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A Guide To The Indigenous Languages Of Australia

Australia doesn’t have an official language in spite of the fact that the country is largely monolingual and English is used as the de facto national language as well as the language of business. More than 75% of the local population claim English as their mother tongue.Standard Australian English or SAE, taught in most of the schools, has more in common with English in the UK than the US, in terms of both spelling and pronunciation; however, at the same time, Australian English has a unique flavor of its own. The people of Australia are known for their distinctive accent, vocabulary, and colloquialisms. In fact, many outsiders who move to this country initially have a hard time understanding the locals. Of course, there are a considerable number of immigrants all over Australia, and you will therefore hear many different languages, which include Mandarin (1.6%), Cantonese (1.2%), Italian (1.4%), Arabic (1.3%) and Greek (1.2%). In addition, Australia has its own native languages, spoken by its Aboriginal populations.

Introduction to Indigenous Languages

In the 18th century, when the Europeans first began arriving in large numbers, the native tribes of Australia used more than 400 different languages, known as indigenous languages. Today, a vast majority of them aren’t in existence anymore, and some of the others are at risk of disappearing.

Over the years, only 70 of the native languages survived, and all but 30 of them are endangered now. About 50,000 Australians (0.25%) use one of the indigenous languages as their main source of communication. The Aboriginal languages with the maximum number of speakers include Arrernte, Warlpiri, Kala Lagaw Ta, Walmajarri, Tiwi and the Western Desert Language family.

Guide to the Language Families

There are several language families, spanning the desert region of Central Australia, extending through the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. Each of these comprises a number of dialects. The vocabulary and grammatical features of several dialects within a family may overlap, making the distinction minimal. The three main language families are:

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Western Desert

The Western Desert language (also known as Wati) is a dialect cluster of Australian Aboriginal languages of the Pama-Nyungan family. The reach of this language family extends from Western Australia to the Northern Territory. As the locals move around a lot within these regions, the dialects are a bit less defined. The most common languages in this family include:

Pitjantjatjara: This is the primary language used across the Pitjantjatjara Land or the Pit Lands in the north-west of South Australia. You will mainly hear it from the Ernabella (Pukatja), Amata, Fregon, Wingellina, Mutijulu and Areyonga communities.

Yankunytjatjara: This dialect is spoken more in the region to the east of Pitjantjatjara. You will also find its speakers in northern part of South Australia (Mimili and Indulkana) as well as in the south of the Northern Territory (Finke and Mutijtulu).

Luritja: This language is mainly used in the region that is to the east of the Pit Lands, extending from Oodnadatta through Finke, as well as Maryvale, Kings Canyon Area, Jay Creek, Areyonga, Mtijtulu and Imanpa. It is regarded as a lingua franca between the Warlpiri, Arrandic and Western Desert speakers. There is a lot of speculation around the origin of the name, one being that the term Luritja is derived from Ulerenya, the Arrernte word for non-Arrernte people.

Pintupi Luritja: This is the name for the Western Desert dialect used around Papunya, to the Western Australia border. It contains features of neighboring languages like Arrernte and Warlpiri. Since the Pintupi people recently come out of the bush they have been living close to the Hermannsburg Mission as well as Papunya and Haasts Bluff ration stations.

Pintupi: The speakers of this language are usually from across the border in the Western Australia desert region, around the Kiwirrkura community. The people that identify themselves as Pintupi are often from the west, while Pintupi Luritja speakers are closer to the Mission at Hermannsburg and the ration stations at Haasts Bluff and Papunya.

Kukatja: The speakers of this language are generally found near Kintore in Northern Territory through to Kiwirrkura in Western Australia as well as in the north, as far as the Balgo region. It is also called Gugadja by certain tribes.

Ngaatjatjarra: This is a dialect that is used only by a small number of families settled around the Western Australia border communities of Docker River, Warakurna, Blackstone and Tjukurla.

Ngaanyatjarra: This is the main language spoken by the communities of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, including the Tjirrkarli, Wanarn, Blackstone, Warburton, Jameson and Warakurna. The users of this language can be found as far west as Kalgoolie.


This is a family of closely related languages, comprising a network of several mutually intelligible dialects. A separate language, Kaytetye, is also a part of this family, along with Upper and Lower Arrernte. Studies show that there are between 4,500 and 6,000 users of the Arandic language family. The different types of languages are:

Eastern and Central Arrernte: These languages can be mainly heard across Harts Range, Bonya, Santa Teresa, Amoonguna and Alice Springs.

Western Arrernte: It is mainly the people living in and around Hermannsburg, Jay Creek, Wallace Rockhole and Alice Springs that use this dialect.

Southern Arrernte and Pertame: Originally, these dialects were spoken by people living in the region to the south of Alice Springs. Today, there are only very few speakers across the country.

Central and Eastern Anmatyerr Central: Anmatyerr is used in the region that is north of Alice Springs, mainly by the communities around Mt. Allan, Napperby and Ti Tree. The Eastern Anmatyerr dialect is spoken around Stirling and overlaps Alyawarr, which is used in the North.

Alyawarr: This dialect is used by the people further to the north. It includes the communities of the Utopia Homelands, Epenarra, Ammaroo, Alekarenge, Murray Downs, Lake Nash, Tennant Creek and Canteen Creek.

Kaytetye: This language is spoken in the region about 300 KM to the north of Alice Springs, mainly among the communities in Neutral Junction, Stirling, Barrow Creek and Anlweleyelengkew. It can also be heard by people in Murray Downs but to a less extent. People in the neighboring regions speak other indigenous languages like Warumungu in the North, Warlpiri in the West and Northwest, Alyawarr to the East and Northeast and Anmatyerr in the South.

Some of the other languages that belong to this family include Andegerebinha, Aranda, Arrarnta and Ayerrerenge.


Also known as Yapa languages, this small group is primarily used around Central Australia and consists of closely related languages. As the name suggests, this is the main language group for the Ngarrkic family and comprises a couple of dialects, the main ones being:

Warlpiri: This is the primary language of this family and it covers a fairly large area, to the Northwest of Alice Springs. The main communities that speak Warlpiri include Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Willowra and Nyirrpi. Several speakers are also based in and around Alekarenge, Katherine, Ti Tree and Tennant Creek. More than 3,000 natives use Warlpiri as their first language and around the same number of people use it as the second or third language. Within this group, there are several mutually intelligible dialects, though the differences in vocabulary and pronunciation are evident.

Warlmanpa: This small dialect of this Ngarrkic family is spoken further east, around Banka Banka.

Waramungu: This is a prominent language of the Tennant Creek and its surrounding communities. However, Tennant Creek has a higher number of speakers using Warlpiri and Alyawarr.

In 2004 it was demonstrated that this language family is related to its neighboring Ngumpin Languages.

Preservation of Indigenous Languages

Some of the other better-known Australian languages still spoken across the country include Kriol and Murrinh-Patha in Wadeye and Yolngu and Gunwinyguan in Arnhem Land. Certain languages aren’t well-known but are still thriving. These include Anindilyakwa in Groote Eylandt, Kuuk Thaayorre in Cape York and Maung on Goulburn Island.

The cultural authorities are putting programs in place in an attempt to preserve these languages for the future generations. Many Australians who strive to maintain their traditions also make it a point to use some of them at home. Several people from the Aboriginal communities have chosen bilingual education for their children.

The media and performing arts industries have done their bit in raising the visibility and profile of several indigenous languages. For example, popular Australian singer and songwriter Emma Donovan released “Ngarraanga”, for which she won several accolades. This attempt is further supported by the aboriginal TV channel and radio station, as they broadcast all their content in one of the indigenous languages.

Signage also plays a very important part in the preservation of indigenous languages; you are likely to come across a number of street signs, depending upon the areas that you are in.

Guide to Spelling

It was only a short while ago that the Central Australian Aboriginal languages were written down. The earliest languages were written around 100 years ago. However, if the communities want to write down all languages, they are free to do so. It is a matter of pride for a community to have a dictionary or a bible in their language.

Like some of the other indigenous Australian languages, Arrernte is difficult for native English speakers to read, because more than half of its sounds don’t exist in English and vice versa. When writing these languages, the sounds therefore have to be represented using a combination of letters.

If you’re keen on learning an indigenous language, look for an orthography guide to understand what the spellings represent. Some languages have excellent dictionaries and learner guides, but the ad hoc words may be a challenge.

Guide to Pronunciation

Learning how to pronounce words in indigenous languages can be challenging, even if you are referring to an orthography guide. This is because English letters don’t always correspond with the Aboriginal language sounds. Moreover, reference guides that have been written by native English speakers simply approximate their interpretation of how the Aboriginal words are pronounced.

The best way therefore to learn the correct pronunciation of words from an indigenous language is to communicate verbally with a fluent speaker and pick up the finer nuances of consonant sounds, vowel sounds, digraphs, trigraphs and stress.

Aboriginal English

A large majority of the Australian population is well-versed with many words from indigenous languages, mainly because they speak Aboriginal English as their first language. This form of English is non-standard and adheres to its own set of grammatical structures, which may have stemmed from an Aboriginal language. Several Aboriginal English words and phrases have become a part of the wider lexicon.

One of the earliest words that were adopted by the English-speaking Australians was kangaroo, which was derived from “Guugu Yimidhirr”, a language used in the northern part of Queensland. Australian English of today is heavily dotted with terms from Indigenous languages like boomerang, billabong, wombat and dingo.

Studies show that indigenous languages in Australia have a better chance of thriving in smaller towns and remote areas. Aborigines living in the cities and major towns often use English when communicating with one another. Only about 1/8 of the Aboriginal population uses an indigenous language as their mother tongue. Several universities do offer courses in some of the different indigenous languages, but learning them can be a challenge as these were traditionally supposed to be oral languages and have only a few written guidelines.

Breen, G. (2000), Introductory Dictionary of Western Arrernte, Alice Springs : IAD Press
Collins B. (1999) Learning Lessons: an independent review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory, Darwin : NT Department of Education
Goddard, C. (1996) Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, Alice Springs : IAD Press
Green, J.(1984) A Learner's Guide to Eastern and Central Arrernte, Alice Springs : IAD Press
Hale, K. (1995) An Elementary Warlpiri Dictionary, Alice Springs : IAD Press