Language of the Week: Week Twenty-Four - Kawalgaw Ya.

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

This week's language of the week is Kawalgaw Ya, one of the languages of the Torres Strait. Kawalgaw Ya is also known as Kawrareg, Kaurarega, Kowrarega, Kauralaig, Kauraleg and Muraleg. Austlang also refers to Kauralaigal, Muralug, Wathai-yunu, Kokkaiya, Alkaiyana, Koiyana as groups of people who speak Kawalgaw Ya which is considered to be a dialect of Kala Lagaw Ya. 

Kawalgaw Ya is spoken on the Muralag group of islands which include Horn Island, Prince of Wales Island, Hammond Island and Thursday Island. It was also later spoken on Kubin Island, following the removal of Muralag people from the above mentioned islands when the Queensland government established administration on Thursday Island.

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. Kawalgaw Ya / Kawrareg, is considered severely endangered. Austlang, the Australian Languages Database established by AIATSIS, indicates that there were ~950 Kala Lagaw 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 - within this group, there may be Kawrareg speakers. 

Comparative wordlist showing Kawalgaw Ya language (Muralag), 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 Kawalgaw Ya recorded as Muralag.

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 Lagaw Ya. State Library's recent Spoken exhibition featured a digital story on mainland Torres Strait Islander groups who are passionate in maintaining their language.  


Join State Library for next week's Language of the Week - Luthigh 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: View from Thursday Island looking towards Horn Island, Queensland, ca. 1908. JOL Negative Number 166765

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 materials relating to Kawalgaw Ya, mainly included under Kala Lagaw Ya language materials.


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

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

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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