Languages of the Torres Strait Islands

There are two traditional languages of the Torres Strait Islands, Miriam Mir and Kala Lagaw Ya.

Meriam Mir (also written as Miriam Mer) is the language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait. Linguistically, it is connected to the Papuan languages of the Austronesian family of languages. There are two regional dialects:

  • Mer dialect – Mer (Murray), Waier, Dauar.
  • Erub dialect – Erub (Darnley) and Ugar (Stephen).

Kala Lagaw Ya (also written as Kalaw Lagaw Ya) is the traditional language owned by the Western and Central islands of the Torres Strait. It is linguistically connected to the Aboriginal languages of the Australian mainland and has four distinct regional dialects derived from this language:

  • Mabuyag – The dialect of Mabuiag, Badu and St Paul's Village.
  • Kalaw Kawaw Ya – The dialect of the top western islands of Saibai, Dauan and Malu Ki'ai.
  • Kawrareg – The dialect of the south western islands of Kubin, Kaiwalagal, Muralag (Prince of Wales), Nurupai (Horn), Giralag (Friday), Waiben (Thursday Island), Keriri (Hammond), Maurura (Wednesday), Moa (Banks). It is also known as Kawalgau Ya.
  • Kulkalgau Ya – The dialect of the central islands of Aurid (Aureed), Damut (Dalrymple), Iama (Yam or Turtle-backed), Masig (Yorke), Mauar (Rennel), Naghir (Mt Earnest), Poruma (Coconut) and Warraber (Sue).

The dialects are determined geographically and developed over time with influences by traditional trade, visits, inter-marriage and kinship ties.

Torres Strait Creole

The contact with missionaries and others since the 1800's has led to the development of Torres Strait Creole; it has developed from a Pidgin and now has its own distinctive sound system,  grammar, vocabulary, usage and meaning. Torres Strait Creole (also known as Ailan Tok or Yumplatok) is spoken by most Torres Strait Islanders and is a mixture of Standard Australian English and traditional languages. It is an English-based creole; however each island has its' own version of creole.

State Library Collections

There are a range of materials in the collections that relate to the languages of the Torres Strait. Probably the best known items are the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait (Q 994.38 CAM ) and the Margaret Lawrie Collection (TR2082). However, there are other significant items that provide important linguistic information for community language workers and researchers.

A brief selection of these include:

Aragu, B. Moegina Pawlaw Ya (Little Hen Story). P398.2 ara

Bani, E. and Nona, D. Dabu : the baby dugong = Dabu : kazi dhangal. CLP SOL 1992

Davies, A. Notes 1924-1925. OM66-02/3

Edwards, R. (ed) Dictionary of Torres Strait languages. Q 499.1503 RAY

Eseli, P. Eseli's Notebook. S 306.089 001

Jukes, J. Narrative of the surveying voyage of the HMS Fly. J 919.43 JUK

Lawrie, M. Myths and legends of the Torres Strait. Q 398.2099438 MYT

MacGillivray, J. Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS Rattlesnake. G 994.02 1967

Petta, Sister Yoewdhaylgaw mabaygaw igililmay thusi. P933 sis

Shnukal, A. Broken, an introduction to the Creole language of Torres Strait. J 427 shn

Vocabulary of the Murray Island dialect [microform]. FILM 0713

Further items can be found using OneSearch, the State Library's online catalogue.

There are several community groups or organisations working in the revival and maintenance of Torres Strait Islander languages. The Torres Strait Regional Authority has administrative responsibility for the region and is working towards a language centre for the Torres Strait. TSRA currently supports language activities in schools and communities.

TSRA coordinated a Torres Strait Island Language Symposium in March 2015 and again in May 2017 - further details on these events can be found at: Traditional Languages Plan and Charter

Contact Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA)

Address: Level 1 / 46 Victoria Parade, Thursday Island. Q 4875
Postal: PO Box 261, Thursday Island Q 4875
t: (07) 4069 0700

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