In 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in Australia, it is estimated that up to 700 indigenous languages were spoken nationally. Fast forward to 2020 and just over 100 indigenous languages are spoken — with sadly more predicted to become extinct.
Aboriginal activists are working tirelessly across the country to preserve these languages, so they can be passed onto our future generations.
Last year, the United Nations announced that 2019 would be the International Year of indigenous Languages. To celebrate, The Australian indigenous Languages playlist was released on Spotify and six Aboriginal Language dictionaries were released by the Aboriginal Studies Press.
But what are the primary indigenous languages spoken in each state capital?
And what are their personal histories?
It’s crucial that adults, teens and children become educated on indigenous languages and culture in order to understand diversity.
Today, I’ll delve into a handful of the languages of Australia’s first people.
NOTE: I could have covered many more indigenous Australian languages, but for this article I wanted to focus on what is/was spoken in the areas of the state and territory capital cities.
Also be sure to check out my detailed post on the origin of Australian English (which mentions indigenous language influence).
Table of Contents:
Dharug language (Sydney, NSW)
The Dharug language is 5000 years old and was spoken throughout most of Sydney. It was the first Aboriginal language heard by British colonists.
William Dawes (an astronomer, scientist and officer in the First Fleet) formed bonds with the Eora people and recorded data about the Dharug language before he was sent back to England.
The Dharug language is often reported in the media as being extinct or lost but individuals such as Dharug elder Richard Green, who is a language teacher at Chifley College in Western Sydney and songman has revitalised the language for today’s generation by working with the NSW Board of Studies on the Aboriginal Languages curriculum.
Dharug sample words:
Dharug language resources:
Ngunnawal language (Canberra, ACT)
The Ngunnawal language is the traditional Aboriginal language of Canberra spoken by the Ngunnawal and Gundungurra peoples — their land stretched out all the way from Young to Goulburn to Canberra.
In 2014, Ngunnawal community members from The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) met to discuss the Ngunnawal Language Revival Project.
The project’s aim is to revitalise the Nugunnawal language by getting it back into the ACT school curriculum. By 2016, Nugunnawal was being taught to Canberra school children through a pilot program but the program has now sadly ended.
Earlier this year, history was made when the Ngunnawal language was used in the ACT’s parliament in the acknowledgement of country. Chief Minister Andrew Barr told the Legislative Assembly:
“There is a need to recognise, and do what we can to support, revive and protect the languages of the traditional custodians and occupants of the land.”
Ngunnawal sample words:
Ngunnawal language resources: Aboriginal Languages by linguist David Nash
Woiwurrung language (Melbourne, Victoria)
There are 38 languages and 11 language families in Victoria with Woiwurrung being the Aboriginal language for Melbourne and the Wurundjeri people.
Wurundjeri is derived from the Woiwurrung language word ‘wurun’ which means Eucalyptus and ‘djeri’ which is a grub found near Eucalyptus trees along the Yarra River.
The four Woiwurrung clans were often referred to as the Yarra Yarra Tribes after colonisation.
Woiwurrung sample words:
Woiwurrung Language Resources:
Turrbal language (Brisbane, Queensland)
The Turrbal language, also known as Yuggera (or Jagera) was the Aboriginal language native to Brisbane.
The Aussie word “yakka” (as in “hard yakka”) is derived from the Yuggera language — meaning hard work.
There seems to be a lot of confusion and disagreement around the languages and dialects of Greater Brisbane. Also it appears vague as to the breadth these languages were spoken.
Yuggera sample words:
Yuggera Language Resources:
Kaurna language (Adelaide, South Australia)
Adelaide’s original Aboriginal language is the Kaurna Language.
The Kaurna language belongs to the family of Pama-Nyrungan languages and is spoken by the inidgenous peoples of the Adelaide Plains.
It has been in revival since the eighties and is taught in primary schools and high schools throughout South Australia. A Kauma linguistics course has existed at the University of Adelaide since 1997.
In 2002, Kaurna Elders Dr. Lewis Yerloburka and Dr. Alitya Wallara Rigney created a group that promotes recovery of the Kaurna language after a successful series of workshops.
Kaurna sample words:
|kuku’ai||I am sick|
Kaurna language resources:
Australian Kriol/Darwin Region Languages (Darwin, NT)
The Darwin Region Languages are the true languages of Darwin’s Indigneous. They’re a tiny group of Aboriginal languages proposed by Mark Harvey — the Associate Professor of Languages and Landscape at Newcastle University. They consist of Laragiya, Umbugarla and Limilngan. Laragiya is said to nearly be extinct, Umburgarla became extinct in 2000 and Limilingan became extinct in 2009.
Australian Kriol is the main language spoken by Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory but Kriol wasn’t even considered to be a language until the seventies.
Australian Kriol sample words:
Obviously, the majority of indigenous language work is happening in East Arnhem (Yolŋu). For more info on those, see ARDS.
Australian Kriol language resources:
Nyungar language (Perth, Western Australia)
The Nyungar language (Noongar) is spoken today in the South-East of Western Australia. The language was first recorded by British cartographer and navigator, Captain Matthew Flinders in 1801.
Linguists claim that there were 66 Aboriginal languages spoken in W.A at the time of European settlement with The National indigenous Languages Report stating that only 17 of those 66 languages are spoken in WA today, including: Ngaanyatjarra, Yinjibarndi, Martu Wangka and Bardi.
In 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald spoke to the Senior Consultant of Aboriginal Languages with the WA Department of Education, Lola Jones. Jones said that 16 of those languages were being taught in 41 schools throughout the state.
Nyungar sample words:
Nyungar Language Resources:
There’s a free online course for Nyungar from edX with the option of Curtin University accreditation.
Palawa Kani (Hobart, Tasmania)
Palawa kani (‘Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak’) is actually a conlang (constructed language) that was created in the nineties by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. It is said that up to sixteen Aboriginal languages may have existed in Tasmania once. Thankfully for historians, remnants of some of those original languages were documented in wordlists throughout the colonial period.
Fanny Cochrane Smith (the last fluent Tasmanian Aboriginal Speaker) was recorded singing songs in the early 1900s in her own language.
On the Tasmania Aboriginal Centre website, it states:
“Most tragic of all, there aren’t enough words or information recorded of any of the original languages to rebuild any one of them exactly as it was. As a result, palawa kani combines words retrieved from as many of the original languages as possible.”
Palawa kani sample words:
Palawa kani Language Resources:
Revival and preservation of Australian Aboriginal languages
Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Professor of Linguistics and Endangered languages at the University of Adelaide once said: *“I believe the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land.” *
Research has shown that reconnecting Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander Peoples with their traditional language not only improves their mental health but lowers suicide rates throughout their communities.
The revival and preservation of Aboriginal languages is vital for future generations. It empowers Australia’s indigenous people, giving them a sense of belonging whilst restoring their cultural identity.
All Aussies, both indigenous and non-indigenous must come together in solidarity and take steps to revive these languages which are rapidly becoming extinct.
But noone articulates it better than Brooke Joy (who is a descendent of the Boandik people in South Australia) in The Report of the Second National indigenous Languages Survey:
Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining one’s language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves. Traditional language is important for maintaining strong cultural connections. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops. To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital.
Other useful resources
AUSTLANG - an online database which collates information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
Bibliography of Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islands - published works on Inidgenous languages.