Rare Language Fact File: Jiwarli

Native to: Pilbara region, Western Australia

Number of native speakers: 0

Spoken by: People of Jiwarli heritage (indigenous Australians)

Learn some: The Jiwarli word for camera is mangarn manaji; mangar is a person’s spirit and manaji means ‘it grabs’. The Jiwarli, as did many people around the world, believed that having your photo taken would steal your soul.

Interesting facts:

  • The last native speaker of Jiwarli was a man named Jack Butler, who died in 1986 and whose descendants were only interested in learning English. Butler was determined that the language should not die with him, so he collaborated with a linguist named Peter Austin to create a Jiwarli dictionary.
  • When Europeans first landed in Australia, there were 250 living languages there. Now there are only 15 that are learned as a native tongue. Austin has launched a £20m foundation that aims to preserve these.
  • Jiwarli has been the focus of much academic debate and discussion, because it is a ‘free word order’ language, meaning that word order is not critical to meaning. This is very rare and certainly not the case in English.

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