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Background Information

This background information was written and collated by Claire Hill for the Australian National Placenames Survey, Indigenous Languages Fact Sheet .

Our thanks to Claire for letting us republish the material.

Likeother places in the world that have experienced similar social disruption and colonisation, forms of speech have quickly developed that reflect this contact. These new forms of speech include Creoles and pidgins as well as forms based closely on English, such as, Aboriginal English. Two of the most wide spread Creoles are Torres Strait Broken and Kriol. Kriol is spoken in the far north of the Northern Territory and Western Australia while Torres Strait Broken is spoken in the Torres Strait Islands and some parts of northern Queensland. KriolMuch of the information in this section is indebted to the discussion…
Many English concepts and words have made their way into modern Indigenous languages, such as Kriol, of course. But the traffic has not been exclusively one-way: there are many words that have been borrowed into Australian English from Indigenous languages. The word ‘kangaroo’ is one of the first and most famous borrowings into English. This word comes from Guugu Yimidhirr, the language of the Cooktown region in northern Queensland. Kangaroo or kanguru was elicited from local Indigenous people in 1770 by James Cook when the ‘Endeavour’ was forced to stop in the region for repairs (Walsh 1993). The name is…
The population of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is extremely diverse in its culture with many different languages spoken. Think of the Kimberly region of Western Australia … if you travel through the Kimberly with its large Aboriginal population and the diversity of people within this region, it's just like travelling through Europe with its changing cultures and languages. (Dot West, National Indigenous Media Association of Australia, Boyer Lectures 1993) Even today, it is all too easy to find highly educated and prominent Australians who speak glibly of 'the Aboriginal language', thereby reducing the indigenous linguistic diversity of…
Like all cultures, the Indigenous Australian culture has changed and developed over time. However, the colonisation of Australia brought rapid changes to Indigenous Australian society and dramatically affected the ways Indigenous people lived and communicated. Indigenous languages have been badly affected by these sudden changes, and only around a third of the languages that were spoken pre-contact still have speakers (Henderson and Nash 1997). All Indigenous languages with living speakers are considered endangered; the strongest of these languages have approximately 3000 speakers with children still learning the traditional language as their native tongue. Most, however, are highly endangered with only…
Language is the expression of our culture and our land. We cannot have one without the others. We cannot describe our culture and our land if we do not have language. (Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee, 2006 ) Recognition of Indigenous languages and support for Indigenous language programs stand alongside land rights, health, justice, education, housing, employment and other services as part of the overall process of pursuing social justice and reconciliation in Australia. One might go so far as to say that without recognition of the Indigenous people and their languages, many other programs will be less effective, because…
It is a mistake to dismiss our languages as part of history, and long gone. They’re not. They are alive and vibrant. They are in a new phase of growth. They’re part of us as the Indigenous people of the land. Our languages are the voice of the land, and we are the carriers of the languages. (Jeanie Bell, Linguist, Boyer Lectures 1993) Despite the grim details discussed above, many of these languages are not considered ‘dead’ or ‘extinct’ languages, even though they have no living speakers. Instead they are referred to as ‘sleeping’ or ‘dormant’ languages. Over the past…
On the Australian mainland languages are classified into two groups: the Pama-Nyungan and the non-Pama-Nyungan. The Pama-Nyungan group is the largest of the two groups, covering much of Australia and including most Australian languages. The sounds, vocabulary and structure of these languges share similarities that suggest a common ancestor language. The non-Pama-Nyungan languages are located in northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The relationship between languages in this group and their connection to the Pama-Nyungan group is not clear (Angelo et al 1998).  Similarly the relationship between languages spoken in Tasmania and the mainland is unknown. It is very…