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Traditional and Contemporary Torres Strait Languages and Dialects

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Jussi Wikstrom.

The Torres Strait is situated in between the northern most part of mainland Australia, Cape York Peninsula, and south of New Guinea. There are 274 islands in the Torres Strait with only 17 inhabited. Torres Strait Islanders are one of two Indigenous peoples in Australia, alongside of the Aboriginal Australians. The population of Islanders living in the Torres Strait is at 6000 people whilst those that reside on the mainland number up to 42, 000 people.

Culturally, Torres Strait Islanders are of a Melanesian background but the culture has seen much influence from Pacific Islander missionaries and the many other cultural groups that entered into the busy port in the 1800s (e.g. Japanese, Malay, Samoan, Chinese etc) during the Pearling Era. Due to these influences, a trade language was necessary to open up communication across cultural groups. This language, called Yumplatok, was based on pacific Pidgin and is now the most dominant language in the Torres Strait with 98% of school children speaking this language as their first language. Through past government policies that discouraged the speaking of traditional languages and the huge influence of large scale industries such as the pearling era, the number of speakers of the two traditional languages and the six traditional dialects has been largely diminished.

Today, the community is working hard in the education sector and other government sectors to create programs that aim to help Torres Strait Islanders practise, preserve and maintain traditional languages.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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