Wik Mungkan - Orientation

Identification. In early ethnographies of the area, "Wik Mungkan" has been used both for the particular language and for the "tribe" nominally speaking it. In fact, dialect names throughout this region are commonly prefixed by a term meaning "language" (i.e., "Wik-") together with a lexical item that typifies the particular dialect. Thus, "Wik Mungkan" refers to "those who say mungkan to mean 'eating.'"

Location. The various Wik-speaking peoples occupied an extensive zone on western Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland between roughly 13 and 14° S along the rivers of the area, in the sclerophyll forests between them, and in the coastal floodplains bounding the Gulf of Carpentaria to the west. Particularly on the coast, the region was one of great ecological diversity and marked seasonal variations, with an annual intense monsoon period over two or three months and an extended dry season.

Demography. Population estimates for the region before European settlement are difficult to make with any degree of accuracy. There could have been some 2,000 Wik in the less ecologically diverse inland sclerophyll-forest zone, and at least as many could have lived in the much richer coastal zone. There was rapid depopulation beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century from such factors as measles and influenza epidemics, punitive expeditions by cattlemen, and forced labor on pearling and fishing vessels. Today, there would be some 1,200 or so Wik people in the settlements of the region, with a high birth rate in recent years.

Linguistic Affiliation. There were a great variety of dialects referred to by their speakers as "Wik Mungkan." With dialect exogamy being the dominant pattern, particularly in the coastal zone, people were commonly multilingual. For complex social and political reasons, in the contemporary settlements Wik Mungkan and Aboriginal English have become the lingua francas for most people and there are no extant speakers for many of the original dialects.

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