Meriam language

Eastern Torres Strait
Region Murray Island, Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia
Ethnicity Meriam
Native speakers
217 (2016 census)[1]
Eastern Torres Strait Islander Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ulk
Glottolog meri1244[2]
Linguasphere 20-OD(A-a)

Meriam (in the language itself Meriam Mìr; also Miriam, Meryam, Mer, Mir, Miriam-Mir, etc. and Eastern, Isten, Esten, , and Able Able) or the Eastern Torres Strait language is the language of the people of the small islands of Mer (Murray Island), Waier and Dauar, Erub (Darnley Island), and Ugar (Stephens Island) in the eastern Torres Strait, Queensland, Australia. In the Western Torres Strait language, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, it is called Mœyam or Mœyamau Ya. It is the only Papuan language on Australian territory.


Meriam was classified in the Eastern Trans-Fly family of Trans–New Guinea by Stephen Wurm, who however felt that these have retained remnants of pre-Trans–New Guinea languages; this is followed by Ethnologue (2005). In 2005 Malcolm Ross concluded that the Eastern Trans-Fly languages were not part of the Trans–New Guinea phylum, but kept the family intact with Meriam as a member. R. M. W. Dixon (2002) regards claims of a relationship between the Fly River languages and Meriam as unproven, though what he bases his claim on is not clear, as Meriam Mir has a high cognation rate with its sister languages (see below), and a certain amount of mutual intelligibility is claimed by Meriam speakers. Such Trans-Fly cognates include personal pronouns and verbal and nominal morphology. Mitchell and Piper (unpublished paper) find that Meriam Mìr has 78% cognates with its sister Trans-Fly Papuan languages, the remaining vocabulary being mainly of Australian origin.

Percentages of Australian, Papuan and Austronesian content
(2) = number of items; Mitchell and Piper, Holman et al. 40-word list
Australian22.5% (9)5% (2)
Papuan22.5% (9)62.5% (25)
Derivations/Compounds20% (8)17.5% (7)
[common to Eastern Trans-Fly 15% (6)]
Austronesian12.5% (5)2.5% (1)
More than one possible origin15% (6)17.5% (7)
Unclassifiable32.5% (13)20% (8)

Meriam Mìr and its neighbours

Meriam has around 40 percent of its vocabulary in common with its unrelated Western Torres Strait neighbour Kala Lagaw Ya, which is an Australian language (Mitchell and Piper, unpublished research notes, based on Mitchell 1995). The shared words cover a wide range of semantic domains (body parts, kin, human classification, language, mythology, ceremony, artefacts, topography, natural elements, marine life, qualities, locations, directions and time), though not verbs. This latter strengthens arguments about genetic diversity, however there is still much to suggest mutual influence. The common vocabulary range from "exact cognates" to words that appear related, but have undergone semantic changes, as in the following from a list of 250 items (Mitchell 1995):

exact: 24.8% (62) : e.g. WCL dhangal(a), MM deger "dugong", WCL bal, MM bar "across/crooked", WCL gamu, MM gem "body", WCL riidh(a), MM lid "bone, leaf rib", WCL saamu, MM sam "cassowary", WCL thawal(a), MM tawer "coast", WCL gabu, MM geb "cold(ness)", WCL ùmai, MM omái "dog", WCL ngœnakap(u), MM nerkep "heart", WCL naigay(i), MM naiger "north/north-east"

partial: 10% (26) : e.g. WCL dhang(a), KLY dhaanga "tooth, edge", MM deg "edge, side", WCL wati "bad, evil", MM wìt "wrong doing", WCL mùdh(a) "shelter, backyard, shaded place, haven", MM mùd "shade", WCL gœiga "sun, day", MM gerger "day", WCL wathai "dry", MM watwet "dry", WCL wœibadh(a) "roe" (badh(a) "food bed"), MM wer "egg", WCL Baba, Baab(a) "Dad, Daddy", MM bab "father" WCL [wœra]kapu "one of some" (wara "one of a group, other"), MM kepkep "few", WCL karùm(a) "goanna, clumsiness, mistake", MM karom "black skink, clumsiness, mistake"', WCL ngœna "breath, intellect, memory", MM ner "breath", WCL kaimi "companionship, companion, co-", kaimel, KKY kalmel "together, along with", MM kem "company; associative (case)"

semantic differentiation: 13.7% (34) : e.g. WCL thapi "thin piece of bark or wood, page", MM tep "fruit skin", WCL kapu "prong", MM kep "arrow", WCl maitha "belly", MM mait "chest", WCL susu "white sap", MM susu "spray, foam", sus "white sap", WCL uum(a) "death", awum(a) "mourning", MM eumi (singular), baum (plural) (stem -um) "die", WCL buudh(a) "white paint" (for mourning), MM bud "mourning", WCL aap(a) "garden bed", apa- "down, below, under", MM sep "earth, ground; down, below, under", WCL KKY,KulY kom(a) "heat, burn", kœman(a) "steam", KLY, MY-KY kœman(a) "heat, burn, steam", MM kemur "smoke" (ur "fire"), WCL bibir(i), KLY biber(e) "strength, power", MM beber "weight", beberbeber "heavy, weighty"

There are also various items of semantic relationship, but not formal relationship, such as WCL puuy(i), MM lu "plant, tree; magic".

Mitchell and Piper (unpublished research notes) used the Holman et al. 40-word list below, which shows 9 (22.5%) exact items, 5 (12.5%) partial, and 3 (7.5%) semantically related words. However, this list was designed for use with Euro-Asian languages, and is perhaps somewhat inappropriate; for example, no horned animals exist, neither language has a verb ‘come’, and Holman et al. assume one form for 'we'; WCL has 4, and MM has 2.

PCD Proto Central-District Papuan Austronesian, PETrf Proto East Trans Fly; POC Proto Oceanic Austronesian; PP Proto Paman; PSEPap Proto South-East Papuan Austronesian [neighbouring languages noted : Papuan : Gizrra, Bine/Kunini, Wipi (Eastern Trans Fly Family), Kiwai (Trans-New Guinea Phylum), Idi, Agöb (Pahoturi family); Australian : Gudang, and the Northern Cape York Language, dialects : Wudhadhi, Atampaya, Angkamuthi, Yadhaykenu]

louse :
MM nem, Wipi ngɨœm, Bine ngaamo; PETrF *ŋamͻ, cf. Kiwai nimo
WCL aari (unknown origin)

two :
MM neis, Gizrra nis, Bine neneni, Wipi nœmog (cf. MM mog "piece"); PETrF *ni-[isV], cf. Kiwai netewa
WCL ùka-, ùkasar(a) "two only" (-sar(a) small number), PP *gujarra

water (1) :
MM gur "salt water", Gizrra -gul- "wash", PETrF *gulV "water"
WCL wœr~wur~uur~wœir "water", PSEPap *wair "water"

water (2) (fresh; drink, juice) :
MM ni, Wipi ni, niya, Gizrra naiy, nai, nae, Bine niye, niiye, PETrF *niya/*nayi, cf. Idi ni
WCL ngùki, PP *ŋugu/*ŋugi

ear :
MM laip, girip (no common ETrF form)
WCL kaura, PP *gaalu; WCL kurusai- (in compounds), PETrF *kulu/*kuru hear

death :
MM eud, cf. Bine (w)uje, Wipi wuje, PETrF *wudi "die"; MM eumi Sg, baum PL "die"
WCL uum(a) "death" (unknown origin)

I :
MM ka, Bine cane, Wipi kon, PETrF *ka(nV)
WCL ngai PP *ŋayi

liver :
MM o, 'Wipi wurom, Bine owolaamo, PETrF *ͻwͻ (+*raamͻ "leaf")
WCL siib(a), PP *jiba, cf. Kiwai sibo "heart"

eye :
MM ponì (unknown origin), erkep, Wipi yœrkœp, ilkœp, Bine ireku, ETrF *iri "see", *kapu "body part" (cf. WCL -kap(u) "body part")
WCL pùrka (unknown origin), daan(a) (also "pool", "life", "kernel", "shell-food"), PSEPap *dano "lake, pool"

hand :
MM tag, Gizrra tang, PETrF *taaŋV "hand, arm"; cf- PCD *taŋa(n) "hand, arm"
WCL geth(a) (unknown origin)

hear ;
MM asor- (unknown origin)
WCL karnge[mi]- (unknown origin), cf. ear, PSEPap *roŋor

tree (also "plant", "wood", "magic") :
MM lu(g); cf. Wipi wul, Gizrra nugup, Bine uli; Idi lu, PETrF *wuli, *[ln]ugu[] "tree", PP *lugu "tree", "wood"
WCL puuy(i), OKY puuRi, PCD *pu[l]i magic

fish :
MM lar (unknown origin; no common ETrF form)
WCL waapi (unknown origin)

name :
MM nei, Wipi ni, niœ, nyœ, Bine ngi
WCL nel, Saibai variant nei, cf. Wudhadhi anyel, Atampaya angyal, Angkamuthi anyii; PETrF *nyilya

stone :
MM bakìr (unknown origin), cf. Wipi gli(muz), kula, Bine kula
WCL kùla, PP *gul(g)an, PETrF *kula

tooth :
MM tìrìg (derived, cf. ereg "eat"), Wipi orkak (derived, or- "eat", kak "bone")
WCL dhang(a) (also "edge"), cf. MM deg "edge, side", Wipi dœng "thorn"; PP *jaaŋa, PETrF *daŋa "tooth, edge, etc."

breast :
MM nano, cf. Wipi ngom, ngum, ngiam, Bine ngaamo, Idi ngœm "mother, breast", PETrF *ŋaamͻ, PP *ŋam[u/a]ŋ "breast, mother" (cf. WCL/MM ama "mum, mummy, mother, aunty")
WCL susu (also "white sap"; "loaf"), susuikai "milk" (ikai "juice, sap"), cf. MM sus "white sap", "foam", MM nanosus "milk"; PP *juju, PETrF *susu, PSEPap *susu "breast, milk"

path :
MM gab, Bine gaabo; cf. Kiwai gabo
WCL yabu, KLY yaabu; PETrF *gaabͻ, POC *tyapu

you :
MM ma, PETrF *ma(nV)
WCL KLY/KulY/KY ni, KKY/OKY ngi, PP *ŋin/*nin

fire :
MM ur, Wipi uur, '[wul(a)]para, Bine ulikobo, ulicobo (c = glottal stop), uli, Kunini muye-uliobo, PETrF *uur[], *kͻbͻ, *pVrV "fire", *wuli "tree, wood"
WCL mui (Boigu,KY also mœi) (unknown origin)

tongue :
MM werut, Wipi welat, Bine wätä, Gizrra ulit, PETrF *wilͻtV
WCL nœi (unknown origin)

skin :
MM gegur
WCL gœngáw(u), KLY gœngaawu, KulY gœngáy(u), PP *Cagurr

night :
MM ki, Bine kiye, ciye (c = glottal stop), PETrF *kiya
WCL kubil (derived, kùbi "charcoal")

leaf :
MM (lu)lam (lu "plant"), Bine laamo, Wipi (wulœ)rom (wulœ "tree"), PETrF *laamͻ "leaf", cf. Urradhi yampa "lungs, leaf"
WCL niis(a) (unknown origin)

blood :
MM mam (unknown origin)
WCL kùlka (unknown origin)

horn :

person :
MM le, Bine rooriye "man", Wipi rɨga "man", leo "husband"; Idi la "man", PETrF *[rl]igͻ
WCL mabaig(a) (derived, lit. "walker", maab(a) "walk", -ig(a) personal nominaliser)

knee (1) :
MM kolo
WCL kulu, cf. kudu "elbow", kœru "corner"; PETrF *kͻlͻ "knee, elbow, corner", cf. PSEPap *turu "knee, elbow", PP *yurru "elbow"

knee (2) :
MM kokni (derived : kok "leg joint+(unknown origin)"), Bine koko(rare/kaako), Wipi kumop, kumkak, (ror) "knee" (rare, kaako, kak, ror "bone", mop "end, head")
WCL kokan(i) "kneecap" (derived : kuku "leg joint+(unknown origin)"), cf. MM wageb "kneecap"; PETrF *kͻkͻ "leg joint", cf. Gudang iingku, Urradhi wungku "knee"

one/other :
MM nerut "another", PETrF *ni+[rl]ͻtV; wader "some, others" (unknown origin); WCL wara, war "one of group, other" (unknown origin), dhurai "some, others"; MM netat, Wipi yepa, Bine yepä, neetera, Gizrra darrpan, dórpan "one, one of group" (derived : darrü "other" + -pan),
WCL wœrapùn, ùrapùn, ùrpùn (older waraponi) "one only" (derived : wara "one of group, other" + -pùn[i]), Gudang ipiyaman[h]a, Yadhaykenu/Angkamuthi ipima, Atampaya nhipima (proto form *nipiyamana); PP *nyupun, PETrF *[yi/dVr]pͻnV, *ni+ta[tr]V "one"

nose :
MM pit "nose, beak, point (of land)"
WCL piti "nose"; unknown origin (Australian?)

full :
MM (e)osmer (lit. "protrude, show self" : unknown origin)
WCL (1) KKY gùdapœlam(a) (derived : gùda-Ø+pala-ma "opening-SpecLOC+cause-VerbForm"), PCD *ŋudu "mouth", PP *pa-l "cause"
WCL (2) KLY/KulY/MY-KY pùsakar(a), cf. sakar "space"

come (1)  :
MM ta-, te-, ti-, t- (verb prefix), PETrF *ta "come"
WCL ngapa TR/INTR adverb, cf. nga- 1st person, pa- telic, -pa dative
WCL bœi INTR adverb, cf. pœipai, KKY bœi "nearside"

come (2) (imperative) :
MM taba (ta-ba "come-INTR"), maiem (mai-em (unknown origin)-ALL), cf. PSEPap *mai "come"
WCL aye, KKY aya imperative adverb, cf. Agöb yau, Wipi ayo (Malay or similar loan : ayo, ayu)

star :
MM wer "star", Bine wale, gugie, griga (see sun, day)
WCL Wœœy(i) "Venus", thithúy(i), KLY thithuuyi, OKY thithúRi
PETrF *wa[rl]i "star", PSEPap *waRi, PCD *wari "sun", PSEPap*pituqon, PCD *pitui, *pitiu, *pitiriu "star"

hill :
MM paser, Wipi podo, Kiwai podo
WCL paad(a) (also "top", "height")
PP *baanda "top", PETrF *pͻntͻ[r], PSEPap *pantar "hill, mountain"

bone, leaf rib :
MM lid, cf. Bine raare, Wipi ror "bone"
WCL riidh(a); PETrF *riida/*raadi "bone, leaf rib"

we (1) :
MM mi, mer- inclusive, PETrF *mi(ni)
WCL ngœba dual inclusive, PP *ŋanapula dual exclusive
WCL ngalpa plural inclusive, PP *ŋali

we (2) :
MM ki, ker- exclusive, PETrF *ki(ni)
WCL ngalbai, KKY ngalbe, archaic KulY ngœibai dual exclusive
WCL ngœi, ngœlmù-, KKY/MY-KY ngœimù-, OKY ngœRi(mù-) plural exclusive

drink (verb) :
MM iri, Wipi yonai, yonae, yonar, wa ananda (3MPr), Bine ene-, ETrF *ini/ani/ina
WCL wani- (unknown origin; derived? < wanai- "put" active stem (unknown origin))

see, find :
MM dasmer (unknown origin), erdar (stem er-), Wipi yeri-, yiry-; Bine ire (verbal noun), PETrF *ira
WCL iima-, PP *kiima "see"

new :
MM kerkar, Bine kirece (c = glottal stop)
WCL kayin(a); PETrF *kari[kari]/*kira[kira]

dog :
MM omai, Wipi umai, umae, ume, Gizrra ume
WCL ùmái, PETrF *omái

sun, day :
(1) MM gerger "day, daylight", Bine gugie, griga "star"; PP *gari
(2) MM lìm "sun", Wipi lom(kongga) , lemkogal (konga, kogal "woman"), PETrF *limͻ/*lͻmi
WCL gœiga, gœygœyi-, gœigi-, OKY gœRigaR(i) PP *gari

Recent loans

The main source of loan words to the language since the mid 1800s has been Yumplatòk (Torres Strait Creole) and English. There are also some minor loans from Lifu/Drehu, Polynesian (in particular Samoan and to a lesser extent Rotuman), Indonesian, Philippine, Japanese, and European origin. Many such outsiders were recruited – or in some rare cases black-birded – in the 19th century for pearl diving and other marine work, while others (from Lifu and Samoa) were missionaries with the British and Foreign Bible Society.


The language is currently dialectless. However, there was once a separate dialect spoken on Erub and Ugar islands, characterised in part by the retention of phonemic distinctions between 'ng', 'g', 'n' and 'r' where these have fallen together in two ways in Meriam Mir. The sound 'ng' in Modern Meriam has become 'n' at the beginning of words and 'g' within words; 'n' in many cases has become 'r' within words. Examples are remembered in one important Erub folktale (Lawrie 1970:283–284):

Erub : Aka nade ki andinane? Ge au?

Mer  : Aka nade ki ardirare? Ge au?

Where will we put it? There?

Erub : Mena inggandane/ingandane! Keniba uzen unken a keniba imut unken.

Mer  : Mena igardare! Keriba uzer urker a keriba imut urker.

Keep carrying it! Our paddles and our poling poles are still strong.

The earliest records (early 19th century) of Meriam Mìr included the phrase debelang good taste/nice, in present-day Meriam Mìr debe lag. This shows that the 'ng' > 'n'/'g' change is of fairly recent date; lang, now lag, is identical to the Gizrra lang of the same meaning.



Front Back
High i i u u
Retracted High ɪ ieì ʊ uù
Mid e e o o
Low a, ʌ a ɔ oò

The sounds represented by [a] and [ʌ] are allophonic. [ʌ] appears mainly in syllables before the stress accent and optionally in open unstressed syllables otherwise. [a] appears in stressed syllables and in unstressed closed syllables.

For some speakers the following pairs exhibit variation, and perhaps have unidentified allophonic variation: [e] and [ɪ] (mainly Erub/Ulag), [ɪ] and [i] (mainly Mer), [u] and [ʊ], [ʊ] and [o], and [o] and [ɔ]. Older speakers appear to keep the vowels more distinct.


Bilabial Dental Alveolar Alveo-Palatal Velar
Stop Voiceless p t k
Voiced b d ɡ
Nasal m n
Fricative Voiceless s
Voiced z
Lateral l
Trill/Tap r
Semivowel w y


Stress is contrastive in Meriam and can occur on the first or second syllable. Examples include tábo 'snake', tabó 'neck.

Sign language

The Torres Strait Islanders have signed forms of their languages,[4] though it is not clear from records that they are particularly well-developed compared to other Australian Aboriginal sign languages.[5]

See also


  1. "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". ABS. Retrieved 2017-10-30.
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Meriam". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Meriam at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. Haddon, Alfred C. (1907). The gesture language of the Eastern Islanders, in "Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits." Cambridge, England: The University Press, v.3.
  5. Kendon, A. (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, Semiotic and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Passi, Gamalai Ken; Piper, Nick (1994). "Meryam Mir". In Nick Thieberger; William McGregor. Macquarie Aboriginal Words. Macquarie Library. pp. 320–351. 
  • Piper, N. (1989). A sketch grammar of Meryam Mer. MA thesis. Australian National University. 
  • Ross, Malcolm (2005). "Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages". In Andrew Pawley; Robert Attenborough; Robin Hide; Jack Golson. Papuan pasts: cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 15–66. 
  • Lawrie, Margaret (1970). Myths and Legends of Torres Strait. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press. 
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