The Garrwa language is one of only two languages of the Garrwan family, the other being Waanyi. Garrwa people typically identify two dialects – a ‘Western’ or ‘light’ Garrwa and an ‘Eastern’ or ‘heavy’ Garrwa, also called Kunindirri Garrwa. The dialects are mutually intelligible. While Waanyi and Garrwa share many grammatical features, they are not mutually intelligible.
There is some debate about whether Garrwan is a Pama-Nyungan subgroup or a non-Pama-Nyungan family. Typologically it is dependent marking and suffixing, marking clause-level inflections in a second position clitic cluster. There is little evidence of the kinds of nominal classification and complex predicate constructions that are common among other languages of this region.
Traditional Garrwa country extends east and south from the Northern Territory town of Borroloola to just over the Queensland border.
Today most Garrwa people live in and around the town of Borroloola, the community of Robinson River (150kms southeast of Borroloola) and the Queensland ex-Mission community of Doomadgee.
Garrwa people are freshwater people, although many Garrwa people have long standing close connections with the saltwater Yanyuwa people and country along the southern coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Garrwa people also interacted extensively with Tangkic peoples to the east (eg. Ganggalida) and Gudandji/Wambaya people to the south in the Barkly Tableland.
Garrwa people were mostly co-opted to work on cattle stations set up from the 1880s on their own country and were able to maintain their language across generations until well into the 20th Century. Today however most Garrwa people speak a local variety of Kriol as the language of daily life. Garrwa conversations among adults are usually a mixture of Kriol, Garrwa and English.