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About Umpila
  1. Language
  2. Geography
  3. People and Culture
  4. Publications
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The Umpila dialect group is a Paman language (Hale 1964; O'Grady, Voegelin and Voegelin 1966) spoken on the north-eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula, Australia. This language group has three mutually intelligible dialects, Umpila, Kuuku Ya'u and Kaanju, which are still spoken today, though classically (prior to non-Indigenous settlement) there were a number of other varieties within this complex. Umpila and Kuuku Ya'u are the southern and northern coastal varieties respectively, while Kaanju is the inland dialect. This language has not been described in any detail previously, and is critically endangered with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining. Most of these speakers reside in Lockhart River Aboriginal Community, which is located at Lloyd Bay just north of the Lockhart River mouth. Here, the vernacular language of the community is Lockhart River Creole.

Typologically, Umpila is agglutinative, suffixing, dependent-marking language, with a preference for SOV constituent order. Grammatical relations are indicated by a split ergative case system: nominal inflections are ergative/absolutive, pronominals are nominative/accusative. Features of note include: historical dropping of initial consonants, complex verbal reduplication expressing progressivity and habitual aspect, 'optional' ergative marking.



The land territory associated with the Umpila language group stretches along the north-eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula – extending from the northern end of Temple Bay south to the Massey Creek region at the top of Princess Charlotte Bay, and west of the Great Dividing Range towards the township of Coen. Most of the remaining Umpila and Kuuku Ya'u speakers reside in Lockhart River Aboriginal Community, which is located at Lloyd Bay, roughly at the boundary between Umpila and Kuuku Ya'u lands. The community is extremely remote; located some eight hundred kilometres north of Cairns, it is the most northern Aboriginal community on the east coast of Australia. Kaanju speakers live in a number of towns and Aboriginal communities in the Peninsula, such as, Weipa, Coen, Cairns and Yarrabah.

The coastal and inland ecology and topography of this region is diverse. The coast is characterised by long sand-beaches and low tidal flats, with a number of islands and cays close to shore and the Great Barrier Reef edging in places to within a kilometre of the coastline. The region is crisscrossed by rivers and estuary systems, which often are bordered by extensive mangrove everglades or thick rainforest. Permanent pools and lagoons, saltpan systems and wetlands are a feature in the low lying, southern half of this region. The Great Dividing Range runs the length of the north-east coast of the Peninsula – and marks a key territorial border. In some parts of the Sandbeach people's region, the ranges run close to the coast, while elsewhere there are wide coastal plains and grasslands between the beaches and the Great Dividing Range. The eastern face of the ranges are covered in thick rainforest which extends coastward following the edges of waterways. The western face of the range and inland regions frequently feature tropical savannah and dry sclerophyll forests.


People and Culture

The Umpila and Kuuku Ya'u collectively identify themselves as pama malngkanchi 'sandbeach people', whereas the Kaanju dwelling in the hinterland region refer to themselves as pama kanichi 'up/top people'. These two groups form a cohesive cultural network linked by marriage, exchange, social and ceremonial interaction. Formerly, both the inland and coastal groups were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their settlement and movement patterns were seasonal – based on weather conditions and seasonal food supplies, with preferred habitats for dry and wet season camps. Notable technologies employed by coastal groups include double outrigger canoes, multiple spear and harpoon types. Thomson (1933:457) describes the Sandbeach clans as 'a very distinct type of Australian [A]borigine'; 'essentially fishermen and dugong hunters, and often great seafarers...skilled canoe builders and navigators...[who] make adventurous voyages among the coral reefs and sand banks of the Great Barrier Reef, in search of dugong and turtle, and the eggs of turtles and sea birds'. Today, most of the Sandbeach people reside in Lockhart River Aboriginal Community, a 'town style community' with a school, a church, and various other amenities and modern local government structures. People maintain close connections to their traditional lands, and the coastal hunter-forager practices described by Thomson remain a crucial part of daily life. The patrilineal clan was and continues to be the most important social unit; it's social stability is based on shared descent, possession of common totems and territory. Each clan is affiliated with owned estates of land which are linked to a number of totemic beings and associated stories, songs, dances and sacred sites.

Further information about people and culture can be found in Thomson (1933, 1934), Chase (1980, 1979), and Rigsby and Chase (1998).



  • Chase, A. K. 1979. Cultural Continuity: Land and Resources among East Cape York Aborigines. In Stevens, N. C. and Bailey, A. (eds). Contemporary Cape York Peninsula. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.
  • Chase, A. 1980. Which way now? Tradition, continuity and change in a north Queensland Aboriginal Community. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brisbane: University of Queensland.
  • Chase, Athol. 1984. Belonging to Country: Territory, Identity and Environment in Cape York Peninsula, Northern Australia. In L.R. Hiatt (ed) Aboriginal Landowners: Contemporary issues in the determination of traditional Aboriginal land ownership. Sydney: Sydney University Press.
  • Rigsby, B. and Chase, A. 1998. The Sandbeach People and Dugong Hunters of Eastern Cape York Peninsula: property in Land and Sea Country. Rigsby, B and Peterson, N. (eds) Customary Marine Tenure in Australia. Sydney. Oceania 48:192-218.
  • Thompson, D. 1988. Lockhart River ‘Sand Beach’ Language: An Outline of Kuuku Ya'u and Umpila. Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
  • Thomson, D. F. 1933. The Hero Cult, Initiation Totemism on Cape York. Royal Anthropological Institute Journal 63: 453-537.
  • Thomson, D. F. 1934. Notes on a Hero Cult from the Gulf of Carpentaria, North Queensland. Royal Anthropological Institute Journal 64: 217-262.


Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
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