Languages of Australia — An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Languages

The Commonwealth of Australia is vast. Not only does it encompass the mainland of the Australian continent, it also includes the islands of Tasmania and the Torres Strait. A country of more than 25 million, it is quite surprising that many people know little of the languages spoken in Australia beyond the English language. It would definitely occur as a refreshing moment to learn that Australia has way more languages than just English, as we explore the languages of the aboriginal peoples, not just on the Australian mainland, but also on Tasmania and the Torres Strait.

Before we start, however, there is one important distinction we have to make. Australia does not have an official language, and only recognises English as a national language. An official language is used for official/formal purposes in a country, such as government documents, legal proceedings, police reports, business contracts, and that sort of thing. A national language, however, is a language that is symbolic of that country, usually for historical, cultural, and ethnic reasons. There would be some ramifications as a result, understanding that Australia is way more diverse a country than it seems.

Diving into the languages of Australia, we see a worrying pattern from the get go — most of these languages are critically endangered, moribund or extinct. Only 13 of these languages are not classified as being highly endangered, mostly found in some of the most isolated places of Australia. In fact, out of the 290 – 363 languages classified as Australian Aboriginal languages, less than 150 are spoken to some degree during the start of the 21st century. Among the five least endangered Western Australian Aboriginal languages, four belong to the Ngaanyatjarra group of the Central and Great Victoria Desert. This probably has shown how much of a dire situation the indigenous languages of Australia are, and the growing need to study, preserve, and revive these languages to save them from the hands of extinction. Typically ranging in the dozens to hundreds of native speakers, many of these languages are spoken by the elders, hardly ever being passed down to subsequent generations. These concerning details have prompted several notable preservation efforts in recent times, and surveys to understand the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, such as the National Indigenous Languages Report.

For the Australian Aboriginal languages, there are 28 language families proposed, excluding the possibly many language isolates. However, linguists have yet to establish a solid relationship between these languages, and neither have they understood the possible genetic relationships between languages spoken in mainland Australia and Tasmania and the Torres Strait islands. Even so, the indigenous languages of Australia are often lumped together and referred to as Australian languages or the Australian family.

Where the Australian language families are. Each colour represents one language family, with yellow showing the distribution of the Pama-Nyungan language family, which can contain about 300 languages.

Despite the diversity of Australian languages, we see an interesting pattern in their phonology, in that most of them happen to have either three, or two phonemic vowels. This is in contrast with the 15-30 consonants, which have their own curious pattern as well. Many Australian languages typically feature the vowels /i a u/, although in some languages only /a/ and the schwa are used. Among the consonants, there is almost no voicing contrast, meaning that distinctions between /k/ and /g/, /t/ and /d/, /p/ and /b/ are not made, for example. There are also almost no fricative consonants, such as /v/ and /f/, and in the few that do, it is suggested that these are recent developments through lenition. Exceptions to this include Kalaw Lagaw Ya, spoken in the Torres Strait Islands, which follow a more Papuan pattern of phonology, such as voicing contrast.

However, what the Australian sounds lack, they make up for it with a large number of places of articulation, simply put, how many places in the vocal tract that produce a certain distinguishable consonant. The position and shape of the tongue place a huge role in distinguishing sounds in the coronal region, produced by the flexible front part of the tongue. Perhaps an interesting example of this is the incidence of retroflex consonants, marked as “rt”, “rl” and “rn”, for example. While these consonants carry a rather heavy connotation to languages in the Indian subcontinent, it is definitely interesting to note the prevalence of retroflex consonants in Australian languages. However, there are no uvular and glottal consonants, so sounds like /q/, seen in Arabic, are not present in Australian languages.

Another common trait of Australian languages is the extensive use of “avoidance speech”, where special speech registers are used when a person is talking to certain family members. Although the grammar and phonology of the special registers are unchanged compared to the common register, the lexicon is rather restricted. It could be reflective of a social taboo, but in Whorfianism, I do not wish to comment on which begets which, or if there is true association between the two. In Guugu Yimithirr, for instance, the avoidance speech used for verbs like “walk”, “go”, “crawl”, “paddle” and “limp” has the verb “to travel” instead. This restriction of vocabulary in special contexts may be the source of Aboriginal sign languages, used in extended periods of mourning or initiation.

In future posts, we will look at some of the most renowned Australian languages for their special characteristics, as well as how they informed linguists about the development of linguistics as a discipline, especially in the argument for neo-Whorfianism. Arrernte, Warlpiri, Dyirbal, Guugu Yimithirr and Kalaw Lagaw Ya are all examples of languages you can expect to see as we explore the wonderful world of Australian languages. Stay tuned.

Afterword

I have encountered a book about Arrernte as I started reading up on Australian languages some time in 2015, and this interest kind of stuck, as just like the series I wrote for the languages of Taiwan, not many know the linguistic diversity of Australia that has still survived to this day, although mostly endangered.

This interest popped up again as I learnt about the arguments for and against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an idea that language can control a speaker’s thought processes and world views. They used Guugu Yimithirr as an example, from the use of cardinal directions instead of having words for ‘left’ and ‘right’. This has definitely stirred a lot of debate, like those arguments brought up in McWhorter’s The Language Hoax, a book I am currently reading. I would certainly like to try my hand at learning some of the Australian languages in time to come, and these would garner their own reflections in separate posts.

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