Warlpiri language

Warlpiri language
Spoken in Northern Territory, Australia
Native speakers 2,670 [1]  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wbp

The Warlpiri language is spoken by about 3000 of the Warlpiri people in Australia's Northern Territory. It is one of the Ngarrkic languages of the large Southwest branch of the Pama–Nyungan family, and is one of the largest aboriginal languages in Australia in terms of number of speakers.



Location of Warlpiri language

In the following tables of the Warlpiri sound system, symbols in boldface give the practical orthography used by the Warlpiri community. Phonetic values in IPA are shown in [square brackets].


Front Central Back
Close i [i], ii [iː] u [u], uu [uː]
Open a [a], aa [aː]

Warlpiri has a standard three-vowel system similar to that of Classical Arabic, with a length distinction creating a total of six possible vowels.


Bilabial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar
Plosive p [p] t [t] rt [ʈ] j [c] k [k]
Nasal m [m] n [n] rn [ɳ] ny [ɲ] ng [ŋ]
Trill rr [r]
Flap rd [ɽ]
Approximant central w [w] r [ɻ] y [j]
lateral l [l] rl [ɭ] ly [ʎ]

As shown in the chart, Warlpiri distinguishes five positions of articulation, and has oral and nasal stops at each position. The oral stops have no phonemic voice distinction, but display voiced and unvoiced allophones; stops are usually unvoiced at the beginning of a word, and voiced elsewhere. In both positions they are usually unaspirated.

Warlpiri, like most Australian languages, has no fricative consonants.

The consonant listed in the table as a retroflex flap is actually an unusual consonant, possibly unique to Warlpiri. The tongue-tip begins in retroflex position, but then moves forward rapidly, flapping against the alveolar ridge.

Syllables and stress

Warlpiri syllables are quite constrained in structure. All syllables begin with a single consonant; there are no syllable-initial consonant clusters, and no syllable begins with a vowel. After the consonant comes a single long or short vowel, which is sometimes followed by a single closing consonant. Open syllables are much more common than closed ones. No syllable ends with a stop or with the retroflex flap /ɽ/.

The most common kind of consonant cluster occurs when a syllable ends with a nasal consonant and the next syllable begins with the corresponding stop, but other clusters like /rk/ and /lp/ also occur.

Stress is not generally distinctive, but assigned by rule. Polysyllabic words receive primary stress on the first syllable, with secondary stresses tending to occur on alternate syllables thereafter; this rhythm may be broken by the structure of the word, so that there are sometimes three-syllable stress groups.

Vowel harmony

If two adjacent syllables in a Warlpiri morpheme have high vowels, then those high vowels are almost always alike; that is, both u or both i. The number of Warlpiri roots with adjacent syllables having u and i is very small.

This tendency to prefer adjacent high vowels to be identical also spreads across morpheme boundaries within a word. Adding a suffix to a word can place a u and an i in contact. When this happens, one of the vowels tends to assimilate: that is, it changes to match the other vowel. This kind of assimilation is called vowel harmony. (Vowel harmony is not rare in the world's languages: it is found, for example, in Finnish, Hungarian, Mongolian, and Turkish. English plurals like geese and German umlaut represent traces of vowel harmony in early Germanic languages.)

In Warlpiri, both progressive and regressive vowel harmony occur. In progressive vowel harmony, the second vowel changes to match the first; in regressive harmony, the first changes to match the second.

Regressive harmony only occurs when attaching a tense suffix to a verb (see below). For example, when the verb panti- (class 2) is placed in the past tense with the suffix -rnu, the result is not *pantirnu but panturnu.

Progressive harmony occurs with most other kinds of suffixes. For example, when the ergative case suffix -ngku is attached to the noun karli "boomerang", the result is karlingki, not *karlingku.

On occasion, long chains of high vowels can assimilate, each forcing the next. For example, when the class 2 verb kiji- is attached to the past tense suffix -rnu, the resulting word is kujurnu.


No Warlpiri word begins with an alveolar consonant; the first consonant of a word must be bilabial, palatal, retroflex, or velar.

All Warlpiri words end in vowels; a word that might otherwise end in a consonant is usually "corrected" by adding a meaningless suffix, usually -pa.


Since the 1950s, Warlpiri has been written in the Roman alphabet using a system originally devised by Lothar Jagst and subsequently modified slightly. Warlpiri orthography uses only ordinary letters, with no accent marks. It is close to IPA, deviating in the following ways:

  1. Long vowels are written by doubling the vowel letter: ii, aa, uu.
  2. Retroflex consonants are written with digraphs formed by prefixing r to the usual alveolar symbol: rt, rn, rl.
  3. The palatal stop is written j.
  4. Other palatals are written with digraphs formed by suffixing y to the usual alveolar symbol: ny, ly. The palatal approximant is written y.
  5. The velar nasal is written ng.
  6. The alveolar trill is written rr.
  7. The retroflex flap is written rd.
  8. The retroflex approximant is written r.

To these basic rules are added two adjustments to make the orthography easier to use.

  1. The indicators y (for palatal) and r (for retroflex) are often dropped if redundant in consonant clusters that share articulation position. Examples: nyj is written nj, rnrt is written rnt.
  2. At the beginning of a word, the retroflex indicator r is omitted. This does not produce ambiguity, because no Warlpiri word begins with a plain alveolar consonant. Example: rtari "foot" is written tari.



Warlpiri verbs are built from a few hundred verb roots, distributed among five conjugation classes. Two of these classes contain the vast majority of verb roots; the other three classes have only a few roots each.

A large class of modifying prefixes, or preverbs, are used to create verbs with specific meanings. For example, the verb root parnka- means "run" when used by itself, while wurulyparnka- means "scurry into hiding". The preverb wuruly- is used with a few other verb roots to form other verbs of hiding or seclusion. Preverbs are sometimes reduplicated for emphasis or to create a meaning distinction.

Most preverb-verb combinations are a fixed part of the lexicon; new combinations cannot be created freely. But there are a few preverbs that are very productive and can be combined with many different roots, and some roots will accept almost any preverb.

The verb root is followed by a tense suffix. There are five of these for each conjugation class, as shown in the following table. (Some optional variations have been omitted.)

Class Nonpast Past Imperative Immediate future Present
1 mi ja ya ju nya
2 rni rnu ka ku rninya
3 nyi ngu ngka ngku nganya
4 rni rnu nja lku rninya
5 ni nu nta nku nanya


Warlpiri nouns are assembled from thousands of roots, with a rich array of derivational techniques such as compounding and derivational suffixes.

Auxiliary word and agreement suffixes

Each full Warlpiri clause may contain an auxiliary word, which together with the verb suffix serves to identify tense and to clarify the relationship between main and dependent clauses. Common auxiliaries include ka (present tense), kapi (future tense), kaji (conditional). The auxiliary word is almost always the second word of a clause.

The auxiliary word also functions as the home for an elaborate family of suffixes that specify the person and number of the subject and object of the clause. These are similar to the familiar conjugational suffixes that agree with the subject in Indoeuropean languages, but in Warlpiri they are placed on the auxiliary instead of on the verb, and they agree with the object as well as the subject.

An example of a suffixed auxiliary word can be seen in the farewell, kapirnangku nyanyi, "I will see you." Here, kapi indicates future tense, -rna is the suffix for first person singular subject "I", -ngku indicates second person singular object "you", and nyanyi is the nonpast form of the class 3 verb "see".

In the past tense, the auxiliary word often drops out completely. In this case, the agreement suffixes attach instead to the first or second word of the clause, as in nyangurnangku, "I saw you".

The junction where the agreement suffixes are attached can trigger progressive vowel harmony. Thus, nyanyi kapingki, "(S)he will see you", shows the vowel of the suffix -ngku (second person singular object) assimilating to the final vowel of kapi.

Avoidance Register

In Warlpiri culture, it is considered impolite or shameful for certain family relations to converse. (For example, a woman should not converse with her son-in-law.) If such conversation is necessary, the speakers use a special style of the Warlpiri language called the avoidance register. The avoidance register has the same grammar as ordinary Warlpiri, but a drastically reduced lexicon; most content words are replaced either by a generic synonym or by a word unique to the avoidance register.

Warlpiri Sign Language

The Warlpiri language has a signed as well as a spoken mode. See main article Warlpiri Sign Language.


  • Nash, David (1980). Topics in Warlpiri Grammar, PhD thesis, MIT.
  • Laughren, Hoogenraad, Hale, Granites (1996). A Learner's Guide to Warlpiri: Tape course for beginners, IAD Press, Alice Springs.

External links

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