Aboriginal languages

Language carries culture, but what happens if it is lost at an alarming rate? Learn about the struggle to keep languages alive.

Selected statistics

Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia before invasion. [1]
Number of dialects spoken in Australia before invasion. [2]
Number of Aboriginal languages considered 'alive' and in use as a first tongue today. [3]
Percentage of Aboriginal people mainly speaking an Aboriginal language at home in 2008, unchanged from 2002. [4] 75% of these can also speak English. [5]
Percentage of Aboriginal people in some remote areas of Australia who speak an Aboriginal language at home. [6]
Percentage of Aboriginal adults who identified with a clan, language or tribal group in 2008. Same figure in 2002: 54%. [4]
Number of people in NSW who identified as speaking an Aboriginal language in the 2006 census. Same figure in 2002: 2,682. [7]
Percentage of surveyed West Australians who support the inclusion of Indigenous languages as part of the school curriculum. [8]
Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia today. 110 of them are "critically endangered". [8]
Number of Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in New South Wales before the arrival of Europeans. [9]
Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in New South Wales today. [9]
Number of Aboriginal languages in NSW considered healthy enough to be included in school curricula. [10]
Number of Aboriginal people whose mother tongue is an Aboriginal language. People who speak Yolngu: 6,000, Arrernte: 3,000, Warlpiri: 3,000. [11]
Number of Noongar people who speak Noongar. Total number of Noogar people: 40,000. [12]

List of articles

When I speak language, it makes me feel [at] home.

— Roger Hart, Aboriginal elder [13]

I think that Australia holds one of the world's records for linguicide, for the killing of language.

— Prof Ghil'ad Zuckermann, linguist, Adelaide University [14]

Languages spoken at home

A surprising small number of Aboriginal people speak an Aboriginal language at home. [15]

Aboriginal language spoken at home
English only83.9
Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole)0.9

The remaining percentage covers specific Aboriginal languages and people who did not respond to the Census question.

Multilingual memory masters

Aboriginal people are experts when it comes to language. Before the invasion many were able to speak at least two or three and up to five languages or dialects fluently. Because they had an oral culture they were masters in remembering, contrary to the dominant western culture today who relies on the written word.

In my community, it was common to speak 10 languages. Speaking three wasn't that impressive.

— Lorraine Injie, Aboriginal woman, Pilbara, WA [16]

"[Aboriginal] language is an important embodiment of cultural heritage, knowledge, tradition and identity unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," says Russell Taylor, Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). [17]

Languages don't just carry information. They also link to land, stories, Dreaming tracks, botanical, medicinal and navigational techniques, and historical experiences of colonialism, racism and prejudice. [18]

For Aboriginal Senior Australian of the Year and Yolngu Elder Laurie Baymarrwangga language carries the essence of Aboriginal culture. "The important thing about language and what it means is that language contains the essence of the ancestors, every word comes from place, and identifies people and links to land, country, the dreaming; they are all inherent in language, therefore it means the people, the land, everything." [19]

Even if language is acquired later in life it can instil a sense of well-being and belonging for many Indigenous people who have lost ties to their culture. [20]

Aboriginal people "often don't even know that [their mother] language is still strong and people speak it. When we show that to them it just blows their mind," says Ken Walker, NSW North Coast Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal language teacher. [20]

Yolngu [north-Australian] language is our power, our foundation, our root and everything that holds us together. [It] gives us strength; language is our identity, who we are. Yolngu language gives us pride. Language is our law and justice.

— Yalmay Yunupingu, Aboriginal teacher [21]

In the language are our ideas and we need them, the world needs them.

— Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal teacher [22]

Aboriginal language groups

Language groups such as Yolnu Matha ("the people's tongue") are not languages. Under the Yolŋu Matha family of languages, there are between 48 and 60 languages. [9]

When considering Aboriginal language groups, note that Aboriginal people have moved inter-state, voluntarily or not. An Aboriginal person living in a particular state may not be from that state originally.

For example, if an Aboriginal person originally from Western Australia is now living in NSW, they would still consider themselves to be a Nyungar/Nyoongar rather than a Koori.

Aboriginal language group names
State or territoryAboriginal language group(s)
New South WalesKoori, Goorie, Koorie, Coorie, Murri
Northern TerritoryYolngu (top end), Anangu (central)
South AustraliaNunga, Nyungar, Nyoongah
TasmaniaPalawa, Koori
Western AustraliaNyungar, Nyoongar

Traditional hand signs & sign language

You'll be quick to agree that when Aboriginal people were out hunting they couldn't just call out to each other—it would have scared away their game. So they used an intricate sign language to signal to each other.

But hand signs were not only used for hunting. Uses of sign language were very varied: [23][24]

  • Mourning. During extended periods of mourning women (but not men) of the Warumungu and Warlpiri used signs instead of speech, sometimes for longer than a year. Speech was also culturally forbidden during periods of mourning for the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land.
  • Ceremony. During certain ceremonies speaking might be forbidden.
  • Long-distance communication. Sign language is used when communicating over a large distance as talking out loud is considered inappropriate. Using sign language during hunting would also fall into this category.
  • Confidential or secret information. When trying to avoid being overheard sign language is also used. I've experienced this first-hand when I was travelling with a backpack with an Aboriginal flag on it. In a restaurant, I could see a young couple gesticulating with each other while looking at my backpack.
  • Sacred information. When referring to ceremonial issues, objects and sites Aboriginal people use sign language to codify or obscure the restricted information.
  • Adding emphasis. Sign language is also used to add emphasis to verbal speech (which many non-Aboriginal people do as well).
  • Wrong skin. Yolŋu people are not allowed to talk in the company of "poison kin", people of a different group where cultural protocols dictate that they cannot talk to them.

In the Western Desert areas men use sign language more than women, mainly ceremonially in initiation rituals or during hunting.

Sign languages have been used throughout the dry inner Australian areas as well as in northeast Arnhem Land and western Cape York. [23]

Most sign languages studied were found to be closely related to the spoken language, thus foreign to other Aboriginal nations.

Adam Kendon is considered an expert in this area with his stellar work Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia.

Hand signs are considered one of two competing ideas about how early humans developed language. [25] In an experiment with university students, who were not allowed to use language, they became fluent very quickly in a sign language they developed, rather than the use of vocalisations.

Clifton Bieundurry explains more about the many uses of sign language in the following video.

Case study: Yolŋu Sign Language

Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) is an endangered sign language of the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. [24]

YSL is the primary language of Yolŋu who are deaf, but not a signed version of the locally spoken language. It is an alternate language for those capable of hearing. Linguists refer to this as "multilingual bimodalism of alternate sign languages", and label people who can communicate in both spoken and signed languages as "bimodal-bilingual". It is quite common among Aboriginal nations.

70 signs of YSL, first documented in 1929, are still in use today.

A book, The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land, aims to teach YSL to young children in an effort to preserve this language.


23 September is the International Day of Sign Languages.

Have you ever listened to Aboriginal language?

Many people, even many Australians, have never listened to Aboriginal language.

Here's a video where Taliah King sings the Australian anthem in Dharawal language (recorded at the Reconciliation ceremony in Shellharbour City in 2013):

Aboriginal language: When yes means no

Sometimes people say 'no' when they mean 'yes'. But it might surprise that many Aboriginal people say 'yes' and mean 'no'.

Research uncovered that Aboriginal people often answer 'yes' to advances by salespeople to appease the salesperson and politely end the conversation. [26] Salespeople however took their 'yes' as agreement and sealed the contract with dire consequences.

Hundreds of Aboriginal people entered unintentionally into exploitative, unfair contracts to buy, lease or lay-by products and services they can't afford and don't understand. The North Queensland-based Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) cancelled more than 800 contracts, preventing an estimated $2 million of financial detriment, [26] which they consider the "tip of the iceberg".

Similarly, Aboriginal people "agree" in everyday conversations with non-Indigenous people. They try to politely tell the person that they do not want or can't answer their questions or request because they haven't built enough trust yet or it is not their call to reveal the answers.


If you are interested in researching Aboriginal languages check out the following websites.

Indigenous communities are as diverse as Indigenous languages.

— Jimmy Pascoe, traditional owner, Maningrida, West Arnhemland, Northern Territory [27]

Gambay - First Languages map

First Languages Australia has developed a map of Australia’s first languages and language families that reflects the names and groupings favoured by Aboriginal communities.

You can search by language or town and share the information about each language. Videos illustrate languages or give samples. The site allows language centres and communities to update information as needed.

Dharug Dalang

Dharug Dalang is a site launched in October 2010. It features hundreds of words, some of which are read out to you so you can learn their pronunciation.

The site has also background information and video interviews about language of Aboriginal people.

Check it out: www.dharug.dalang.com.au.

Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

This open access archive from the Charles Darwin University contains more than 3,600 items of authentic texts in 50 Aboriginal languages of the Northern Territory, many with English translations and illustrations, and all available to read or download for free. The materials cover a vast array of topics, from traditional stories, ethnobiology, history, bush food and medicine, tales of contemporary life, and translations of English stories.

Visit the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (IATSIS)

IATSIS' Australian Indigenous languages database AUSTLANG allows you to search for Aboriginal languages by name, place name or by navigating Australia through Google Maps.

Screenshot of the AUSTLANG website.
AUSTLANG website. The site is fast to navigate and offers many ways to explore Aboriginal languages.


View article sources (12)

[1] 'Aboriginal Languages', NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, daa.nsw.gov.au/landandculture/language.html
[2] 'Noongar name for substance', Koori Mail 444 p.33
[3] 'Mixed reaction to English plan', Koori Mail 402 p.12
[4] [4a] 'Gains, but the gap is still wide, study finds', Koori Mail 463 p.9
[5] 'Census shows more identify as Indigenous', Koori Mail 404 p.7
[6] Koori Mail 390 p.68
[7] 'Website helps to keep Darug language alive', Koori Mail 463 p.14
[8] [8a] 'WA support to teach our languages', Koori Mail 472 p.32
[9] [9a] http://www.abc.net.au/radio/darwin/programs/afternoons/yolngu-mother-language/9485020, retrieved 4/3/2018
[10] 'Volumes offer new hope for languages', Koori Mail 439 p.30
[11] 'Talking culture', Koori Mail 428 p.21
[12] 'Noongar language to be preserved Wikipedia-style', The Stringer 17/2/2014

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal languages, <https://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/language/>, retrieved 1 October 2020

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