Word of the Month - Celebrating Tiwi in the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages

Word of the Month - Celebrating Tiwi in the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages

Yirrikipayi is a Tiwi word meaning salt-water crocodile.

Tiwi is an Australian Indigenous language. Today it is spoken by around 2,000 people, most of whom live in the Tiwi Islands, 80 kilometres to the north of Darwin, NT across the Arafura Sea. It is a stand-alone language, having no relationship to any languages spoken on mainland Australia.

Since European colonisation, Tiwi has evolved. These days two variations are spoken. Older speakers speak Traditional Tiwi, the form also used in ceremonies, while younger islanders speak what is known as Modern Tiwi. Nonetheless, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger database considers the Tiwi language to be vulnerable.

Across the Top End of Australia, including in the Tiwi Islands, Indigenous people have lived alongside the yirrikipayi (salt-water crocodile), the largest living reptile and fiercest predator in the world, for thousands of years. The yirrikipayi holds great cultural significance for the Tiwi people. It is one of many dreamings or totems, inherited through the father. With a dreaming or totem comes responsibilities, passed down from birth. The yirrikipayi also has its own dance.

A book for children featuring the yirrikipayi has been published as part of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Community Literacy Projects program. No Way Yirrikipayi! tells the story of a very hungry crocodile that lives in the Tiwi Islands and hunts animals to eat, chasing them both in the sea and on land.

The book, which introduces readers to some Tiwi words, was written and illustrated by students from Milikapiti School in workshops facilitated by ILF lifetime ambassador Alison Lester with the support of Tiwi elders and assistant teachers. Milikapiti is on the north coast of Melville Island and the 500 people who live in the community speak Tiwi as their first language.

Listen to Tiwi elder Nina Black read No Way Yirrikipayi!

  • Posted 03 May, 2019

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