A Selected Bibliography of the Traditional Languages of Torres Strait

By Shnukal, Anna | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

A Selected Bibliography of the Traditional Languages of Torres Strait


Shnukal, Anna, Australian Aboriginal Studies


In preparation for a paper on Sidney Herbert Ray (1858-1939), the linguist with the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, I had occasion to view Ray's archive, deposited in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Library of the University of London. The archive was microfilmed for the National Library of Australia as part of the Joint Copying Project and copies made available to the various state libraries. One of the purposes of this bibliography is to bring Ray's archive, a rich resource for Pacific linguists and ethnographers, to the attention of scholars who may be unaware of it.

Ray began his studies in `Oceanic' languages in 1887 and became a world authority on the languages of this region. He largely authored the third report of the Cambridge expedition, entitled `Linguistics' (Ray 1907), which, despite analytical flaws, remains a remarkable work of scholarship. It is still the most comprehensive and arguably the most influential work on the traditional Torres Strait languages and includes contributions from other expedition members: Seligmann and Wilkin on the gesture language of the western Islanders (pp 255-60); Haddon on the gesture language of the eastern Islanders (pp 261-62); Seligmann and Haddon on fire signals (pp 263); and Seligmann and George Pimm (or Pym), a pearl-sheller living at Cape Grenville, on Otati (now Wuthathi), an eastern Cape York language (pp 277-80). A quarter of the volume is devoted to the languages of British New Guinea.

Over many years, Ray collected a vast archive of monographs, manuscripts, wordlists and correspondence on hundreds of languages. Nor was he the narrow academic specialist. His archive includes works on the ethnography, folklore, history, religion, psychology and literature of the world's peoples, on the histories of missions, voyages, exploration, geography and biography.

According to Ray, the first European record of a Torres Strait language was made in 1822 (of the eastern language) but did not survive.(1) The earliest published accounts and brief wordlists of the traditional Torres Strait languages appeared as appendices in ships' logs and diaries of British mariners, who visited the strait from the 1820s. They and the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries, who established their Papuan Mission in Torres Strait in 1871, observed that, despite some overlap in vocabulary, the Islanders spoke two separate languages, which corresponded to the east-west ethnological division in the strait. The LMS teachers and missionaries compiled wordlists in both languages(2) and published versions of the Gospels; the Church of England, which accepted spiritual authority over the Islanders in 1915, continued the tradition, adding its own hymns and liturgy.

When Ray joined the expedition, he saw his major tasks as establishing whether a genetic relationship existed between the two Torres Strait languages, the nature of the relationship between them and the languages of their northern and southern mainland neighbours, and whether the Torres Strait languages belonged to the Papuan, Austronesian or Australian language families. A fascinating exercise in itself, it could also be expected to shed light on the relations among the peoples of the region. As a result of his researches, he established that the easterners spoke a Papuan language (today called Meriam Mir) and the westerners, an Australian language (now called Kala Lagaw Ya on Mabuiag and Badu and Kalaw Kawaw Ya on Saibai, Boigu and Dauan).

Nineteenth century wordlists, descriptions and analyses (Ray's archive, SOAS)

Ray's SOAS archive contains additional nineteenth century published and unpublished wordlists, hymns, gospels and parables in Torres Strait, New Guinea and Australian mainland languages.

Brierly, O.W. 1849 Journal on H.M.S. Rattlesnake, 17 Oct - 6 Nov 1849, Evans Bay, Cape York, unpublished ms.

Chalmers, J.

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