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About Murrinh-Patha
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
  5. Photos


Murrinh-Patha (aka Murriny Patha) is the lingua franca spoken by almost all Aboriginal people in the Moyle and Fitzmaurice rivers region of Australia’s Northern Territory. The majority of the 2500+ speakers reside in Wadeye, though others live in Darwin, Daly River, Peppimenarti, Nganmarriyanga, Kuy, Yederr, and Kununurra (in Western Australia). As well as by ethnic Murrinh-Patha people, the language is used in Wadeye and surrounding communities for daily communication by people whose primary linguistic affiliations are to the Marri Tjevin, Marri Amu, Marri Ngarr, Makati Ke and Jaminjung languages (none of which are being acquired by children). In Wadeye Murrinh-Patha is being acquired by children who, prior to encountering English at school, grow up as monolinguals in a largely Murrinh-Patha speaking environment. The vast majority of all interactions are conducted in Murrinh-Patha. As well as for the non-adoption of English as a language of communication (except in dealings with Europeans), Wadeye is notable for the virtual absence of Kriol.

Murrinh-Patha is a non-pama-nyungan language belonging to the Southern Daly family. Syntactically, it is a headmarking language with free word order. It is also highly polysynthetic, exhibiting both fusional and agglutinating morphology. Murrinh-Patha verbs are (generally) complex predicates consisting of an inflecting portion and an uninflecting coverb – tightly bound within a single phonological unit. The verbal subject pronominals are fusional morphemes that additionally function as verbal classifiers. These inflect for 38 different verb classes and six different tense/aspect/mood combinations. With a four-way number distinction, a sibling vs. non-sibling distinction and gender marking for first, second and third persons, Murrinh-Patha’s pronouns number in the thousands. All nouns belong to one of ten nominal classes. Murrinh is the nominal classifier pertaining to language and speech. Patha is an adjective meaning "good". Murrinh-Patha thus means "the good language".



The community of Wadeye is on Murrinh-Patha land. Murrinh-Patha country extends as far north as Docherty Island at the mouth of Wadeye creek, west to Pearce Point and south of the Fitzmaurice River. The Thamarrurr region that surrounds Wadeye is approximately bounded by the Moyle and Fitzmaurice rivers. As well as these large rivers, the area is crisscrossed by numerous small creeks. Being low-lying country, much of the area is prone to flooding during the monsoonal wet season. The Moyle river forms a very large floodplain. The rising levels of the Moyle and Daly Rivers restrict vehicular access to the region to the driest seven months of the year. Ten kilometres southwest of Wadeye lie the Sugarloaf Ranges and the Macadam ranges are a further forty kilometres in the same direction. The Wingate mountains lie 120 kilometres to the east of Wadeye.

The region is geographically and biologically diverse. Along the coast there are long beaches with coral reefs, as well as areas of mudflats and mangroves. Favourite foods include rock oysters (ku wurldirr), mud crabs (ku balli), longbums (ku thali, Telescopium telescopium), mud clams (ku kunen), mangrove worms (ku warrgi), sharks and stingrays (collectively, ku yeyemam). Further inland there are areas of open woodland, grass plains, waterholes and open swamps. Food from these areas foods include agile wallabies (ku lawarnka), antilopine wallaroos (ku kumpit and ku baybaye for males and females, respectively), goannas (numerous varieties), emus (ku kananganthan), Australian bustards (ku murntuykuy), magpie geese (ku ngalmungkirr), sugarbag (native honey, ku tjithay) and crocodile eggs (ku dumdum).

(click here for a larger map)


People and Culture

The Thamarrurr region contains some twentyone patrilineal clans, each of which has their own territorial estates. There are seven clans associated with the Murrinh-Patha language, eight with the Marri Ngarr language, two with Marri Tjevin, two with Marri Ammu and two with Magati Ke. On each estate there are several named totemic sites (ngugumingki in Murrinh-Patha). These sites and their associated totems (ngakumarl) are jointly owned by all members of the patriclan. Marriage is exogamous to the clan. Language affiliation is determined by the association of a language to these named totemic sites.

Musical traditions are important badges of identity. Every person is associated to one of three "mobs" that are in turn named after three public ceremonial genres. Djanba is a genre associated with the Murrinh-Patha clans and one Jaminjung clan, Lirrga is associated with the Marri Ngarr clans and some Ngan'giwumirri clans, Wangga is a genre associated with the Marri Tjevin, Marri Ammu and Magati Ke clans and with some other clans associated with languages to the north of the Thamarrurr region.




  • Blythe, Joe (2009a). Doing referring in Murriny Patha conversation. PhD thesis, University of Sydney.
  • Blythe, Joe (2009b). Prosodic person reference in Murriny Patha reported interaction. In Barth-Weingarten, D., Dehé, N. & Wichman, A. (Eds.), Where Prosody Meets Pragmatics: Research at the Interface. Bingley, UK: Emerald. 23-52.
  • Blythe, Joe (2010a). From ethical datives to number markers in Murriny Patha. In Hendery, R. & Hendriks, J. (Eds.), Grammatical Change: Theory and Description. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 157-184.
  • Blythe, Joe (2010b). Self-Association in Murriny Patha Conversation. In Mushin, I. & Gardner, R. (Eds.), Studies in Australian Indigenous Conversation. A special edition of Australian Journal of Linguistics. 447-469.
  • Blythe, Joe (in press). Laughter is the best medicine: Roles for prosody in a Murriny Patha conversational narrative. In Baker, B., Gardner, R., Harvey, M. & Mushin, I. (Eds.), Language and Social Identity in Indigenous Communities: Papers in honour of Michael Walsh. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  • Green, Ian (2003). 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. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 159-184.
  • Kelly, Barbara, Nordlinger, Rachel & Wigglesworth, Gillian (2010). Indigenous Perspectives on the Vitality of Murriny Patha. In Treis, Y. & De Busser, R. (Eds.), Selected Papers from the 2009 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society. 1-21.
  • Marett, Allan (2005). Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts: The Wangga of North Australia. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Nordlinger, Rachel (2010a). Agreement in Murrinh-Patha Serial Verbs. In Treis, Y. & De Busser, R. (Eds.), Selected Papers from the 2009 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society. La Trobe University. 1-30.
  • Nordlinger, Rachel (2010b). Verbal Morphology in Murrinh-Patha: Evidence for Templates. Morphology 20: 321–341.
  • Seiss, Melanie & Nordlinger, Rachel (2010). Applicativizing Complex Predicates: A Case Study from Murrinh-Patha. In Holloway King, T. & Butt, M. (Eds.), Proceedings of the LFG10 Conference. Carleton University, Ottawa: CSLI Publications. 416-436.
  • Street, Chester S. (1987). An Introduction to the Language and Culture of the Murrinh-Patha. Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics, Australian Aborigines Branch.
  • Street, Chester S. & Mollingin, Gregory P. (1983). Dictionary: English/Murrinh-Patha. Port Keats: Wadeye Press.
  • Walsh, Michael J. (1987). The impersonal verb construction in Australian languages. In Steele, R. & Threadgold, T. (Eds.), Language Topics: Essays in Honour of Michael Halliday, I & II. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 425-438.
  • Walsh, Michael J. (1996a). Body parts in Murrinh-Patha: Incorporation, grammar and metaphor. In Chappell, H. & McGregor, W. (Eds.), The Grammar of Inalienability: A Typological Perspective on Body Part Terms and the Part-Whole Relation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 327-380.
  • Walsh, Michael J. (1996b). Vouns and nerbs: A category squish in Murrinh-Patha (northern Australia). In McGregor, W. (Ed.), Studies in Kimberley Languages in Honour of Howard H. Coate. München: Lincom Europa. 227-252.
  • Walsh, Michael J. (1997). Noun classes, nominal classification and generics in Murrinhpatha. In Harvey, M. & Reid, N. (Eds.), Nominal Classification in Aboriginal Australia. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 255-292.


Ethnography, Music, and History:

  • Barwick, Linda, Marett, Allan, Blythe, Joe & Walsh, Michael J. (2007). Arriving, digging, performing, returning: an exercise in rich interpretation of a djanba song text in the sound archive of the Wadeye Knowledge Centre, Northern Territory of Australia. In Moyle, R. M. (Ed.), Oceanic Encounters: Festschrift for Mervyn McLean. Auckland: Research in Anthropology and Linguistics Monographs. 13-24.
  • Barwick, Linda, Blythe, Joe, Ford, Lysbeth, Marett, Allan, Reid, Nicholas, Tse, Daniel & Walsh, Michael J. (2009). The Wadeye Song Database. University of Sydney, Wadeye Aboriginal Languages Centre, Wadeye Knowledge Centre.
  • Falkenberg, Aslaug & Falkenberg, Johannes (1981). The Affinal Relationship System: a New Approach to Kinship and Marriage among the Australian Aborigines at Port Keats. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
  • Falkenberg, Johannes (1962). Kin and Totem: Group Relations of Australian Aborigines in the Port Keats District. Oslo: Oslo University Press.
  • Furlan, Alberto (2005). Songs of continuity and change: the reproduction of Aboriginal culture through traditional and popular music. PhD, University of Sydney.
  • Furlan, Alberto (2008). Indigenous songs as 'operational structures of transactional life': A study of song genres at Wadeye. In Hinkson, M. & Beckett, J. (Eds.), An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Stidies Press. 151-165.
  • Ivory, Bill (2009). Kunmanggur, Legend and leadership: A study of indigenous leadership and succession focussing on the northwest region of the Northern Territory of Australia. Charles Darwin University.
  • Pye, Br John, M.S.C. (1972). The Port Keats Story. Darwin: Colemans.
  • Stanner, W.E.H. (1936). Murinbata Kinship and Totemism. Oceania 7(2): 186-216.
  • Stanner, W.E.H. (1937). Aboriginal Modes of Address and Reference in the North-West of the Northern Territory. Oceania 7(3): 300-315.
  • Stanner, W.E.H. (1966). On Aboriginal Religion. Sydney: University of Sydney.
  • Taylor, John (2004). Social Indicators for Aboriginal Governance: Insights from the Thamarrurr Region, Northern Territory. Canberra: ANU E Press.
  • Taylor, John (2008). Stanner and the Port Keats/Wadeye population. In Hinkson, M. & Beckett, J. (Eds.), An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. 217-230.
  • Taylor, John (2010). Demography as Destiny: Schooling, Work and Aboriginal Population Change at Wadeye. CAEPR Working Paper No. 64/2010. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University.
  • Walsh, Michael J. (2010). A polytropical approach to the ‘floating pelican’ song: an exercise in rich interpretation of a Murriny Patha (northern Australia) song. The Language of Song: A Special Issue of Australian Journal of Linguistics 30(1): 117-130.


Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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Joe Blythe

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
PO Box 310
6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands