Indigenous Languages of Australia

Aboriginal languages are spoken by the native people of Australia and Torres Strait Islands which are located between North Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Linguists believe that most Aboriginal languages share a common ancestor. The exact timing of the arrival of the ancestral language in Australia has been a matter of dispute but the most common view is that they came from Southeast Asia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. However, no relationship has been established between the Aboriginal languages of Australia and Austronesian languages.

The number of Aboriginal languages spoken by native Australians at the time of australia mapEuropean contact is difficult to establish because it is often impossible to distinguish between dialect and language and because many varieties became extinct before they could be recorded and analyzed since the Aboriginal people were forced to give up their languages and learn English. In addition, the great length of time over which the Aboriginal languages have developed makes the reconstruction of their common ancestor extremely difficult.

It is estimated that today there are 170,000 Australians of Aboriginal descent, of whom about 50,000 have some knowledge of one of the surviving Aboriginal languages. Population estimates are hampered by the fact that Aboriginal people often live in isolated areas and that most of them are bilingual with varying degrees of proficiency in their Aboriginal languages.

There is a basic division between Aboriginal languages of the north and northwest of Australia and the languages spoken in the rest of the continent, based on whether the languages use prefixes or suffixes. The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal languages are thought to belong to the Pama-Nyungan language family which uses suffixes. It covers 90% of the continent with some 50 surviving languages. Non-Pama-Nyungan languages are though to belong to 20-30 language families. Below is a listing of Australian Aboriginal languages with the largest numbers of speakers. Some of the numbers are based on 1983 data (Ethnologue). Thus, the number of speakers may be even smaller today.

under 500
Kala Lagaw Ya
Arrarnta (Eastern)
Arrarnta (Western)

Kuku Yalanji
Martu Wangka




The future of the Aboriginal languages is uncertain since most of them are endangered or on the brink of extinction, but the good news is that the Aboriginal people as well as Australian society as a whole are concerned about the loss of these languages. The influence of English is so strong that the very existence of languages is being threatened. An effort to record and analyze the surviving Aboriginal languages was initiated in the early 1970s so that grammars or grammatical sketches of some 100 languages are available today. This has provided an incentive for Aboriginal groups across Australia to have their languages taught to children in school.



Sound systems

There is considerable similarity among the sound systems of Aboriginal Australian languages. These similarities may be due to geographical proximity and language contact, rather than to common ancestry. For instance, consonant clusters are restricted, and most syllables end in a vowel.



Most Australian languages have three vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. The vowels are typically /i/, /a/, /u/. They can be short or long. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. Long vowels are usually represented in writing by double letters. e.g., in Warlpiri, mirnta means ‘flu’ while miirnta means ‘hardwood shield’. Most languages have progressive and regressive vowel harmony, i.e., assimilation of the first vowel to the following vowel and vice versa, e.g., in Warlpiri, karli ‘boomerang’ + –ngku ‘ergative’ = karlingki.



Below are some features typical of many, but not all, Aboriginal Australian languages:

  • Almost no Aboriginal language has a phonemic contrast between voiceless and voiced stops, i.e., /p/~/b/, /t/~/d/, /k/~/g/. The amount of voicing depends on the environment, e.g., less voicing occurs in the beginning of words, and more voicing occurs between vowels. These sounds are variously represented as either p or b, t or d, k or g, e.g., Warlpiri has also written as Warlbiri.
  • Most languages do not have fricative consonants.
  • There are normally two or three rhotic (r-like) consonants, e.g., a flap, a trill, and a retroflex approximant (the latter as in English air). These are represented in a variety of ways.
  • Most consonants occur in a large number of places of articulation, i.e., points of contact between some part of the tongue and some part of the roof of the mouth.
    Dental series /t̪, n̪, l̪/, written as th, nh, lh, are laminal, i.e., produced with the surface of the tongue just above the tip touching the back of the teeth.
    Alveolar series /t, n, l/ produced by touching the alveolar ridge with the tip of the tongue.
    Palatal series /c, ɲ, ʎ/ are also laminal but the contact is further back from the alveolar ridge. /c/ is spelled as tj, dj, or j.
    Retroflex series /ʈ, ɳ, ɭ/, spelled as rt, rn, rl, are produced with the tip of the tongue curled so that its underside touches the roof of the mouth.



There is also great similarity among the grammar systems of Aboriginal languages. For instance, all Australian languages are ergative, i.e., the subjects of transitive verbs are marked with the ergative case, while the subjects of intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs are marked with the absolutive case or are unmarked. Below is an example from


Nouns and pronouns

Nouns in Australian languages have the following distinguishing features:

  • Most Aboriginal languages mark subjects of transitive verbs with an ergative suffix, while the subjects of intransitive verb and objects of transitive verbs are usually unmarked. Personal pronouns have an accusative form when they are objects of transitive verbs.
  • There are no nominal declensions.
  • Plural of animate nouns is often formed by reduplication, e.g., in Warlpiri, kurdu ‘child’ — kurdukurdu ‘children’, kiwinyi ‘mosquito’ — kiwinyikiwinyi‘ mosquitoes’.
  • Noun stems are not inflected.
  • There are thousands of noun roots.
  • Nouns are formed mainly through derivation and compounding. For instance, noun stems can be formed by adding suffixes, e.g., in Warlpiri, puru ‘theft’ — purunjunju ‘thief’, or by compounding, e.g., yarla karlangu ‘yam digger’ (yarla ‘yam’ + karlangu ‘digger’).
  • Pronouns typically distinguish singular, dual, and plural forms, e.g., in Kaurna, an extinct language, ninna ‘you [one]’, niwa ‘you [two]’, na ‘you [many]’.



  • There are just over a hundred verb roots from which all verb stems are built.
  • Verbs belong to classes, based on the last segment of the root.
  • Verbs are marked for tense. For instance, in Warlpiri, there are four tenses: present, non-past, past, immediate future
  • Some languages mark verbs for mood. For instance, in Warlpiri, verbs are marked for the imperative mood.
  • There is a large number of preverbs used to make the meaning of verbs more specific. Several preverbs can be used at one time, e.g., in Warlpiri, Pirlankiti-ji junta-kuru-rnu yard, literally, ‘Blanket-me + away-throw-past + again’ , i.e., ‘He threw off my blanket again’ (cited in Nash, 1980).

Indigenous languages have numerous enclitics, i.e., grammatically independent but phonologically dependent words, that belong to different classes and express different meanings.

One of the most unusual aspects of Australian languages is the influence of kinship on speech registers, i.e., language varieties used for particular purposes or in particular social settings.

  • In some languages personal pronouns that refer to two persons have different forms depending on the relationship of the two referents.
  • Special terms for pairs, such as “mother and child” are common.
  • In some languages, such as Warlpiri, there are triangular terms that indicate the relation of both speaker and listener to the referent, e.g., “my mother who is also your father’s sister”.
  • In many languages, kinship terms are marked for the person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) of their possessor.
  • Most languages have kinship-based registers for friendship, vulgarity, secrecy, etc. For instance, Warlpiri uses a variety of speech in initiation rites in which words refer to their opposites.
  • A common feature of many Australian languages are called mother-in-law languages, i.e., special avoidance languages used only in the presence of certain close relatives. These languages share the sound system and grammar of the standard language, but the vocabulary is different and usually quite restricted.


Word order

An unusual feature of all Australian languages is their free word order made possible by the fact that verbs incorporate all syntactic information that is necessary for the interpretation of sentences. Word order is influenced by pragmatic considerations, such as topic (known, or old information) and focus (new or important information).



The Aboriginal languages show a great diversity in their vocabularies. Some linguists attribute this to vocabulary replacement, i.e., taboos on certain words, as well as borrowing. However, all Aboriginal languages are rich in ritual vocabulary, words that deal with spirituality, and those that refer to kinship and the physical environment. Australian languages, for examples, have many more kinship terms than English. The principal sources of word formation in Aboriginal languages are derivation, reduplication, and compounding.



The Aboriginal languages have been unwritten prior to the arrival of English settlers. Alphabets for these languages were eventually developed by individuals with no linguistic training who were working in the absence of phonemic analyses of the sound systems of these languages. As a result, early writing systems were reflections of English spelling conventions rather than accurate representations of the meaningful sound contrasts of Aboriginal languages. Linguists working with Australian languages today are attempting to rectify the situation by developing practical orthographies that more accurately represent the sound systems of Aboriginal languages. For example, Warlpiri which has been written with the Latin alphabet since the1950s, has had its alphabet revised since then. Pitjantjatjara has been written with the Latin alphabet since the 1940s. Its spelling system was standarized in 1987 with the publication of a Pitjantjatjara–English dictionary. However, most Aboriginal languages do not yet have standardized orthographies.

Below is a sample text in Warlpiri.

Nganimpa karnalu-jana kurdu-kurdu ngukurrdurr–nyina pina jarrinjaku wangkanjaku Warlpiriki manu English-ki Warlpirji ngulaju karnalu kamparru-wana jaru wangka manu jinta-kari English ngulaju kardiya-kurlangu jaru kalu wangka. Ngampurrpa karnalu-jana kurdu-kurduku nyina wangkanjaku jirramaku jaruku Warlpiri-ki manu English-ki.
We, the elders and people of Lajamanu community like our children in the school to learn both ways, Warlpiri and English. Warlpiri is our first language. We want the children in school to learn Warlpiri as their first language and English as their second.



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Indigenous Languages of Australia?
There is no data on the difficulty of Australian indigenous languages for speakers of English.