those contrasts which may seem less obvious. /// — ///

Iman'tafjal, ‘woman friend’, jman'jlatjal, ‘a stick’.

/«/ — lul

jni'tjanil, ‘today’, Ini'tjaml, ‘spirit’.

lyl — /W

‘we inc.’, j'^awaj, ‘we ex.’.

jrj — /j/

lan'jloral, ‘wallaby’, Iji'^ouaj, ‘cabbage palm’. NOTES

1. Treatment of alveo-palatal sounds It should be noted here, with regard to the apparent absence in Tiwi of the series usually labelled ‘alveo-palatal’ or ‘palatal’ in descriptions of Australian languages, that the Tiwi ‘dental’ series is in fact the same series differently labelled. As already mentioned, Tiwi is one of the many Australian languages in which dental and alveopalatal sounds are merged as members of a single phoneme. In this situation, many linguists have chosen to identify the phoneme by its alveo-palatal member, and this may have been the correct thing to do given the data they were describing, but, in the case of Tiwi at least, the data suggests that the apico-dental member of the phoneme is its basic form. 2. Treatment of retroflex sounds Although retroflex sounds [^], [//] and [/] all occur very commonly in Tiwi no evidence could be found which would require the setting up of a retroflex series of phonemes, distinct from the alveolar series. The retroflex sounds never occur initially in words or utterances. In the intervocalic positions in which they do occur it is always possible to postulate that the retroflexion is due to the presence of an immediately preceding /j/, and this is in fact what has been done in the present description, jut is established by independent evidence and, as ///, jtij, and ///, (if these phonemes were set up) would never be distinguishable from /.///, Imj, lulj, a separate retroflex series seems redundant. Even more compelling is the following evidence. There are a great many masculine nominal forms such as [mi'ali], ‘pandanus’, ['mwali], ‘son’, [jiati'tjali], ‘boy’ in which the masculine suffix -ti has an initial retroflex stop instead of the usual alveolar stop. This fact seems an inexplicable anomaly until one considers the corresponding feminine forms, which are [mia'ji^a], [mwa'ji^a], and [latiija'Jirja]. What these feminine forms prove is that a morpheme boundary occurs following the retroflexion and preceding the stop. A separate /.// phoneme is shown to be present in the masculine forms and the retroflexion of the stop is thus shown to be merely a conditioned feature. 3. The velar fricative The one unusual feature of the Tiwi consonant system is its possession of a single fricative phoneme — the voiced velar fricative, /y/ — as friction is generally not used as a distinctive feature in Australian languages. Tiwi may not be alone, however, in its possession of this phoneme, as the same sound appears to have been observed in some other north Australian languages (Jiwadja and Maung; see Capell 1962: 129). The phoneme remains an isolated, unintegrated oddity in the system, however, as there is not the slightest indication in Tiwi of the development of a systematic stop-fricative contrast. Moreover, the very low incidence of jyj, and the restrictions on its occurrence — it can occur only in intervocalic position — both tend to suggest that the phoneme is a relative innovation, which may have arisen either as a result of outside influence or by a phonemic split from jwj, and which has not yet estab¬ lished itself as an equal member of the system. In articulatory terms /y/ is somewhat similar to jwj, as the place of articulation is the same for both and as the rounding of the latter is generally rather slight. Both

11 sounds are pronounced with the back of the tongue raised towards the soft palate but the height of the tongue is slightly greater for /y/, producing a very narrow aper¬ ture which results in audible local friction. Unusual as it is (for an Australian language) the contrast is not in doubt, as the two sounds occur in exactly the same phonological environment, and one cannot be freely substituted for the other. 4. The glottal stop Another possibility which had to be considered in the course of analysis was that of setting up a glottal stop phoneme, as the glottal stop does in fact occur in Tiwi and it would not be correct to say that it was without linguistic function. It has a function, certainly, but, as this function depends on syntagmatic rather than para¬ digmatic relations, it is not of a kind that can easily be accommodated within the framework of a phonemic description. The significance of the glottal stop in Tiwi depends on the restriction of its occurrence to sentence-final position. It signals the end of sentences, in fact, but, as it does this not by contrastively replacing something else but merely by being kept in a constant position relative to the sentence, its significance is of the kind that is best handled by prosodic theory rather than of the kind which has traditionally been dealt with by phonemics.

1.1.2 Vowel system The Tiwi vowel system, in common with that of a small number of other north Australian languages, differs from the basic triangle generally found in Australia by the possession of a fourth vowel, joj. The system is thus a quadrilateral based on two dimensions of contrast and having the following vowel phonemes: a close front unrounded vowel, ///; a close back rounded vowel, /«/; an open front un¬ rounded vowel, lal; and an open back rounded vowel, /o/. i




The four vowels are shown in stressed position in the following examples: I'ti^aj, ‘woman’, I'tu^aj, ‘basket’, I'tatjal, ‘Grab it!’ laun'torjil, ‘jabiru’. NOTES

1. The a-o distinction The distinction between /a/ and jo! is neutralised following /w/. The word for ‘crow’, for example, could equally well be written as jwakwa'kinil or /wokwo'kirtil. The functional load of joj is very low. It does not occur in word-initial or wordfinal positions, and even word-medially its incidence is very low. This makes it difficult to find good examples to demonstrate the laj — joj contrast, but, never¬ theless, the contrast is not in doubt as the two sounds do occur in exactly the same phonological environments, and, where they occur, one is not freely substitutable for the other, e.g., Iji'latil, ‘knife’, Iji'lotil, ‘for ever’; !iaru'mwaka!, ‘road’, /ar^'jioral, ‘male wallaby’. 2. Vowel length Differences of vowel length are not phonemic in Tiwi. The absolute length of stressed vowels varies considerably but this variation is of no linguistic relevance. Sequences of two identical vowel phonemes (as in jta'apaj, ‘Eat!’ and jkii'iinil, ‘little boy’,) are sometimes realised phonetically as a single long vowel, but these sequences are really interpreted as two syllables. 3. Diphthongs Although a number of diphthongs occur phonetically these are all interpreted phonologically as two phonemes. There are no diphthong phonemes like English Jail. (See section 2, note 1 for a discussion of this subject.)

12 1.2 Realisation of the phonemes 1.2.1 Consonants The stops — IpI, Itj, jtl and /^7 — are bilabial, apico-dental, apico-alveolar and dorso-velar respectively. The four nasals — //??/, //?/, //?/ and /y/ — have corresponding places of articulation. The lateral, ///, is apico-alveolar; jrj is an apico-alveolar flap, /y/a voiced dorso-velar fricative, and a retroflex vocoid. The two semi-vowels, Ijl and /w/, are palatal and velar glides. All the more important variation in the realisation of the consonants is dealt with in the following paragraphs. (a) Aspiration and voicing of stops The stops may be either voiced or voiceless, aspirated or unaspirated, fortis or lenis, and the variation is free in most phonological environments. Voicing is mainly restricted to /t/ following a nasal (e.g., [man'dani], ‘friend’, [muwn'dani], ‘white man’) the other stops seldom being fully voiced. Typical realisations are voiceless or only slightly voiced, unaspirated, and lenis, but these realisations vary freely in all phonological environments with aspirated, fortis, wholly voiceless realisations. There is no tendency to voice stops intervocalically or (except for ///) following a nasal. (b) Lamino-palatal allophones of the dental consonants The basic realisation of the dental consonants /// and //;/ is apico-dental, the tip of the tongue being placed on the back of the upper front teeth, e.g. Itmjka'nmjkij, ‘white-breasted sea eagle’, [wjka'naijki], Ina'tiijaj, ‘one’, [na'tuja]. Preceding the close front vowel ///, however, the front of the tongue is raised and advanced in anticipation of the vowel, resulting in palatalised realisations which may be rep¬ resented here as [tj] and [«/], e.g. Itui'pinil, ‘red-backed sea eagle’, [tjui'ijini], Ini'rjanil, ‘spirit’, [nji'pani]. The distribution of the two allophones overlaps to some extent, as [(] does sometimes occur preceding a close front vowel and [tj] does some¬ times occur preceding a close back vowel, e.g. jtu'apal, ‘she ate’, may be [tu'apa] or [ryu'apa], but [r] has the less restricted occurrence and is clearly the basic allophone. (c) Retroflexion of alveolar consonants The apico-alveolar consonants, jtl, jn! and ///, are retroflexed following the retroflex vocoid /a/, e.g., ['wauta], ‘bush’, [a/riapa], ‘Wait!’ [aj'lukwa], ‘fighting stick’. In other phonological environments also the realisation of these phonemes may be slightly retroflexed as, although the tongue tip is typically on the alveolar ridge, it may be slightly above it. (d) Labialisation of consonants All consonants are labialised preceding a rounded vowel, e.g., jan'joral, ‘male wallaby’, phonetically [an' f^ara]. (e) Variation in the realisation of r jrj is usually an apico-alveolar flap [/•] — e.g., IJarama'jul, ‘eagle’, phonetically [Jarama'ju] — but trills also occur sometimes especially when the phoneme has syllabic function, e.g., ['rjia fijani], a realisation of I'rjia ri'tjanil, ‘my father’. There is no other important variation in the realisation of the consonants. 1.2.2 Vowels /// The phonetic norm of the close front unrounded vowel, ///, in syllables with primary word stress, is a lax vowel between close and half close and considerably retracted — i.e., [/], e.g., Imim'pinil, ‘louse’, [mim'pini]. This quality varies freely with a somewhat less retracted sound, [/]. In word-final stressed syllables the quality is close to [/] but the length is much greater, e.g., [panampi'ti:], ‘mother of a female child’. The vowel is closer and further front (near to the cardinal position) both preceding and following J and in unstressed word-final or stem-final position, e.g., [ijiJimaijapukami], ‘I’m just going to have a drink’. The realisation of /// in non¬ final unstressed syllables is explained in 1.3, which is a discussion of the neutralisation of the /// - /«/ contrast in these syllables.

13 /w/ The phonetic norm of the close bnck rounded vowel, /w/, is between close and half close and somewhat less than fully back — i.e., approximately [(/], e.g., jku'kunij, 'water', [ku'kuni]. Slightly closer and more open realisations are in free variation with this. The rounding is typically realised by a momentary bilabial glide from a close to a less close type of rounding. Following /p/, /k/, Imj and jijj, especially, this glide may sound like a semi-vowel, jwj, although it is not interpreted in this way phonologically, e.g., Ijtu'kutal, ‘whisper’, [jiu'kwuta]; Imi'putil, ‘fish’, [mi'pwuti]. fal The phonetic norm of the open front unrounded vowel, /a/, is close to the cardinal position, [a], e.g., Iman'taijaj, ‘woman friend’, [man'daija]; ha'putaj, ‘camp’, U^'pvld\. The vowel is closer (between open and half open) preceding”y or / and also following j, e.g., Ita'jintil, ‘stand up!’ [tx'jinti]; /tjampaka'jail, ‘I give it’, [tjampaka'j^i]; I'jatij, ‘one’, [jaeti]. Between /h’/ and any velar or bilabial consonant jaj is retracted and rounded so that the juj - joj contrast is neutralised, e.g., Iwatfkinij, ‘dog’, [wo^'kini]-, Iwa'mutal, ‘hand’ [wv'muta]. joj The phonetic norm of the open back rounded vowel, /