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Language of the Week: Week Thirteen - Saibai

By dcrump | 24 August 2020

Welcome to Week Thirteen of the A-Z of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages!

This week's language of the week is Saibai, one of the languages of the Torres Strait. Saibai is also known as Saibaigal, while Saibailgaw refers to the people of Saibai, a Top Western island of the Torres Strait. Saibai, Dauan and Malu Ki'ai make up the Top Western group of islands and speak varieties of Kalaw Kawaw Ya which is considered to be a dialect of Kala Lagaw Ya. 

Language groups of the Torres Strait.

Language groups of the Torres Strait.

The above map is from the Torres Strait Traditional Languages Centre website and shows the location and rich diversity of the languages of the Torres Strait. Kala Kawaw Ya, including Saibai, is considered severely endangered. Austlang, the Australian Languages Database established by AIATSIS, indicates that there were ~950 Kala Kawaw Ya speakers according to 2016 Census figures. These speakers are located in the Torres Strait, Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) and mainland centres, notably Cairns and Brisbane. 

Comparative wordlist from Torres Strait, Cambridge Exhibition (1898).

Comparative wordlist showing Saibai language, Cambridge Expedition,Vol 3. Linguistics (1898).

Languages of the Torres Strait have been documented since the 1830's with many historical sources found in the State Library Collections. Early wordlists were collected by ship's crew, notably HMS Fly and HMS Rattlesnake which were undertaking maritime surveys in the Torres Strait in the 1840's. The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits in 1898 recorded traditional knowledge, including language - the above image is from Cambridge Reports Volume 3 Linguistics and is an extract of a comparative table of Torres Strait Islander languages, including Saibai.

Language revival and maintenance efforts in the Torres Strait include school programs at Tagai State College. Communities are supported by the recently established Torres Strait Traditional Languages Centre which has several videos on Kalaw Kawaw Ya. State Library's recent Spoken exhibition featured a digital story on mainland groups including Saibaigaw who are passionate in maintaining their language.  


Join State Library for next week's Language of the Week - Teppathiggi from Western Cape York!


Desmond Crump

Indigenous Languages Coordinator, State Library of Queensland

State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Webpages

State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Map


Spoken: Celebrating Queensland languages exhibition

Spoken Virtual Tour

Jarjum Stories exhibition

Minya Birran: What next for Indigenous Languages?


Additional material for this blog post was drawn from the Torres Strait Traditional Languages Centre which has been established to support the vision of Torres Strait Islanders:

Our people speak and use our traditional languages on a daily basis for our culture, our well-being and our spirit.



Cover image: 'The moon watching Aukam of Saibai as she weaves a mat', Kala Waia. Margaret Lawrie Collection Accession number: TR 1791/333

Comparative wordlist from Haddon, A. C, (1898) Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. RBQ 994.38 CAM

Language groups of the Torres Strait. Sourced from Torres Strait Traditional Languages Centre website.


References and Further Reading

State Library collections have some material relating to Saibai and Kala Kawaw Ya language; such items are usually part of generic language materials from the Torres Strait, particularly Kala Lagaw Ya.


Davies, A. Notes 1924-1925OM66-02/3

Edwards, R. Some songs from the Torres StraitQ 782.5162 SOM

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

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

Ford, K. Ober, D. “A sketch of Kalaw Kawaw Ya”. In Language in Australia, ed. Romaine, S. 118-142. G 409.94 1991

Haddon, A. C, (1898) Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. RBQ 994.38 CAM

Holmer, N. Notes on Some Queensland LanguagesJ 499.15 HOL

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

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

Lawrie, M. The Margaret Lawrie Collection of Torres Straits MaterialsTR2082

MacGillivray, J. Narrative of the Voyage of the HMS RattlesnakeG 994.02 1967

Mosby, L. Stephens, N and Teske, T. D is for dari : a Torres Strait picture dictionaryP 994.38 MOS

Pegrum, N, Kepa, W. and Neuenfeldt, K. (2012) Saibailgaw Nangu Wakayl (songs and voices of Saibai people) music and dance from Saibai Island Torres StraitHCD VOC SAI 923

Ray, S. Dictionary of Torres Strait LanguagesQ 499.1503 RAY

6341 Dr Wilhelm Rechnitz Papers

Scragg, S.  Retold: A retelling of stories and songs from Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait by Margaret LawrieDVD 27464


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