Among our crosswords and other puzzles, we feature linguistic challenges from around the world from puzzle aficionado and writer Alex Bellos. A PDF of the puzzle, as well as the solution, can be downloaded below.

The Aboriginal Australians of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpenteria are known internationally for their dancing, their art—and their languages.

The island off the north coast of the country has a population of about 1,200, made up mostly of the Lardil people, the original inhabitants, and the Kaidildt people, who were relocated there in the 1940s. Even though the island is poor, geographically isolated, and remote—more than 500 miles of Outback from Darwin and 1,400 miles from Sydney—the islanders’ culture is famous worldwide.

Lardil dancers performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and a troupe regularly tours Europe and America. Mornington Island painters are represented in galleries in every Australian state capital, including the work of the late Sally Gabori, who exhibited in Europe. And the Lardil language remains one of the most studied Aboriginal languages, even though its last fluent speaker died almost two decades ago.

“There are many incredible things in Lardil,” says Erich Round, a linguist at the University of Surrey in England, who studies Lardil and Kayardilt, the language of the Kaidildt.

One reason Lardil remains an active area of linguistic research is because celebrated American linguist Ken Hale visited Mornington Island in the 1960s, during which time he learned Lardil and made almost 1,000 pages of notes. Later, as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he related Lardil to influential theories of language that were emerging there.

The language has a number of fascinating features. Lardil people, like many Aboriginal peoples, have strict rules about family relationships, and these rules are woven into the grammar of the language (as seen in the challenging puzzle below). Another unusual feature is that Lardil is the only language outside Africa that uses the “click” sound as part of its phonology. (To be more accurate, the click sound only appears in words in Damin, a ceremonial language of about 200 words that is spoken only by Lardil men.)

“Boys would learn the ceremonial language when going through the ceremony from boyhood to manhood. It is very, very interesting because it has all the hallmarks of an invented language,” says Round. “It has an interesting system of data compression where a whole lot of words get crushed down.”

Mornington Island artist John Williams explains the world creation story known as Dreamtime to his granddaughter.
Mornington Island artist John Williams explains the world creation story known as Dreamtime to his granddaughter. Courtesy Mornington Island Art (MIART)

According to the 2021 Australian Census, there are about 300 speakers of Lardil on Mornington Island, though Round says all of them are native English speakers, and speak Lardil to various degrees as a second language. “I met the last fluent speaker of classical Lardil in 2005, and he passed away later that year,” he says.

About 160 Aboriginal languages are still spoken in Australia, and most are endangered. In Mornington Island, the success of Lardil artists and dancers is increasing pride in the Lardil language, too. “Lardil is spoken in everyday conversations by a lot of people, but it’s mainly the older folk who speak Lardil regularly,” says John Armstrong, arts centre manager at the Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation on Mornington Island. “We work with the local school on [Lardil] language lessons that include Kaidildt as well.”

He adds that the island has about 35 active artists, and that the sale of Aboriginal art is the largest contributor to the local economy. “The Kaidildt works are very colourful and abstract, whereas the Lardil works are more muted colours of ochres, browns, and blacks.” As well as exhibiting through galleries in Australian cities, islanders sell their work through their own online gallery.

Stumped? Download the solution, with all the logical steps to get there!