Aboriginal Languages

The text below is a modified version of a paper by R M W Dixon produced for and published by ATSIC 1997 (reproduced with permission from ATSIC)
© Commonwealth of Australia

Tribes and language
Before the European invasion in 1788, there were between 600 and 700 distinct ‘tribes’ in Australia. Each had its own territory, its own political system and laws, and its own language. The 600 to 700 tribe-nations spoke, between them, between 200 and 250 languages. These were separate languages, as distinct from each other as are French and German, or Chinese and Japanese. Sometimes two or three, or even five or six, adjacent tribes spoke what were really dialects of one language. In other situations a single tribe spoke its own language, different from the languages of neighbouring groups.

Early recordings
The first words from an Australian language were written down in 1770 by Captain Cook, from the Guugu-Yimidhirr people at the Endeavour River in North Queensland. They included kang-ooroo, the name for a species of large black kangaroo. When Governor Phillip brought the first group of convicts to Sydney in 1788, he took down some words in the local language, Dharuk. They included a number which have since been adopted into English, such as boomerang and din-go ‘tame dog’ (now used in English for ‘wild dog’). As settlers spread out from Sydney they encountered many different Aboriginal languages.

Then, in 1841, the explorer George Grey studied some of the vocabularies that had been collected from different localities and noticed some similarities between them. For example, the word for ‘water’ at Adelaide was kauw-ee and that at Perth gab-by or kuyp-e; but a tribe not far from Perth had kow-win for ‘water’, a form very similar to that used at Adelaide. Grey suggested that the languages of Australia might be related as members of one ‘language family’.

The languages are related
Across the languages of the continent there are some words that recur – nouns such as jina ‘foot’, mala or mara ‘hand’ and mayi ‘vegetable food’, and verbs such as pu- ‘hit’, ka- ‘carry’ and nya- ‘see’. There are also similarities of grammar. The ending used on a noun when it is subject of a sentence is -lu in some languages and -ngku in others. A number of languages show both affixes. In the language spoken in the Western Desert (covering a large part of Western Australia, as well as portions of South Australia and the Northern Territory) the names of people take subject ending -lu, while common nouns (such as ‘man’, ‘girl’ or ’emu’) take -ngku. This is all extra evidence that the languages are related, as George Grey suggested in 1841.

Most of the languages from Europe across to north India have been shown to belong to the IndoEuropean language family. They are descended from a single original language which is believed to have been spoken about 7000 years ago, somewhere between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.

In exactly the same way, linguists have shown that almost all the languages of Australia belong to one language family. That is, they are all descended from one original language which may have been spoken somewhere on the central north coast (quite possibly in the vicinity of Darwin) many thousands of years in the past.

Aborigines then moved out over the whole continent. One tribe-nation would have split up into two or three new groups, which would have spread out in different directions. Language is always changing and over time what were just different dialects developed into distinct languages, that were no longer mutually understandable.

There were eight or more separate languages spoken in Tasmania. Unfortunately, only a few fragments were recorded before their speakers died or were killed. There had been no contact between Tasmanians and mainland Aborigines since the Bass Strait was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10 000 years ago. It is impossible to tell whether Tasmanian and mainland languages were originally related. No relationship has yet been proved between Australian or Tasmanian languages and languages spoken anywhere else in the world.

Complicated words in the north
Those languages that differ most from the common Australian pattern are found in the north, from the Kimberley in Western Australia to Mornington Island and Burketown in the Queensland Gulf Country. Some of these languages have developed very complex structures – often a single word will express what in most languages would be a sentence of several words.

Most of these northern languages can be shown to belong to the Australian language family; Rembarrnga, for instance, has pu- ‘hit’, ka ‘take’ and na- ‘see’. There are just a few languages such as Tiwi from Melville and Bathurst Islands that seem really different. Either they are not related to other Australian languages, or else they have changed so much that a connection cannot now be recognised.

Literature and special speech styles
Australian languages have a rich cultural heritage – long narrative and song cycles have been handed down from parent to child for thousands of years. These provide an explanation of how the world was created by Dreamtime ancestors. Each tribe had its own song styles, which often had a special metrical pattern, and used special words not in the everyday language style.

Many tribe-nations had a special ‘avoidance’ style of speaking, which had to be used in the presence of a relative with whom one could have only formal contact (with no joking), according to the laws of the kinship system. A man and his mother-in-law, or a woman and her son-in-law were often not allowed to look directly at one another, and had to use an avoidance speech style when in the other’s presence. Avoidance styles had the same grammar as the normal, everyday language style, but showed a number of different words.