palawa kani
Created byTasmanian Aboriginal Centre
DateFrom 1992[1]
EthnicityAboriginal Tasmanians
Language revival
  • palawa kani
Latin alphabet[2]
SourcesEastern Tasmanian, Northeastern Tasmanian languages and Flinders island lingua franca[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3none; see codes for constructed languages
ELPPalawa Kani
IETFart-x-palawa (unofficial)[4]

Palawa kani is a constructed language[1] created by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre[3] as a composite Tasmanian language, based on reconstructed vocabulary from the limited accounts of the various languages once spoken by the Aboriginal people living on the island now known as Tasmania or lutruwita.[5][6]

The centre wishes to restrict the availability of the language until it is established in the Aboriginal Tasmanian community[7] and claims copyright. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) outlines that indigenous people should have the right to control their own cultural knowledge, including languages.[8] However, languages cannot get copyright under Australian or international law.[7] In practice, the centre only allows unrestricted outside access to place names. Dictionaries and other copyrightable resources for learning the language are only provided to the Aboriginal community.[9]


Map showing the approximate ethnic divisions in pre-European Tasmania.

The Tasmanian languages were decimated after the British colonisation of Tasmania and the Black War. The last native speaker of any of the languages, Fanny Cochrane Smith, died in 1905.[10]

In 1972, Robert M. W. Dixon and Terry Crowley investigated reconstructing the Tasmanian languages from existing records, in a project funded by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. This included interviewing two granddaughters of Fanny Cochrane Smith, who provided "five words, one sentence, and a short song". They were able to find "virtually no data on the grammar and no running texts" and stated "it is impossible to say very much of linguistic interest about the Tasmanian languages", and they did not proceed with the project.[11]

In the late twentieth century, as part of community efforts to retrieve as much of the original Tasmanian culture as possible, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre attempted to reconstruct a language for the indigenous community. Due to the scarcity of records, palawa kani was constructed as a composite of several of the estimated dozen original Tasmanian languages.[3]


The two primary sources of lexical and linguistic material are Brian Plomley's 1976 word lists and Crowley and Dixon's 1981 chapter on Tasmanian. These are supplemented by archival research. The source languages are those of the Northeastern Tasmanian and Eastern Tasmanian language families, as these are ancestral to the modern palawa population as well as being the best attested Tasmanian languages. However, most place names are reconstructed using languages spoken around the locality as sources. Usually a single Tasmanian word is chosen for an English concept, but occasional duplicates occur, such as palawa and pakana, which come from different languages and both mean (Tasmanian) person.[1]

The words need to be reconstructed from the English pronunciation spellings that they were recorded in. For example, in 1830 the local name for Hobart was recorded as and niberlooner. Allowing for the distortions that occurred when linguistically naive Europeans tried recording Tasmanian words, the centre reconstructs the name as nipaluna.[6]

State of the language

Palawa kani was developed in the 1990s by the language program of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe.[6] The centre wishes to maintain community ownership of the language until the community is familiar and competent with it.[7]

The language project is entirely community-based and the language is not taught in state schools but at various after-school events, organised camps and trips. There is obvious enthusiasm for the language, especially among younger people, and an increasing number of people are able to use the language to some extent, some to great fluency,[12] though the centre requests that non-Aboriginals wanting to use the language first make a formal application to the centre.[9] The centre rejects the classification of a "constructed language" for palawa kani. It has, in 2012, unsuccessfully filed a request to remove the Wikipedia articles on this language.[7]

The animated television series Little J & Big Cuz was the first television show to feature an episode entirely in palawa kani, which was broadcast on the NITV network in 2017.[13] In 2018, The Nightingale became the first major film to feature palawa kani, with consultation from aboriginal Tasmanian leaders.[14] Palawa kani is also used on a number of signs in Protected areas of Tasmania, for example kunanyi has been accepted as an official name for Mount Wellington,[15][16] and what was formerly known as Asbestos Range National Park is now known as Narawntapu National Park.[17]

Official place names

Main article: Tasmania § Toponymy

Palawa kani has been formally legitimated through the Tasmanian governmental Aboriginal and Dual Naming Policy of 2013, which "allows for an Aboriginal and an introduced name to be used together as the official name and for new landmarks to be named according to their Aboriginal heritage".[1] These include kanamaluka / Tamar River and kunanyi / Mount Wellington.[18]

A number of other palawa kani place names exist, but are not in official use.[19] Some are modern descriptive names rather than historically attested.[20]


In the following table, the IPA is first listed. The orthography is listed in italics if it differs from the IPA.

The vowels are a, i, u and the diphthongs /ei/ (ay) and /oi/ (uy).

Labial Coronal Velar
plain dental plain palatalized palatalized plain
Stop p (th) t (tj) k
Nasal m n (ny) ŋ (ng)
Sonorant central w r/ɹ (rr/r) j (y)
lateral l (ly)

Consonant clusters include pr, tr and kr.

Like most mainland languages, Tasmanian languages lacked sibilants (which is apparent in the aboriginal pronunciation of English words like sugar, where the 's' was replaced with a t in pidgin English), and this is reflected in palawa kani.

The pronunciation of palawa kani may reflect those words preserved in the now English-speaking palawa community, but does not reflect how the original Tasmanian words were likely to have been pronounced. Taylor (2006) states that "the persons who contributed to the project would appear to have uncritically accepted phonological features of the Australian Mainland languages as a guide to palawa phonology without undertaking an adequate comparative analysis of the orthographies used by the European recorders", and gives three examples:[21]


The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has decided that palawa kani should only be written in lowercase letters.[22] Initial capital letters may be used for names of people and "family/Ancestral collectives".[23]


Nouns do not have number, and verbs do not indicate person or tense, e.g. waranta takara milaythina nara takara 'we walk where (place) they walked'.

In the early stages of the palawa kani project, it was assumed that virtually no grammatical information had been preserved from the original Tasmanian languages, and that palawa kani would have to draw heavily on grammatical features of English. Since then, more thorough analysis by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre of words and sentences collected in wordlists of the Tasmanian languages have provided evidence of word orders differing from English, loanwords, adaptation of words to talk about introduced concepts, and suffixes. These grammatical and vocabulary features have been incorporated into palawa kani.[5]

The only running text recorded for the original Tasmanian languages is a sermon preached by George Robinson on Bruny Island in 1829, after being on the island for only eight weeks. His "Tasmanian" was actually English replaced word-for-word with Tasmanian words that had been stripped of their grammar, much as occurs in a contact pidgin. Robinson is one of the principal primary sources for palawa kani.[24]


There are two sets of pronouns,[19]

sg pl
1 mina waranta
2 nina nina-mapali
3 nara nara-mapali

The second- and third-person plural pronouns are formed by adding mapali ("many") to the respective singular pronouns; no second- or third-person plural pronouns are attested in the known documentation of the original Tasmanian languages.

sg pl
1 mana mana
2 nanya
3 nika

mapali 'many' may be used to distinguish mana 'my' from mana-mapali 'our, your'.

nika also means 'this', as in milaythina nika 'their lands / this land'.


The numerals are,[19]

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
pama paya luwa wulya mara nana tura pula tali kati

These are conjoined for pamakati 11, payakati 12, etc.

For the decades, -ka is added to the digit, for payaka 20, luwaka 30, etc. For the hundreds and thousands, -ki and -ku are added, for pamaki 100, maraki 500, pamaku 1000, taliku 9000, etc.

Sample text

This section is missing information about interlinear gloss, if at all possible. Please expand the section to include this information. Further details may exist on the talk page. (October 2021)

This sample is a eulogy by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Language Program first used at the 2004 anniversary of the Risdon Cove massacre of 1804.[25]

ya pulingina milaythina mana-mapali-tu Greetings to all of you here on our land
mumirimina laykara milaythina mulaka tara It was here that the Mumirima people[a] hunted kangaroo all over their lands
raytji mulaka mumirimina It was here that the white men[b] hunted the Mumirimina
mumirimina-mapali krakapaka laykara Many Mumirimina died as they ran
krakapaka milaythina nika-ta Died here on their lands
waranta takara milaythina nara takara We walk where they once walked
waranta putiya nayri And their absence saddens us
nara laymi krakapaka waranta-tu manta waranta tunapri nara. But they will never be dead for us as long as we remember them.

Other versions are available,[26] including one with a sound recording.[27]

See also


  1. ^ People from country around Pittwater and Risdon.[1]
  2. ^ raytji.[1]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g Berk, Christopher D. (2017). "Palawa Kani and the Value of Language in Aboriginal Tasmania". Oceania. 87 (1): 2–20. doi:10.1002/ocea.5148.
  2. ^ "Ya pulingina. Bringing these words to life is an extension of our identity". The Guardian. 2 September 2016.
  3. ^ a b c T16 palawa kani at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. ^ "ConLang Code Registry". Retrieved 27 September 2022.
  5. ^ a b "palawa kani language program". Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.
  6. ^ a b c Harman, Kristyn. "Explainer: how Tasmania's Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani". The Conversation.
  7. ^ a b c d Robertson, Adi (13 August 2014). "Can you own a language?". The Verge. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  8. ^ Janke, Terri (2021). True Tracks. Sydney: UNSW Press. p. 32. ISBN 9781742236810.
  9. ^ a b "Policy and Protocol for Use of palawa kani Aboriginal Language, 2019" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 November 2016. Retrieved 24 October 2021.
  10. ^ "language". 6 June 2013. Archived from the original on 6 June 2013. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  11. ^ Dixon, R. M. W. (1 September 1976). "Letters to the Editor: Tasmanian language". The Canberra Times.
  12. ^ "National Museum of Australia - palawa kani – teaching Tasmanian Aboriginal languages". Archived from the original on 5 June 2019.
  13. ^ Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (30 May 2017). "Little J and Big Cuz 'Hopalong' episode in Palawa kani". Archived from the original on 12 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  14. ^ Singleton, Julian (8 August 2019). "Interview: Baykali Ganambarr on The Nightingale". Cinapse. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  15. ^ "Tasmanian dual naming policy announced atop Kunanyi". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 13 March 2013. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
  16. ^ "kunanyi / Mount Wellington". Hobart City Council. Retrieved 9 June 2015.
  17. ^ "Aboriginal and Dual Names of places in lutruwita (Tasmania)". Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  18. ^ "Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre – Official Aboriginal and Dual Names of places".
  19. ^ a b c "Breathing new life into Indigenous language". ABC Hobart. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
  20. ^ "palawa kani names for two waterfalls".
  21. ^ John Albert Taylor (2006), The Palawa (Tasmanian Aboriginal) Languages: A Preliminary Discussion. Master's thesis, University of Tasmania March 2006
  22. ^ Harman, Kristyn. "Explainer: how Tasmania's Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani". The Conversation. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  23. ^ "our language". Retrieved 29 January 2023.
  24. ^ Crowley, Terry (2011). "Early Language Contact in Tasmania". In Wurm; Mühlhäusler; Tryon (eds.). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas.
  25. ^ Sculthorpe, Heather. "The Invasion of Northern Territory Aboriginal Communities and its Implications for Tasmania". United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights. OHCHR. Retrieved 9 June 2019.
  26. ^ Lehman, Greg (2008). "Two Thousand Generations of Place-making". In Valclay, Frank (ed.). Making Sense of Place. Canberra: National Museum of Australia.
  27. ^ "3rd May 1804 waranta tangara takariliya mumirimina, lungkana risdon cove-ta/We mourn our Mumirimina families, murdered at Risdon Cove on 3rd May 1804". Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.