How many Indigenous languages exist in Australia? Who knows this shit?!
exclaimed Milly, the receptionist at an Indigenous radio station on ABC’s new program 8MMM, reading out a question on a cultural awareness training form.
Indeed – who does know? As an ice-breaker, I often ask my linguistics students to name an Australian Indigenous language. Some are able to name Warlpiri, Yolngu Matha or Arrente, but most cannot manage the name of a single language. That is astonishing given there are 250 to choose from.
Yet the same students can usually name Native American languages such as Mohawk, Apache, Cherokee and Mohican, largely thanks to classic westerns.
Awareness about Australian Indigenous languages is very low. Most Australians still believe that there is an Aboriginal language and have no idea about the extent of linguistic diversity across the country.
The myth of the single Aboriginal language has allowed for filmmakers’ uncritical use of Djinpa, a Yolngu language of Arnhem Land spoken by David Gulpilil, in films based in other regions of Australia, for example The Tracker (2002) and Australia (2008).
Indigenous words in Australian English
In fact, most people in Australia know more about Indigenous languages than they realise simply because they are speakers of Australian English. One of the earliest words to be adopted by English speakers was kangaroo. The word comes from Guugu Yimidhirr, a language of north Queensland, which was first documented during James Cook’s 1770 mapping expedition.
Australian English is dotted with words from Indigenous languages. For example, dingo, wombat and boomerang all come from languages in the Sydney area.
Many of these words hitch-hiked their way across Australia via the English-based pidgin (a simplified version of a language), which the Sydney people and the non-Indigenous colonists used to communicate with each other from 1788 onwards. The pidgin was a scaled-back version of English and later expanded to form Kriol, which is spoken across northern Australia.
This pidgin also acquired new words from other languages as it spread across Australia. For example, Yagara, a language of the Brisbane region, bequeathed bung (broken) to Pidgin and ultimately Australian English.
The semantics of many of these words have changed since they were borrowed into English. A great example is the Gurindji word budju, which means vagina but is now used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike in parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland to mean something quite different!
It was originally adopted in English to refer to a spunky woman and has since come to mean any attractive person (in fact, spunk was originally a vulgar term for semen in English).
Coke was clearly unaware of the origins of budju when it brought out a localised version of Coke cans in Darwin during its “Share a Coke” promotion.
Australian languages and visibility
It is surprising that most of us are not able to name an Australian language given that at least 40 languages are spoken on an everyday basis around the country. Some of the better-known languages are Arrente, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri in Central Australia, Kriol, Murrinh-patha in Wadeye, and Yolngu and Gunwinyguan languages in Arnhem Land.
All of these languages suffer from a lack of visibility, but some have become better known because Indigenous organisations have been increasing our awareness of them.
For example, one of the reasons that many Australians have heard of Warlpiri is due to the popularity of Bush Mechanics in the early 2000s, which was filmed in Warlpiri.
The profile of Yolngu Matha was also raised with the release of Ten Canoes in 2006. It is one of the first feature films to make extensive use of an Australian language.
The use of language in the performing arts and media has done a lot to raise the profile of Indigenous languages. Gumbayngirr, a NSW language, enjoyed a moment in the spotlight in 2009 when singer-songwriter Emma Donovan released Ngarraanga (Remember), which went on to win Donovan Best Female Artist and Best R&B Single at the 2009 BUMP Awards.
Well-known lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson has also done much to promote his language, Guguu Yimithirr, in political commentary.
Get to know the language of your local area
The visibility of Australian languages in public space is on the rise. In many parts of the country, signage now greets the visitor. For example, “Welcome to Ngunnawal” signs can be found at entry points into the ACT and surrounds.
Signage is powerful. In the past it was common for interpretive signage in national parks and other public spaces to display statements such as “this word is from Aboriginal”.
Now there are increasing examples of signage that name the language of the region, for example Gathang signs at the Great Lakes campus of TAFE in NSW, and the Wurundjeri Stories Indigenous Signage Trail in Warrandyte State Park in Victoria.
Probably the Australian capital that has done the most to increase awareness of their local language is Adelaide. As well as the extensive use of Kaurna place names in signage, the solar-powered buses have been called Tindo, which is the Kaurna word for sun. Nowadays it is hard to miss the fact that Adelaide is located on Kaurna country.
Most of the language projects that have been increasing the visibility of Australian languages are instigated by Indigenous-run language centres. Examples include Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi at Adelaide University, The Murrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-op in Nambucca Heads and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages in Melbourne.
For Indigenous people wanting to reconnect with their languages or non-Indigenous language-learning enthusiasts, many universities now offer Indigenous-led language learning and awareness courses and activities. For example, Charles Darwin University provides courses in Yolngu Matha.
It is important that we know that Australia is a nation of over 250 Australian Indigenous languages, not just one. It is also important that all Australians are able to name some of these, particularly the ones in our local areas. Increasing the visibility and awareness of Indigenous languages will help our nation understand the rich cultural pluralism that existed before the arrival of Europeans and continues today.