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Warlpiri Citations   Warlpiri Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: 3,000 (Gordon 2005)

Key Dialects: Yuendumu Warlpiri (spoken in the south-west of Warlpiri country), Willowra Warlpiri (spoken in central Warlpiri country), Lajamanu Warlpiri (spoken in the north), and Wakirti Warlpiri (spoken in the east)

Geographical Center: The Northern Territory of central Australia. The native settlements/reservations and areas where the Warlpiri now reside are: Yuendumu, Alekarenge, Lajamanu, Papunya, Hooker Creek, Warrabri, Ali Curung Willowra, Alice Springs, Katherine, and Darwin.

Warlpiri is an endangered indigenous language of central Australia. Presently, it ranks among the most populous of the native Australian languages. Spearheaded by the work of linguist Kenneth Hale in the 1970s, Warlpiri is a fairly well studied language, despite the paucity of its language community and its endangered status.

Warlpiri is a South-West Ngarga language of the Pama-Nyungan group of Australian languages. It is most closely related to the language Warlmanpa.

Dialects vary minimally with respect to vocabulary and even less in terms of their core grammatical properties.

Traditionally speaking, Warlpiri is not a written language. A roman orthography is currently used to write Warlpiri.

The Warlpiri phoneme inventory consists of three vowels and eighteen consonants, depending on the analysis. Among the obstruent consonants, voicing is not contrastive. Two diphthongs are attested. The syllable structure of the language is CV(C), however words must end in a vowel (i.e. in an open syllable). Consonant clusters within syllables are not tolerated, however, they are possible across syllable boundaries. Warlpiri is a stress language. Stress is non-contrastive and main stress typically falls on the penultimate syllable. Vowel harmony is prevalent – word internal vowels often change to harmonize with suffixal vowels. Intonation is highly important, as it is contrastive at the syntactic level. For example, questions and statements are syntactically identical, but differ in terms of intonation.

Warlpiri is a polysynthetic (agglutinative) language. In other words, grammatical information is encoded in the extensive number of affixes attached to roots and stems. (Both prefixation and suffixation are attested, but the overall number of prefixes in Warlpiri is limited, unlike the case of the suffixes which constitute a large class.) As such, Warlpiri words are highly structured objects and in comparison to European languages, their sentences consequently consist of a relatively small number of words. Reduplication is productive in the language. Warlpiri is a so-called “Split” Ergative language. Unlike familiar Nominative-Accusative languages, freestanding (i.e. non-morphologically bound) subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects are both marked with a case (Absolutive) that is distinct from that borne by subjects of transitive verbs (Ergative). This is the typical or Ergative pattern. However, certain bound (affixal) pronominal forms inflect for case in a way reminiscent of Nominative-Accusative languages – bound pronominal subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs both bear Nominative case, while affixal pronominal objects of transitive verbs take the Accusative case ending. In addition to Nominative, Accusative, Ergative, and Absolutive, Warlpiri nouns inflect for the following additional cases: Dative, Genitive, Locative, Comitative, Allative (direction towards), and Elative (direction away from, also source, origin, or cause). The tense system of Warlpiri is divided into past and non-past, with all other tense information indicated by means of auxiliary suffixes. The typical word order of the Warlpiri clause is SOV (with indirect objects following the verb), although every possible permutation of this order is possible (i.e. grammatical) under certain pragmatic conditions. This has led scholars to consider Warlpiri a “free word order language”.

Warlpiri has no official status in Australia, nor is it used as a lingua franca. Warlpiri children are taught and use English regularly in addition to the native language of their parents. However, despite efforts to institute bilingual education in Warlpiri settlements, the language is being lost to the younger generation. Given the size of the Warlpiri-speaking community, the language is estimated to become extinct within a few generations, unless revitalization efforts are undertaken.

Very little detailed information about Warlpiri history is available. The indigenous people of Warlpiri country were gradually displaced and settled on reserves and mission stations in the early 20th century. Warlpiri society has undergone sweeping change as a result of their uprooting and the pressures of the dominant European-Australian society. Contact with other aboriginal languages as well as with the English-speaking populous has also caused linguistic change. The passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights Acts of 1976 has resulted in movement away from reservations to outstations on original Warlpiri territory.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Hale, Kenneth. 1974. Warlpiri-English Vocabulary. Alice Springs, Australia: Institute for Aboriginal Development.

Nash, David. 1986. Topics in Warlpiri Grammar. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

Reece, Laurie. 1970. Grammar of the Wailbri Language of Central Australia. Oceania Linguistic Monographs No. 13. Sydney, Australia: University of Sydney.

Reece, Laurie. Nd. Dictionary of the Wailbri (Walpiri) Language of Central Australia. Oceania Linguistic Monographs No. 19. Sydney, Australia: University of Sydney.

Simpson, Jane. 1991. Warlpiri Morpho-Syntax: a Lexical Approach. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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