1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2009–10  
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This article was contributed by Kazuko Obata and Jason Lee, Australian Institue of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in recognition of 2010 being the United Nations Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.


Like every human language, Australian Indigenous languages are fully capable of expressing every human concept and emotion. Each language develops to facilitate different needs required by its speakers, their tradition and culture, and the environment they live in. For example, hunter-gatherers' languages may develop rich vocabularies to do with hunting and gathering activities, while agricultural peoples' languages may develop rich vocabularies to do with farming. A language may lack a feature found in English, but this does not mean that the language is primitive. Many Australian Indigenous languages do not have extensive numerals as they did not need them (End note 1). This, however, does not make the languages, or their speakers, primitive or inferior to English or other languages.

Unless otherwise referenced, the spelling of Indigenous language names in this article, is as in the Australian Indigenous Languages Database (AUSTLANG), October 2009.

The diversity of Australian Indigenous languages: not one language!

There are numerous Australian Indigenous languages, but when colonists first arrived, they thought one language was spoken across Australia. The word 'kangaroo' recorded by Captain Cook's party in 1770, comes from the Guugu Yimidhirr language spoken around Cooktown in Queensland. Having learned this word, colonists who arrived later, could not understand why Aboriginal people from the Sydney area did not understand this word, while Aboriginal people from the Sydney area thought this word 'kangaroo' was from the colonists own language, English! The word 'kangaroo' is used these days as a generic term in English, but in Guugu Yimidhirr, 'gangurru' refers to one particular species of kangaroo.

Dialects are different varieties of the same language, where speakers of dialects of the same language can more or less understand each other. For example, Australian English is a dialect of the English language. On the other hand, speakers of different languages, for example, English and French, cannot understand each other. According to the National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS) Report 2005, at the time the Australian continent was colonised, there were about 250 different Indigenous languages.

Most Australian Indigenous languages have several dialects. Although linguists make a distinction between languages and dialects, thus describing one variety being a dialect of a language, speakers themselves may not like to think that they speak a dialect, because they seek to mark social or political divisions that distinguish themselves from others. Some people think that the word 'dialect' has a connotation of 'sub-group'. Rather, they may say that they speak their own language. Therefore, it is difficult to quantify exactly how many Australian Indigenous languages there are, especially when many of them are no longer spoken (End note 2).

The origin of and relationships between Australian Indigenous languages

Each Australian Indigenous language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance - these languages came to the country and ancestral people of Indigenous Australians in a distant age that some call 'the Dreamtime'. It is through their own languages, that Indigenous people maintain their connection with their ancestors, land, law and culture.

When people first came to Australia over 40,000 years ago, the continent included New Guinea and Tasmania in a super-continent called Sahul. The land bridge connecting Australia to New Guinea only submerged about 8,000 years ago. Yet the languages of Australia, except for one, Meriam Mir, spoken in parts of the Torres Strait, bear little resemblance to the languages of New Guinea (End note 3).

Australian Indigenous languages can be divided into between ten to twenty-four language families (End note 4). One language family, the Pama-Nyungan language family, covers most of the mainland. The term 'Pama-Nyungan' comes from the word for 'man' that in some Cape York languages is pama and is nyunga in the southwest of Australia. Languages in this family share some grammatical features and words, and they are considered to have the same origin. Map 1 shows some of the Pama-Nyungan languages that have a word which originates in the form kami. This word originally meant ‘mother’s mother’, but in some languages the meaning has changed to other meanings such as ‘father’s father’.

As part of an ongoing project to trace the changes in kinship and social organisation in Indigenous Australia, using evidence from language, the AUSTKIN project is developing a database of kinship terms in Australian Indigenous languages. The kinship term database currently contains data from a limited number of languages. Accordingly, the map does not show all languages that have a word that originates in kami.

Most of the other language families are found in the top end of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley. These languages are grouped together as non-Pama-Nyungan languages by some linguists, as shown in map 2.

Meriam Mir is grouped together with Papuan languages from New Guinea.



Non-Pama-Nyungan Language Families

Creoles: Kriol and Yumplatok

In addition to traditional Indigenous languages, creoles are also spoken by Indigenous people of northern Australia. A creole is a language that develops from language contact, in the case of Australia, English and Australian Indigenous languages, and shows features of contact languages.

Two creole languages spoken by Indigenous Australians have appeared since colonisation. 'Kriol' is spoken in a belt across Northern Australia from the Kimberley through the Katherine region. 'Yumplatok', also called 'Torres Strait Creole' or 'Brokan', is spoken in the Torres Strait and some communities of Cape York Peninsula. These two creoles are spoken as the first language of many Indigenous Australians in northern Australia and are the most commonly spoken languages other than English, by Indigenous people. The 2006 census reported 5,769 and 3,869 speakers of Yumplatok and Kriol respectively. Linguists working on Kriol, however, estimate as many as 20,000 to 30,000 Indigenous Australians speak Kriol as their first-language. It is considered so widely spoken as a first language, that in 2007, the Bible was published in Kriol, as the Holi Baibul. This is the first complete translation of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) into an Australian Indigenous language (although a non-traditional Indigenous language).

Although most Kriol words come from English, meanings can differ greatly and the way sentences are made is very different. For example, the English word 'we' does not indicate if the listener is included. Most Aboriginal languages distinguish between 'we' meaning 'me and you, the listener' and 'we' meaning 'me and someone else, not you the listener'. Kriol makes this distinction too - the first 'we' is yunmi, the second 'we' is mindubala or melabat. (End note 5).


Early work

At the time of colonisation, none of the Indigenous languages of Australia had a writing system. Stories and knowledge were handed down orally. Australian Indigenous language study has a relatively short history - it did not start until some colonists began documenting languages. In the early days of Indigenous language study, non-Indigenous people conducted most of the work. Not all early documenters of languages were trained researchers. Colonial officers, missionaries and squatters were among the early documenters of Indigenous languages. Edward Micklethwaite Curr, a sheep farmer from Victoria, circulated a list of 125 English words among policemen, magistrates, and squatters across Australia, and asked them to provide Indigenous equivalents. The result was a four-volume work, The Australian Race (1886) that contains 300 vocabularies of Indigenous languages.

Naturally, when documentation was conducted by untrained researchers, the quality of documentation varied. There was no standard writing system for Indigenous languages, and each person was writing Indigenous languages in a different way, reflecting the documenter's language background, such as English or German. Thus, the same word may be spelled in a different way. For example, the word bagaranj 'heat, day, light, sun' of the Dhurga language from the South coast of New South Wales has been documented as bug'garań by Mathews a surveyor; Bug.green by Larmer, another surveyor; and bŭgŭrin by Hale, an anthropologist/linguist. Such inconsistencies make it difficult for the current generation of Indigenous people or researchers to work out how the word used to be pronounced, if no sound recording of the word was made.

Many Indigenous languages ceased to be spoken before they were properly documented. In the earliest colonised parts of Australia, there are some languages for which there is very little documentation. For example, according to Wafer and Lissarrague 2008, there are only a few hundred known words recorded in the Ngunawal and Ngarigu languages spoken around the Canberra region.

Past documentation of languages now supports language revitalisation and reclamation efforts by communities. This is especially important when a language has not been spoken for several generations.

Recent work

The first university Department of Linguistics was founded in 1965 at Monash University in Australia and since then many linguists have graduated from Australian universities. Some of these linguists have been documenting and studying Australian Indigenous languages. In 1974, the School of Australian Linguistics was founded within the Darwin Community College. This School aimed to train Indigenous people so that they can document and study their own languages as well as produce teaching and language resources. The School was absorbed into the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (then Batchelor College) in 1989, and today the Batchelor Institute still offers training on language work.

Linguists produced a number of grammars and dictionaries of Australian Indigenous languages, but many Indigenous languages are still not well documented. Less than ninety languages have an extensive grammar while less than sixty languages have an extensive dictionary. 'Extensive' as we use it here, means a grammar or a dictionary of over two hundred pages. Compared to grammars and dictionaries of languages like English or French, this provides little information about each language. More work needs to be done on each of these documented, little documented, and undocumented languages. Documentation work is urgently required as most Indigenous languages are declining and not fully spoken anymore.


Language endangerment

It is estimated that more than a half of over 6,000 world languages spoken today will be replaced by dominant languages. This means that more than 3,000 languages will no longer be spoken by the end of the 21st century. The Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2009) shows that languages in danger of becoming extinct are found in almost every part of the world. National Geographic's Enduring Voice Project on endangered languages of the world identifies five Language Hotspots, areas where many languages are facing near extinction. These Hotspots occur in Australia, Central and Eastern Siberia and North and South America.

Each of the languages facing extinction embodies cultural, traditional and ecological knowledge unique to its speakers. Thus, when a language becomes extinct, the means to express such knowledge will also be lost. The loss of a language may result in the loss of human knowledge about the world we live in. One may think that such knowledge can still be expressed in another language, for example, in English. But this is not entirely true as English may lack the vocabulary, or some complex meaning expressed in the original language becomes lost in translation. For example, Australian Indigenous words for 'law' encompass more than what the English word for 'law' means. They also encompass the way one should behave in relation to the land, ancestors, and one’s kin.


Strong Indigenous Languages

Endangerment measurement

In order to demonstrate the extent of language endangerment, UNESCO developed measurement criteria for language vitality and endangerment. This consists of nine criteria. Based on these nine criteria, the NILS Report 2005 proposed ten language endangerment indicators for Australian Indigenous languages. The most important indicator is 'intergenerational language transmission'. This indicator measures to what extent language is transmitted from older to younger generations. Naturally, if a language is not transmitted to younger generations, the language can become extinct when older generations with the knowledge of the language all die. Another important indicator is the number of speakers in proportion to the total population of people who identify with the language. Language is one of the most important means of self-identification, and those who no longer speak their own language may still identify themselves with their language. The number of speakers itself is not as important as the proportion. In the case of Australia, some Indigenous languages were only ever spoken by a small number of speakers, perhaps 50 to 100 people. A small number of speakers in relation to a small number of people who identify with the language may not mean that the language is endangered. In reality, however, such a language is often endangered.

Language endangerment in Australia

Since colonisation, Australian Indigenous languages have seen decline, and many of them have been replaced by English or creoles. According to the NILS report, among the original 250 or so languages, only about 145 Indigenous languages are still spoken to some degree. Many languages are not fully spoken by anybody, and only some words and phrases are remembered. Less than 20 languages are considered to be strong in the sense that they are still spoken by all generations.

The majority of strong languages are spoken in remote areas of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where it was difficult for colonists to reach and establish settlements. This area coincides with the National Geographic's Language Hotspot where severely endangered languages are found. In the rest of the country, south-eastern Australia, the majority of Indigenous languages, especially languages along the coast, are no longer spoken or they once ceased to be spoken and they are currently under revitalisation, as shown in map 3.

Indigenous language endangerment in Australia is clearly illustrated by the decline of Indigenous language speakers among all age groups of the Indigenous population aged 5 years and over. At the 1996 Census, 12.1% of the Indigenous population were Indigenous language speakers, declining to 11.1% at 2001 and 9.2 % at 2006, as shown in graph 4.

Although the above depicts a gloomy picture of Australian Indigenous languages, there is some good news. Some languages have had success in their revitalisation programs and as a result the number of speakers has increased. For example, the 2006 census shows that there were 34 Kaurna and 159 Ngarrindjeri speakers, while previously figures for these languages were not available because it was considered that the languages were no longer spoken.



In Australia, people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have been trying to maintain surviving languages and also revive languages that have not been spoken for many years. There are three categories of programs on Indigenous languages across Australia: research programs; community language programs; and school language programs.

Research programs

Researchers, mainly linguists and some anthropologists, have been documenting and analysing Indigenous languages. They visit Indigenous communities, make recordings of Indigenous languages, transcribe recordings, analyse the transcription, write a grammar and create a word list or a dictionary. The whole process takes a long time and cannot be done without collaboration with Indigenous people. Some languages have only a few older speakers left, and it is urgently required to record these languages while there are remaining speakers. Where languages are no longer spoken, researchers may analyse older, pre-existing documentation. Researchers primarily publish results of their research in academic domains, but some researchers also produce material for Indigenous people to use in their language revitalisation and maintenance. In whatever formats and forums they are produced, results of research contribute not only to the maintenance or revitalisation of Indigenous languages, but also to our understanding about language - the more we understand each language in the world, the more we understand the structure and function of human language.

Community language programs

While researchers study Indigenous languages often for academic purposes, Indigenous people are most often motivated to work towards language revitalisation and maintenance. Where languages have become extinct, Indigenous people often do not like to think that their languages are dead. Rather they often speak of their languages as 'sleeping' or 'resting'. Indigenous people are trying to revive their languages often from the little historical documentation available. For example, before it went to sleep, the Awabakal language from the Newcastle area was documented by an English missionary, Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, in the early 19th century. Today, the Awabakal people have been trying to revive and maintain the Awabakal language using this resource, but there are no sound recordings of this language and it is near impossible to find out how Awabakal words used to be pronounced. The current generation has to work out how they might have been pronounced from the way words are spelled by Threlkeld and from information on neighbouring languages.

Where languages are still strong, Indigenous people run language maintenance and documentation programs. Sometimes language programs are combined with other kinds of activities. For example, the Thalanyji people in the Pilbara region, with assistance from a community linguist, Eleanora Deak, documented their knowledge about flora in the Thalanyji language and published a plant book Ngambunyjarri (2007 Hayes and Hayes). The book has Thalanyji, English and scientific names of each plant with information about the plant in both Thalanyji and English, accompanied by pictures. The project delivered benefits other than the documentation of language and traditional knowledge (End note 6): two Thalanyji speakers increased their recording and computing skills as well as confidence in written and spoken Thalanyji. The project also increased pride in the Indigenous community and raised awareness of the Thalanyji language, knowledge and culture among non-Indigenous people.


The following is an edited excerpt of the abstract of a prize-winning presentation given by Eileen McHughes, Phyllis Williams, Verna Koolmatrie, and Mary-Anne Gale at the AIATSIS National Indigenous Studies Conference held in Canberra, 29 September - 1 October 2009.

Unlike many Aboriginal languages of southern Australia, the Ngarrindjeri language of the Lower Murray, Lakes and Coorong region never went to sleep. Ngarrindjeri people have always retained a healthy set of around four hundred words which are readily used in their everyday English speech. Over the last few years, however, the Ngarrindjeri language has started to take on new forms and functions. People such as the respected Elder Auntie Eileen McHughes receive regular requests to give speeches solely in Ngarrindjeri. Similarly, the Health Worker Phyllis Williams works alongside others in the community to translate old hymns and favourite songs to be performed and sung in the Ngarrindjeri language at special cultural events, while Verna Koolmatrie teaches the language in the Raukakan School. Ngarrindjeri people are well known for their skills as weavers, and just as Eileen, Phyllis and Verna weave beautifully intricate baskets and mats, they are now weaving new and creative sentences in the Ngarrindjeri language. This emerging skill of weaving carefully constructed sentences for specific purposes is only possible today because of the past efforts of Elders, who worked alongside missionaries and ethnographers to document their language in various forms. The last fluent speakers of the Ngarrindjeri language passed away in the late 1960s, but by accessing their recordings (held at AIATSIS), and by re-interpreting the written records of others, the Ngarrindjeri language is once again being spoken in full sentences.

School language programs

Across Australia, some schools offer Indigenous language programs. Out of 250 Indigenous languages, over 80 languages were taught to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in 260 schools in 2006. This constituted 2.7% of the total number of schools in Australia, 11.3% of Indigenous students and 0.3% of non-Indigenous students involved in some sort of Indigenous language program (End note 7). As shown in graph 5, Indigenous language programs taught at school are divided into four types:
  • first language maintenance (28 per cent of programs)
  • language revival (50 per cent of programs)
  • second language learning (12 per cent of programs)
  • language awareness (10 per cent of programs)
Cartoon by Samanti de Silva
Cartoon by Samanti de Silva

Only first language maintenance programs are aimed at students whose first languages are Indigenous languages. Others are for Indigenous students who have some knowledge of their languages or Indigenous or non-Indigenous students who do not have any knowledge of Indigenous languages. The first language maintenance programs include bilingual or two-way programs, although the number of schools which offer such a program is very few.
The bilingual program at Areyonga School

This is a summary of the presentation, the Bilingual Program at Areyonga School, given at the symposium, Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory: principles, policy and practice, held in Canberra on 26 June 2009. A full paper version of the presentation, Areyonga Two-Way School: What we do and why we do it, is to be published by AIATSIS.

Areyonga School, in a remote community 220kms west of Alice Springs, runs a Step Model bilingual program. As children from Areyonga generally do not speak English when they begin school, English is introduced gradually. They begin by learning to speak and understand English by partaking in a variety of activities. English books are read to them; they discuss the book, role-play the story and use the language from the book in various contexts.

At the same time, they are taught literacy and numeracy through their first language, Pitjantjatjara. This approach is effective because children are far more engaged in lessons that are conducted in a language they understand and using topics that are familiar to them. They are able to link the spoken words they know to the written symbols, rather than trying to link spoken English words (which they do not know) to symbols which they do not know. It is very difficult to understand new concepts through a language the children do not understand.

By Year 4, the children have a sufficient grasp of oral English to start independently writing in it. As they have acquired literacy in Pitjantjatjara, they are able to transfer these literacy skills over to English. From Year 4 onwards the focus shifts to English. Children at Areyonga who regularly attend school successfully attain literacy in both languages.



Today, Indigenous languages are integrated into everyday Australian life. Many Indigenous words are borrowed into Australian English. Most of the borrowed words are nouns. Mulga, bogong, dingo, kookaburra, barrumandi, yabby, conkerberry, jackeroo, yakka, and billabong are all words borrowed into Australian English from Indigenous languages.

Some streets in the Australian Capital Territory are named after Indigenous language names: Bindubi, Bandjalong, Arabana, Larakia, Alawa, Dalabon and so on. Many other place names in Australia come from Indigenous language words or place names, while many Indigenous place names are not in use publicly and have been replaced by English names. Some Indigenous people are asking for a dual place-naming system, in English and in a local Indigenous language. The Grampians in Victoria (named after a region in Scotland) has an Indigenous name, Gariwerd, and this name is now used alongside 'The Grampians'.

Some non-Indigenous people are interested in using Indigenous words for naming their babies, properties, companies, and so on, out of their interest in Indigenous culture or as an act of showing respect to Indigenous people. However, some Indigenous people are very sensitive about the use of Indigenous words by non-Indigenous people, and so it is best for non-Indigenous people to consult Indigenous people before they use Indigenous words for any purpose.

Throughout Australia, it is becoming common practice to acknowledge traditional owners at formal occasions, with an expression such as “I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, past and present, of this place we are meeting in today”. In return, some Indigenous groups have devised welcome expressions.

Kaurna welcome expression

The following is a welcome in Kaurna Warra, the language of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains (End note 8).

Ngangkinna, meyunna! Na marni?

Ngai narri _________.

Martuityangga Kaurna meyunna, ngai wanggandi “Marni naa budni Kaurna yertaanna.”

Ngaityo yakkanandalya, yungandalya.


Ladies and gentlemen, are you (all) good? (i.e. hello)

My name is _________.

On behalf of the Kaurna people I say “It's good that you (all) came to Kaurna country” (i.e. welcome)

My dear sister(s) (and) brother(s). (i.e. thank you)

Recently, with the government's apology to the Stolen Generations, ecological issues, and native title claims and determinations, Australians are becoming more aware of Indigenous languages, cultures and knowledge. Australian Indigenous languages, cultures and knowledge are a unique part of Australia's heritage. They are still alive in this land and are not things to be considered as museum pieces or historical artefacts. It is up to the current generation of Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to decide whether this heritage unique to Australia will survive in this world.

The NILS report provides a number of recommendations on Indigenous languages including: the establishment of regional and national Indigenous language centres; and Indigenous language programs based on the Master and Apprentice scheme and Language Nests which have seen success overseas. It also recommends development of a National Indigenous Languages Policy. Drawing on these recommendations in the NILS report and other past reports and recommendations on Indigenous languages, the Australian Government has committed to addressing the serious problem of language loss in Indigenous communities. In August 2009 the government announced its approach to the preservation of Indigenous languages (End note 9). This approach is aimed at keeping Indigenous languages strong and alive, and calls for improved coordination between Indigenous organisations involved in language programs, government departments, research organisations, collecting institutions, and educational bodies.

 Welcome sign at the boundary of Wathaurong Country.
Welcome sign at the boundary of Wathaurong Country.

      1. For more information and references on Australian Indigenous mathematics see Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies web site. <http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/ethnomathmatics/ethno_hm.htm>
      2. The most comprehensive list of Australian Indigenous languages, including those no longer spoken, is available through AUSTLANG, an online Australian Indigenous languages database.
      3. Foley, William A. 1986. The Papuan Languages of New Guinea, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
      4. Evans, Nicholas (ed.). 2003. The non-Pama-Nyungan languages of northern Australia: comparative studies of the continent's most linguistically complex region, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra.
      5. Lee, J. 2004. Kriol-Ingglish Dikshenri: Kriol-English Dictionary: draft: October 2009.
      6. Although medicinal information about plants was collected, this information is not included in the published book at the request of the Thalanyji people.
      7. Indigenous Languages Programmes in Australian Schools - A Way Forward, Australian Council for Educational Research 2008 provides the number of schools that have language programs, the number of students learning Indigenous languages, and the number of Indigenous languages taught. Schools, Australia 2006, (4221.0), ABS, provides the number of full-time students and the number of total schools.
      8. Kaurna Warra Pintyandi web site <http://www.adelaide.edu.au/kwp/>
      9. Indigenous Languages - A National Approach, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.


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Mathews, R.H Notebook Thurga and Jirringany, n.d. Manuscript, MS 8006 Series 3/5 in Mathews collection held at the National Library of Australia.

O'Connell, J.F and J. Allen 2004, 'Dating the colonization of Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea): a review of recent research', Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 31, pp. 835-853, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

Wafer and Lissarrague 2008, A Handbook of Aboriginal Languages of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, Muurrbay Aboriginal Language & Culture Co-operative, Nambucca Heads, NSW.


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