Wagiman language

Wagiman language

region=Pine Creek, Northern Territory, Australia
speakers=10 (2000)

Wagiman (also spelled "Wageman", "Wakiman", "Wogeman") is a near-extinct indigenous Australian language spoken by less than 10 people [Gordon, R. G., Jr. (2005)] in and around Pine Creek, in the Katherine Region of the Northern Territory.

The Wagiman language is notable within linguistics for its complex system of verbal morphology, which remains under-investigated, its possession of a cross-linguistically rare part of speech called a coverb, its complex predicates and for its ability to productively verbalise coverbs.

Wagiman is expected to become extinct within the first half of the century, as the youngest generation of Wagiman people speak no Wagiman at all, and understand very little. [Cook, A.R. (1987: 17-19)]

Language and speakers

Wagiman is a member of the Gunwinyguan family of languages, a family that stretches from Arnhem Land, throughout Kakadu National Park and South to Katherine and beyond. Within this family, Wagiman is most closely related to three languages, Wardaman, Yangman and Dagoman, [Merlan, F.C. (1994: 3-4)] though there is considerable debate about the status of Wagiman within the Gunwinyguan family. [Wilson, S. (1999: 6)] Of these three other languages, only Wardaman is still spoken.

Wagiman is the ancestral language of the Wagiman people, an ethnic group of Australian Aborigines whose traditional land, before colonisation, extended for hundreds of square kilometres from the Stuart Highway, throughout the Mid-Daly Basin, and across the Daly River. [Wilson, A. (2006: 5)] The land is highly fertile and well-watered, and contains a number of cattle stations, on which many members of the ethnic group used to work. These stations include Claravale, Dorisvale, Jindare, Oolloo and Douglas. [Wilson, S. (1999: 5)]

The language region borders Waray to the north, Mayali (or Gunwinygu) and Jawoyn on the east, Wardaman and Jaminjung on the south, and Murrinh-Patha, Ngan'giwumirri and Malak Malak on the west. Before colonisation, the lands surrounding Pine Creek, extending north to Brock's Creek, were traditionally associated with another language group that is now extinct, believe to have been called Wulwulam. [Harvey, M. (2003: 295-97)]

Current situation

The dominant language of the region is Mayali, a dialect of Bininj Gun-Wok traditionally associated with the region surrounding Maningrida, in Western Arnhem Land. [Evans, N. (2003: 6-9)] As it is a strong language with hundreds of speakers and a high rate of child acquisition, members of the Wagiman ethnic group gradually ceased teaching the Wagiman language to their children. As a result, all Wagiman people speak Mayali, while only a handful of elders, possibly no more than six, speak Wagiman.

The adults in the community are considered semi-speakers as they have a passive understanding of Wagiman and generally only know a few basic words. Their children, the grandchildren of the elders, understand very little Wagiman and speak none. [Cook, A.R. (1987: 17-19)] Apart from Mayali, Kriol, a creole language based on the vocabulary of English, is the "lingua franca" of the area. All members of the Wagiman ethnic group, as well as all other ethnic groups represented in the area, are native speakers of a moderate grade of Kriol. [Gordon, R. G., Jr. (2005)]

The small number of Wagiman speakers are also partial speakers of a number of other languages besides Mayali, including Jaminjung, Wardaman and Dagoman.


Wagiman speakers are conscious of a distinction between two dialects of Wagiman, which they refer to as "matjjin no-roh-ma" 'light language' and "matjjin gu-nawutj-jan" 'heavy language'. The differences are minor and speakers have no difficulty understanding one another.Wilson, S. (2001)]

Wagiman grammar

"All grammatical information from Wilson, S. (1999)" [Wilson, S. (1999)] "unless otherwise noted."

Parts of speech

The three most important parts of speech in Wagiman are verbs, coverbs and nominals. Apart from these, there are a multitude of verbal and nominal affixes, interjections and other particles. Pronouns class with nominals.


Like many Australian languages, Wagiman does not categorially distinguish nouns from adjectives. These form one word class that is called nominals. Wagiman nominals take case suffixes (see below) that denote their grammatical or semantic role in the sentence. The grammatical cases are ergative and absolutive, and the semantic cases include instrumental (using), allative (towards), ablative (from), locative (at), comitative (with, having), privative (without, lacking), temporal (at the time of) and semblative (resembling). The dative case can be either grammatical or semantic, depending on the syntactic requirements of the verb.

Demonstratives are similarly considered nominals in Wagiman, and take the same case suffixes depending on their semantic and syntactic roles; their function within the sentence. That is, the demonstrative "mahan" 'this', or 'here' (root: "mayh-"), may take case just like any other nominal.
*"mayh-yi" this-sc|erg 'this one (did it)'
*"mayh-ga" this-sc|all 'to here'

Examples of nominals

*"guda" 'fire', 'wood' [gʊda]
*"wirin" 'tree', 'stick' [wɪɻɪn]
*"lagiban" 'man' [lagɪban]
*"gordal" 'head' [gɔɖaɫ]
*"lagiriny" 'tail' [lagɪɻɪɲ]
*"manyngardal" 'tongue' [maɲŋaɖaɫ]


Pronouns are typologically nominals also, yet they exhibit a declension system that is partly representative of a nominative-accusative language, rather than an ergative-absolutive language.


Each syllable of Wagiman contains an onset, a nucleus and an optional coda. This may be generalised to the syllable template CV(C). The coda may consist of any single consonant, a continuant and a glottal stop, or an approximant and any stop.

At the word level, Wagiman has a bimoraic minimum, meaning that if a word consists of a single syllable, it must have either a long vowel or a coda. Examples of monosyllabic words in Wagiman include "yow" [IPA|jɒʊ] 'yes', or "jamh" [IPA|ɟʌmʔ] 'eat.sc|perf'.

The retroflex approximant 'r' [IPA|ɻ] is not permitted word-initially and instead becomes a lateral 'l'. This only affects verb roots, as they are the only part of speech that takes prefixes and are therefore the only possible part of speech for which word-initial and word-medial environmental effects can be observed.

The verb "ra-ndi" 'throw', for instance, surfaces as "la-ndi" when inflected for third-person singular subjects (he/she/it), which are realised by invisible, or null morphemes. but as "nga-ra-ndi" when inflected for a first-person singular subject (I). When preceded by a syllable with a coda, the 'r' similarly moves to 'l', as in "ngan-la-ndi" 'he/she/it threw you'. In short, the retroflex approximant 'r' [IPA|ɻ] is only realised as 'r' when it occurs between two vowels. Elsewhere, it becomes a lateral approximant 'l'.

Heterorganic clusters

Consonant clusters across syllable boundaries do not assimilate for place in Wagiman as they do in many other languages. This means that a nasal in a syllable coda will not move to the position of the following syllable onset for ease of enunciation. In English and most other Indo-European languages, this movement occurs regularly, such that the prefix "-in", for example, changes to "-im" when it precedes either a "p", a "b" or an "m".:"in" + "possible" > "impossible":"in" + "balance" > "imbalance":"in" + "material" > "immaterial"Wagiman does not do this. A nasal in a coda retains its position regardless of the following consonant::"manyngardal" 'tongue' [maɲŋaɖaɫ] :"binkan" 'bream' "(fish spec.)" [bɪngan] :"ngan-bu-ni" 's/he hit me' [ŋanbʊnɪ] If Wagiman constrained against heterorganic clusters and assimilated them for place, as English does, these words would surface as [maŋŋaɖaɫ] , [bɪŋgan] and [ŋambʊnɪ] .

Vowel harmony

High vowels assimilate in height to following mid vowels across syllable boundaries. That is, [IPA|ɪ] will become [IPA|ɛ] , and [IPA|ʊ] will become [IPA|ɔ] , when the following syllable contains a mid vowel; either [IPA|ɛ] or [IPA|ɔ] .

:"mi-" (2sg.sc|imp) and "-ge" ('put'), becomes "mege" 'you go and put it'.:"mu-" (2pl.sc|imp) and "-yobe" ('stay'), becomes "moyobe" 'you lot stay'.

Wagiman vowel harmony and other aspects of Wagiman phonotactics require further investigation. It is not known, for instance, whether vowel harmony equally affects unstressed syllables.


Wagiman is a prefixing language, which, in the context of typology of Australian languages, may refer to its genealogical classification as well as its syntactic properties. Wagiman, along with other Gunwinyguan languages, inflects verbs for person and number of the subject obligatorily, and optionally for the object. In this respect Wagiman displays characteristics of a head-marking language. However, Wagiman also behaves as a dependent-marking language, in that nominals are case marked as to their grammatical or semantic roles, such as ergative (the subject of a transitive clause) or absolutive (the object of a transitive clause or the subject of an intransitive clause).


Wagiman is a morphologically rich language and each part of speech has its own set of associated bound morphemes, some of which are obligatory, while others are optional.


The verbal prefix contains information about the person and number of the subject, sometimes also the person and number of the object, as well as obligatory information about the tense of the clause. Furthermore, a verbal suffix conveys further information regarding tense and aspect. While only a small number of tense and aspect affixes exist, the interplay between those in the verbal prefix and in the suffix, can generate more highly specified temporal and aspectual clauses.

Further to these affixes, verbs may be marked for the number of the subject, be it dual or plural, and also for clusivity; whether the listener is included in the described event (inclusive) or is excluded from the event (exclusive).

Verb morphology in Wagiman is highly irregular. Of the small inventory of inflecting verbs, many have their own unique tense suffixes, while other tense suffixes are common to several verbs, and while some rudimentary verb classes can be identified - stance verbs always take the past tense suffix "-nginy" /ŋɪɲ/, for instance - the tense suffixes must be learned for each individual verb.

The prefixes on the other hand, are regular for each verb, although the complete paradigm of verb prefixes is highly complex. They encode three variables: person, number and tense, and are not segmentable; one prefix cannot be separated into the three parts. "Ngani-" for example, encodes second-person singular agent ('you'), first-person singular patient/undergoer ('me') as well as past tense.

:"ngani-bu-ng" :2sgsc|a.1sgsc|o.sc|pst-hit-sc|prf :'you hit me'.


Nominal morphology is significantly less complex than that of the verb. There are a number of case suffixes, denoting ergative, absolutive, dative, allative, locative, ablative, semblative, temporal, instrumental and so on.

Apart from the grammatical cases, ergative and absolutive, which are necessary to construct meaningful sentences, an entire range of semantic cases occur with very high frequency, even when their meaning can be expressed without using case. In the following examples, the former, in which no case is used, is far less common than the latter::"wuji nga-nga-gondo-n garradin":sc|neg sc|irr-1sg-have-sc|prs money:'I don't have any money'

:"garrad-nehen nga-yu":money-sc|priv 1sg.sc|prs-be:'I am without money' or 'I am penniless'

There are also some bound particles, which appear to function in much the same syntactic manner as cases, but which are not considered 'case', for theoretical reasons. "-Binyju" /bɪɲɟʊ/ 'only' is one of these nominal particles, as in: :"gubiji-binyju bula-ndi" :bone-only 3sg.leave-sc|pst:'s/he left only the bones'.

Nominals are also marked for number with a suffix that adjoins directly to the root, inside the case suffix. "-giwu" 'two', for example, would attach to the nominal root before the case, as in: :"lamarra-giwu-yi nganba-badi-na" :dog-two-sc|erg 3plsc|a.1sgsc|o-bite-sc|pst:'the two dogs bit me'.

As cases cannot be stacked in Wagiman, these number suffixes cannot be called case suffixes, whereas the nominal suffixes discussed above (such as "-binyju" 'only'), show the same syntactic distribution - they occur in the same place - and therefore may be analysed as cases themselves.


Coverbs also have their own set of inflectional morphemes, such as aspect, but may also take semantic case suffixes (all those listed above except for ergative and absolutive). For instance, a coverb may take the dative case to convey intention, or purpose, as in:

:"liri-ma-gu" :swim-sc|asp-sc|dat:'for swimming'.

Coverbs are categorially differentiated from nominals though, in that a nominal may not take the aspectual suffixes that a coverb obligatorily takes.

The morpheme that is glossed as aspect in the above example, referred to in the literature as the "-ma" suffix, denotes aspectual unmarkedness. Its absence signifies perfective aspect, and it may be further suffixed with "-yan", producing "-ma-yan", to denote continuous or imperfective aspect.

The "-ma" suffix exhibits regular allomorphy; it assimilates in place and manner of articulation to any preceding obstruent or nasal, but not to any preceding lateral, rhotic or approximant. That is, it remains "-ma" following vowels, or following the consonants [r] , [l] , [w] and [j] , but when it follows [p] , for instance, it assimilates in manner and place, and becomes /-pa/, as in "dup-pa" 'sit'.
*"liri" + "ma" > "liri-ma"
*"wal" + "ma" > "wal-ma"
*"bey" + "ma" > "bey-ma"
*"yorony" + "ma" > "yorony-nya"
*"datj" + "ma" > "datj-ja"The inclusion of the glottal stop in certain words, in ineffective to the surface realisation of the "-ma" suffix; it will change, or remain unchanged, according to whichever segment precedes the glottal stop, as in:
*"wunh" + "ma" > "wunh-na"
*"gayh" + "ma" > "gayh-ma"Cross-inguistically, the"-ma" suffix may be related to a coverbial suffix in Jaminjung, a language in which coverb roots occur without any aspect markers, but are then suffixed with "-mayan", which marks continuous aspect. This coverb suffix bears a striking resemblance to the sum of the Wagiman "-ma" suffix and the continuous aspect suffix "-yan", which always occur in tandem on coverbs. Together, "-ma" and "-yan" perform the same semantic function as Jaminjung "-mayan". Precisely what the relationship holds between these suffixes; whether one language borrowed from the other, or whether each language inherited them from earlier languages, is not at all clear.


Further to derivational and inflectional morphemes, Wagiman coverbs and nominals often undergo reduplication, whereby a part, or often the entirety of the root, is repeated. Reduplication can convey a multitude of meanings. When coverbs are reduplicated, the resulting derived coverb may involve added meaning components such as iterativity, duration or habituality. :"dabulp-pa ga-ya nu-naw-ma":smoke-sc|asp 3sg.sc|prs.go lots:'s/he smokes lots'

:"dabuldabulp ga-ya":smoke.sc|rdp 3sg.sc|prs.go:'s/he smokes all the time'

When nominals are derived by reduplication, the added meaning is usually one of plurality. However, since both a dual and a plural nominal suffix exist, "-giwu" and "-guju" respectively, nominal reduplication is rare.

Complex predicates

A complex predicate is the combination of more than one element, more than one individual word, to convey the information involved in a single event. [Butt, M. (2003: 2)] For instance, the event "swim" is conveyed in Wagiman using a combination of a verb "ya-" 'go' and a coverb "liri-ma" 'swimming'. There is no verb in Wagiman that, on its own, conveys the event of swimming.

Bipartite verbal compounds such as these are not peculiar to any language in particular. They are in fact very common, and may even occur in every language, albeit with varying frequency. English has a number of complex predicates, include "go sightseeing", "have breakfast" and "take (a) bath". The event described by "go sightseeing" is unable to be described using a single verb "sightsee'; inflections like "sightsaw" and "sightseen' are ungrammatical. An event like "take (a) bath", however, may be described by a single verb "bathe", but it arguably has a slightly different meaning. "Take (a) bath", in any case, is far more common.


Wagiman is differentiated from other Australian languages in that it has a regular and productive process of verbalisation, whereby coverbs can become verbs and act as the independent head of a clause. Despite being fully productive, meaning that all coverbs may undergo verbalisation, in practice only a handful of coverbs are commonly verbalised. The process appears to be unique to Wagiman within Australian languages. [Wilson, S. (1999: 82)]

Verbalisation involves re-analysing the entire coverb - including its suffix "-ma", which serves merely to indicate that it is unmarked for aspect - as a verb root, and then to apply the usual obligatory verbal inflection affixes for person, number and tense. As there is no discreet morpheme that serves as a 'verbaliser', the process is one of conversion. [Wilson, A. (2006: 14)]

ee also

*Non-Pama-Nyungan languages
*Gunwinyguan languages
*Light verbs
*Complex predicates



*Butt, M. " [http://ling.uni-konstanz.de/pages/home/butt/harvard-work.pdf The Light Verb Jungle.] " Harvard Working Papers in Linguistics 9: 1-49. 2003.
*Cook, Anthony R. [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/ASEDA/eMU_W.htm#Wagiman "Wagiman Matyin: a description of the Wagiman language of the Northern Territory."] PhD Thesis. Melbourne: La Trobe University, 1987.
*Evans, Nicholas. "Bininj Gun-Wok: A pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune." Volumes 1 and 2. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 2003. ISBN 0858835304
*Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. " [http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=waq Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition] ". Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. 2005. ISBN 155671159X
*Harvey, Mark. "Western Gunwinyguan". In Nicholas Evans, ed. "The non-Pama-Nyungan languages of northern Australia: comparative studies of the continent's most linguistically complex region", 285-303. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2003. ISBN 085883538X
*Merlan, Francesa C. "A Grammar of Wardaman: A Language of the Northern Territory of Australia." Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994. ISBN 3110129426
*Wilson, Aidan. "Negative evidence in linguistics: The case of Wagiman complex predicates." The University of Sydney, 2006.
*Wilson, Stephen. "Coverbs and complex predicates in Wagiman." Stanford: CLSI Publications, 1999. ISBN 1575861720.
*Wilson, Stephen " [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/e_access/digital/a339234/langspeakers.html The language and its speakers] " Wagiman on-line dictionary. Canberra: AIATSIS, 2001.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Wagiman — /ˈwagimʌn/ (say wahgeemun) noun 1. an Australian Aboriginal people of an area around the upper Daly River, NT. 2. the language of this people. –adjective 3. of or relating to this people or their language …   Australian English dictionary

  • Gemination — For another meaning, see Tooth gemination. Not to be confused with Germination or Geminal. In phonetics, gemination happens when a spoken consonant is pronounced for an audibly longer period of time than a short consonant. Gemination is… …   Wikipedia

  • Scrambling (linguistics) — Scrambling is the variation of the order of words in a sentence in a language in which word order is not fixed. The term originated with the Chomskian tradition of Transformational Grammar, wherein word order in all languages is taken to be… …   Wikipedia

  • Semblative case — The semblative case is a grammatical case that denotes the similarity of one entity to another. The semblative case in EnglishEnglish has a semblative case suffix that variously takes a number of different forms, including like , esque and ly …   Wikipedia

  • Gunwinyguan languages — Infobox Language family name = Gunwinyguan region = Arnhem Land, northern Australia family = Macro Pama Nyungan familycolor = Australian child1 = Gunwinyguan proper child2 = Marran child3 = Kungarakany child4 = Nunggubuyu child5 = Waray child6 =… …   Wikipedia

  • List of Indigenous Australian group names — contains names and collective designations which have been applied, either formerly or in the past, to group of Indigenous Australians Note: It is very important to be aware that the term tribe is really not very useful in indigenous Australia.… …   Wikipedia

  • Ergative case — The ergative case is the grammatical case that identifies the subject of a transitive verb in ergative absolutive languages.In such languages, the ergative case is typically marked (most salient), while the absolutive case is unmarked. New work… …   Wikipedia

  • Coolamon (vessel) — This article is about the Aboriginal carrying vessel. For the Australian town, see Coolamon, New South Wales. The coolamon in this picture is at top left. It is lined with paperbark, often done when used as a cradle for newborns. A coolamon is an …   Wikipedia