Murrinh-patha language

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RegionWadeye, Northern Territory, Australia
EthnicityMurrinh-Patha, Murrinh-Kura
Native speakers
1,973 (2016 census)[1]
Southern Daly?
  • Murrinh-patha
Language codes
ISO 639-3mwf

Murrinh-patha (literally "language-good"), called Garama by the Jaminjung, is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by over 2,500 people, most of whom live in Wadeye in the Northern Territory, where it is the dominant language of the community. It is spoken by the Murrinh-Patha people, as well as several other peoples whose languages are extinct or nearly so, including the Mati Ke and Marri-Djabin. It is believed to be the most widely spoken Australian Aboriginal language not belonging to the Pama-Nyungan language family.


Murrinh-patha can also be spelled Murrinh Patha, Murrinh-Patha, Murinbada, Murinbata, and Garama.[3] Garama is the Jaminjung name for the language and its speakers. Murrinh-patha literally means "language-good."


There are three similar dialects of the Murrinh-Patha language, namely Murrinhdiminin, Murrinhkura, and Murrinhpatha.[3]


For the Murrinh-Patha speakers, their language is more than a set of rules and a specific grammar. It is very closely tied with or determines for them their land, identity, associations and relation to the surrounding.[4]

Because of its role as the lingua franca in the region, Murrinh-patha is one of the few Australian Aboriginal languages whose number of speakers has increased and whose usage has expanded over the past generation.[5] Unlike many indigenous languages (particularly those of eastern Australia), children are actively acquiring the language and there is a language dictionary and grammar, and there have been portions of the Bible published in Murrinh-Patha from 1982-1990.[3] This renders Murrinh-patha one of Australia's few indigenous languages that is not endangered. Additionally, Murrinh-Patha is taught in schools and all locals are encouraged to learn it due to the wide range of use and functions of the language locally.[6]


Murrinh-Patha was once thought to be a language isolate, based on comparisons of lexical data: at most 11% of its vocabulary is shared with any other language it has been tested against.[7] However, its verbal inflections correspond closely to those of another language, Ngan’gityemerri (Ngan’gi). Green (2003) makes a case that the formal correspondences in core morphological sequences of the finite verbs of the two languages are too similar (in their complexities and their irregularities) to have come about through anything other than shared descent from a common parent language; the two languages make up the Southern Daly language family.[8] Nonetheless, other than having cognates in their finite-verb morphology and in their words for 'thou' (nhinhi and nyinyi) and 'this' (kanhi and kinyi),[9] they have little vocabulary in common, though their grammatical structures are very similar. It is not clear what could explain this discrepancy.

Similarly, although differing in vocabulary, Murrinh-Patha and the moribund Marringarr language share syntax structure.[4]



The vowel system is very simple, with four vowels.[10]

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ
Open a

Each have allophones [ɪ ʊ ə ɐ].[11]


Murrinh-Patha has a “long and flat” array of consonants like most Australian Aboriginal phonologies,[12] with six places of articulation (bilabial, lamino-dental, alveolar, post-alveolar retroflex, palatal and velar), but only a limited range of contrastive manners of articulation. There are oral obstruents and nasal stops at all points of articulation; however there are no phonemic fricatives.[13]

The consonant table uses the orthography used by researchers, as opposed to the one used most often by the community. The orthography used by the speaker community differs from the research orthography in that the community orthography represents dentals and palatals the same way, both ending with an 'h,' while the research orthography uses 'j' ('y' for nasals) to end palatals and 'h' to end dentals.[11]

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar
Stop voiceless p th // t rt /ʈ/ tj /c/ k
voiced b dh // d rd /ɖ/ dj /ɟ/ g
Nasal m () n rn /ɳ/ ny /ɲ/ ng /ŋ/
Approximant plain w r /ɻ/ y /j/
lateral l rl /ɭ/
Trill/Flap rr /r/~/ɾ/

The dental nasal /n̪/ is an allophone of the palatal nasal /ɲ/.[11]



Murrinh-Patha is a head-marking language with a complex verb generally considered to be polysynthetic.[14] The sequencing of morphemes in the verb is highly structured, but the ordering of words in a sentence is largely free.[15]


The Murrinh-Patha language displays extensive classifications both of nouns and verbs. Nouns are divided into ten classes or genders along roughly semantic lines, with some exceptions. Each noun class is associated with particles which must agree with the class.


In Murrinh-Patha there are four categories which in total make up for 31 pronouns. The categories are: singular, dual, paucal (referring to 3 to 15 individuals) and plural (more than 15). While some of the pronouns stand on their own in the sentence structure, many are embodied in the middle of a verb.[4]


Verbs occur in some 38 different conjugations. Each verb is morphologically complex, with the verb root surrounded by prefixes and suffixes identifying subject, object, tense, and mood; these affixes are different in the different conjugations.


Murrinh Patha only has words for numbers up to five.[4]


  • kardu = "person"
  • nanthi thay = "tree"
  • ngarra da ngurran = "I'm going home"
  • thangkunuma mi kanhi-yu? = "how much for the food?"
  • ku were dirranngingarlbarl = "the dog is barking at me"[16]
  • nhinhi, nanku-nitha, nankungitha, nanku, nankuneme, nankungime, nanki = "you"[4]
  • ku yagurr = "lizard"[4]

Writing System[edit]

Murrinh-patha uses a Latin script.[3]


  • Abley, M. (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada. pp. 1–44.
  • Street, C. S. (1987). An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Murrinh-Patha. Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Walsh, M. (1976). "The Murinypata language of north-west Australia". Australian National University. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • Walsh, M. (1976). "Ergative, locative and instrumental case inflections: Murinjpata". In R. M. W. Dixon (ed.). Grammatical categories in Australian languages. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. pp. 405–408.
  • Walsh, M. (1995). "Body parts in Murrinh-Patha: incorporation, grammar and metaphor". In H. Chappell and W. B. McGregor (ed.). The Grammar of Inalienability: A Typological Perspective on Body Part Terms and the Part-Whole Relation. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 327–380.
  • Walsh, M. (1996). "Vouns and nerbs: a category squish in Murrinh-Patha (Northern Australia)". In W. B. McGregor (ed.). Studies in Kimberley Languages in Honour of Howard Coate. Munich and Newcastle: Lincom Europa. pp. 227–252.
  • Walsh, M. (1997). "Noun classes, nominal classification and generics in Murrinhpatha". In M. Harvey and N. Reid (ed.). Nominal Classification in Aboriginal Australia. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 255–292.


  1. ^ "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". ABS. Retrieved 2017-10-30.
  2. ^ N3 Murrinh-patha at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  3. ^ a b c d
  4. ^ a b c d e f Abley, Mark (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada. ISBN 0679311017.
  5. ^ Abley, Mark. Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2003. Page 18-19.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Reid, N.J. Ngan’gityemerri. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 1990.
  8. ^ Green, I. "The Genetic Status of Murrinh-patha" in Evans, N., ed. "The Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages of Northern Australia: comparative studies of the continent’s most linguistically complex region". Studies in Language Change, 552. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2003.
  9. ^ Note that Ngan’gityemerri has no nh, and so would expect to have ny where its relatives have nh.
  10. ^ Street, C. and Mollinjin G.P. The phonology of Murinbata. Work Papers of SIL-AAB, Series A, Volume 5. 1981
  11. ^ a b c Mansfield, John (June 2014). "Polysynthetic sociolinguistics: The language and culture of Murrinh-Patha youth" (PDF).
  12. ^ Butcher, A. Australian Aboriginal languages: consonant-salient phonologies and the "place-of-articulation imperative". In Speech production: Models, phonetic processes and techniques, New York: Psychology Press, 2006.
  13. ^ Mansfield, J. Polysynthetic sociolinguistics: the language and culture of Murrinh Patha Youth. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2014.
  14. ^ Nordlinger, R. Verbal morphology in Murrinh-Patha: Evidence for templates. Morphology 20(2): 321-341. 2010.
  15. ^ Walsh, M. The Murinypata language of north-west Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1976. p. 276
  16. ^

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