The Australian continent is a patchwork of many languages that are of immense value to their custodians and speakers.
Linguist Nicholas Evans writes the following, in an article about Australia’s Indigenous languages published in November 2016 in Serious Science:
The peoples of northwestern Arnhem Land believe that the first human in the Australian continent was a woman named Warramurrungunji who traveled from Macassar in Indonesia. She gave birth to many children and put them into particular areas assigning them languages which they should speak. Of course it is a local myth, and it does not extend beyond the western regions to make a claim about other parts of Australia, but the point about it is the high value it places on language diversity as a way to make sure that everyone knows their place and identity in the wider scheme of things. From the legend you may see that language diversity is something built into the Universe from the beginning and that it’s an essential part of the social order.
Read the full article here. It is an excellent introduction to the Indigenous languages of Australia, from the perspective of a distinguished linguistic scholar.
Where are different Indigenous languages spoken?
Gambay is an interactive Indigenous languages map, developed by First Languages Australia.
Click on the map to explore the connections between languages and country.
Are Australia’s Indigenous Languages endangered?
There were more than 250 Indigenous languages at the time of Australia’s colonisation. Today, less than 150 languages are still spoken and the majority of these, about 110, are critically endangered. Of the original 250, only about 15 languages remain strong, being spoken by all age groups and transmitted to the next generation, though all of the languages are vulnerable. The majority of languages still spoken today are in the remote regions of Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and far north Queensland.
What about new Indigenous languages?
Contact with English has disrupted traditional languages – the way they are spoken and learned by children is dynamic and changing. Since colonisation new languages have emerged. Some of these are creole languages, in which much of the word stock is derived from English. In these creole languages – such as Roper River Kriol, Kimberly Kriol and Yumpla Tok or Broken from the Torres Strait – the grammar follows patterns of the traditional languages of the region where the Kriol developed. Most of the people who first adopted this different way of speaking were multilingual, speaking a creole language alongside one or several traditional languages. Today these creole languages are the first languages of many people who trace their history through settlement demographics such as missions, Welfare settlements and the pastoral industry.
In some parts of Australia new mixed languages have emerged. These are languages that combine aspects of both a traditional language and English, resulting in a stable way of speaking. Examples are Wumpurrani English in the Barkly region, Lajamanu Warlpiri and Gurindji Kriol. In addition to these mixed and Kriol languages, most Indigenous people speak English, adopting many different styles and forms that express local and regional identities.
What is the role of linguists in supporting communities to record, maintain and revitalise languages?
Linguistics is the study of human languages. Linguists are trained to analyse the rich and complex structures of languages. Most linguists work in universities, and doing academic research is an important part of their job. Linguists do their research by working with language communities, recording, documenting and analyzing languages. This practice has traditionally been called ‘fieldwork’ and many of the historical records of Indigenous languages are the result of the fieldwork undertaken by linguists over the decades. As well as academic linguists, many missionaries throughout the mission era in Australia had linguistic training, and this gave them skills to record and document languages. Many important language records are the result of the work of missionaries who sought to learn and understand the languages of the people that they lived and worked with.
In his article in Serious Science, Linguist Nicholas Evans writes of the value of research into Australia’s Indigenous languages as a way of asking important questions about the origin of human language, the social processes that lead to linguistic diversity and the diversity of linguistic structures. He also emphasises this point about the social value of linguistic research:
… the whole enterprise is at the same time a crucial one for the cultural well-being of the indigenous communities themselves. Imagine not knowing anything about your forebears because it wasn’t available in a language you knew. Or imagine that all of your cultural heritage had just been wiped out, never having been written down. Work on indigenous languages can make a vital difference to how people feel about their culture and hence themselves, giving them the pride, knowledge and feeling of belonging that allows them to stand with one foot in their own traditional culture and the other in the globalising world of today.
In the last couple of decades a new framework for linguistic research has emerged. For most linguists their research now involves a collaborative approach that prioritises the rights and empowerment of language minorities. This approach has arisen from community demands for an equal voice in research that involves them. Much language research is now designed to include practical outcomes from language research that the community can use. These outcomes include picture dictionaries, learners’ guides, collections of stories, songbooks, teaching and learning materials, websites and apps.
Linguists often bring other skills to projects, for example: project management, computer skills, using and maintaining equipment, lobbying and applying for grants. The use of these skills and the relationships between great linguists and particular language communities has been the foundation for the development of many significant language resources. The production of some types of resources, such as grammars and dictionaries, can take years of linguistic work and often build on long term working relationships between linguistics and language communities. Some linguists have put many hours into digitizing old recordings and making copies for family members of the people they have worked with over the years.
Often it is academic research that financially supports linguists to work in communities, and thus it also often funds the community resources that they contribute to. However the research outcomes may be quite different from the resources that the community is interested in. When this is the case the linguist and the community need to be aware of what information, materials and resources will be shared beyond the language community through teaching, publishing books and papers, and speaking at conferences.
Linguists need to respond to the requests, ideas and aspirations of communities for their languages. For your own language projects, consider how a linguist can support your community by being committed to developing practical as well as theoretical resources. Like all members of a language project team, a linguist should aim to pass on useful skills that the community can use on future projects. These kinds of discussions should be part of any research negotiations between linguists and communities.
The United Nations affirms communities’ rights to their languages through several landmark documents:
- the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the right to use, revitalise, develop and transmit a group’s language and oral traditions, and to access education and media in their own languages (articles 13, 14, 16)
- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes the right of people to use their own languages and for information and legal protections to be provided in their own languages (articles 14, 27)
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right to access and freely participate in “the cultural life of the community” (article 27)
- UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage recognises oral traditions and language as cultural heritage to be protected, preserved and promoted (article 2)
Each of Australia’s languages is unique and has evolved over tens of thousands of years to express its community’s history, culture, and land. Recognising, supporting and maintaining Australia’s diverse linguistic heritage enriches Australia’s cultural landscape, supports cultural and tourism activities, and contributes to the social and physical wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.