The sounds of Warlpiri. (Photo courtesy of Omniglot)
La Cañada High School

Warlpiri: A language feature

When I first learned about the Australian Aboriginal language Warlpiri, I instantly became obsessed and had to learn as much as I could about it.

Warlpiri has around 3,000 speakers in Australia’s Northern Territory (as well as other parts of Australia) according to Omniglot, and is a member of the Ngarrkic language family, which is a sub-branch of a larger language family called Pama-Nyungan.

According to Ethnologue, Warlpiri has many different names, some of which are Ulperra, Walmanba and Wanajaga.

Warlpiri uses SOV, or Subject-Object-Verb word order, which I find to be quite interesting. Warlpiri is also an ergative language, which I always find fascinating. Ergative languages always capture my immediate attention because of how interesting they are.

The Latin alphabet can be used to write Warlpiri. Author Lothar Jagst was the person who came up with a way to write Warlpiri with the Latin alphabet, according to Omniglot.

Warlpiri’s sound inventory consists of six vowel sounds and 18 consonant sounds according to Ethnologue, and vowel harmony is also used in the language.

To put simply, vowel harmony is when vowels in a word in a language are bound to the same subclass of vowels. For example, if a word has all front vowels, then that word’s vowels are in vowel harmony.

One of the most interesting things that stuck out to me about Warlpiri’s sound inventory is that there are no fricatives, and this was slightly disappointing to learn, given that fricatives are some of my favorite sounds.

In Warlpiri words, stress will usually fall on the first syllable of a word.

Different dialects of Warlpiri are spoken by different communities in different locations, according to Must Go. These dialects are Hanson, Lajanamu, Willowra, and Yuendumu.

Warlpiri verbs have some of the most intriguing rules for verbs I have ever seen. What caught my attention most was that preverbs are used to make some verbs much more detailed. Here is an example from Nash, 1980: “’Pirlankiti-ji junta-kuru-rnu yard,’ literally, ‘Blanket-me + away-throw-past + again’ , i.e., ‘He threw off my blanket again.” I have never encountered this with any other language, which is why this concept is so wonderful to me.

According to Must Go, “One of the most unusual aspects of Warlpiri, as of all Australian languages is the influence of kinship on speech registers, i.e., language varieties used for particular purposes or in particular social settings.”

Warlpiri uses registers for concepts such as friendship and secrecy. In my opinion, the best register of all is the avoidance register, a register in which is it considered very taboo for certain family members to talk to each other. In order to get around this, a specific version of Warlpiri is used that has words that are specific to this particular register.

There is also a signed version of Warlpiri that is used by some Warlpiri speakers.

In addition to all of this, there is a version of Warlpiri called Light Warlpiri that is a combination of English, Warlpiri, and Kriol. Light Warlpiri has around 300 speakers, according to Live Science.

“The striking thing about Light Warlpiri is that most of the verbs come from English or Kriol, but most of the other grammatical elements in the sentence come from Warlpiri,” O’Shannessy told LiveScience.

I believe that Warlpiri in all of its forms is a striking language, and I hope you do too.