Language contact in the Torres Strait

Jessica Hunter, Claire Bowern, and Erich Round

The contact history of the languages of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait has been claimed (e.g. by Dixon 2002, Wurm 1972, and others) to have been sufficiently intense as to obscure the genetic relationship of the Western Torres Strait language. Some have argued that it is an Australian (Pama-Nyungan) language, though with considerable influence from the Papuan language Meryam Mir (the Eastern Torres Strait language). Others have claimed that the Western Torres language is, in fact, a genetically Papuan language, though with substantial Australian substrate or adstrate influence. Much has been made of phonological structures which have been viewed as unusual for Australian languages. In this paper we examine the evidence for contact claims in the region. We review aspects of the phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon of the Eastern and Western Torres Strait languages with an eye to identifying areal influence. This larger data pool shows that the case for intense contact has been vastly overstated. Beyond some phonological features and some loan words, there is no linguistic evidence for intense contact; moreover, the phonological features adduced to be evidence of contact are also found to be not specifically Papuan, but part of a wider set of features in Australian languages.

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DOI: 10.1163/187740911X558798