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6 Mind-Blowing Facts About Australia’s Indigenous Languages

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Yiradhu marang. Yamma. Kaya. Palya. Hello.

2019 is the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, and Australia – home to the world’s oldest continuing culture – boasts some of the most diverse, complex and fascinating of them all.

Language plays a huge role in who we are, in our identity. And you can learn a lot about the country you live on through the language of the people who walked on it first.

Start with this handful of mind-blowing facts about Australia’s Indigenous languages.

#1 Australia’s Indigenous Languages have one common ancestor

Last year, researchers at the University of Newcastle and Western Sydney University completed a three-year study that showed, for the first time, all Indigenous languages come from one common ancestor.

“This language family spread across all of Australia, presumably from a small area in Northern Australia. This spread is likely to have been carried out by at least some population movement whose material and genetic traces have remained somewhat elusive,” UoN Chief Investigator and historical linguist, Associate Professor Mark Harvey, says.

The study also suggested that Indigenous Australian languages only spread after the end of the last ice age, up to 12,000 years ago.


#2 There were more than 250 Indigenous languages, but most are endangered or lost

Indigenous Australia: 6 Mind-Blowing Facts About Indigenous Languages

Image: Jason H / Unsplash

Prior to colonisation, over 250 languages with 800 dialects were spoken on this continent. From 1910, government policies and laws prevented Aboriginal people from speaking their language.

Today, according to the National Indigenous Languages survey, an estimated 100 are still spoken by the older generations. Only 13 languages are still being learned by children at school and at home. To stop further loss of language, Wiradjuri man and language teacher Aaron Ellis says we need to recognise and value the importance of Aboriginal languages for all Australians.

“The NSW Aboriginal Languages Act 2017 [the first law put in place to protect and revitalise language] was an important first step, but time is critical,” says Ellis.

“Education, funding and resources must be provided to ensure there are teachers and tutors available for all schools that want to teach their local Aboriginal language.”


#3 You can learn Indigenous languages through TAFE, university and apps

There are dozens of courses, apps and other online resources to help you learn an Indigenous language. Ellis runs an Instagram account dedicated to teaching Wiradjuri language.

“Wiradjuri Wednesday started as a way for me to extend my own language skills and understanding,” Ellis says. “But seeing people use Wiradjuri on social media, even beginning with yiradhu marang [“good day”] makes me proud. It’s important to help people connect with culture and Country.”


#4 Shakespeare’s sonnets were performed in Noongar at London’s Globe Theatre

Less than 400 people within the Noongar nation in Western Australia speak the language, which makes it endangered. To address this, the Yirra Yakin Theatre established the Noongar Shakespeare Project, translating the works of the Bard into the ancient language.

At The Globe Theatre’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012, Yirra Yaakin performed Shakespeare’s sonnets in Noongar. The theatre company is currently working on a full-length adaptation of Macbeth, which will premiere next year.


#5 There are over 400 Aboriginal words spoken in Australian English

Indigenous Australia: 6 Mind-Blowing Facts About Indigenous Languages

Image: Melanie Dretvic / Unsplash

You may be aware that a lot of Australian native animals, like the barramundi and the galah, are still referred to by their original names. But you might be surprised to know over 400 Aboriginal words have been borrowed by Australian English – including yakka (work), billabong, and cooee (a Dharug word that means “come here”).

There are also quite a few words you might assume are Aboriginal in origin – but aren’t. “Didgeridoo” is thought to be Irish or Scottish in origin, “emu” is Arabic, and “cockatoo” is a Malaysian word.


#6 Australia is the only other home of African “Click” language

African click languages use the clicks as consonants, to form words with vowels. A Khoisan language, among the oldest on Earth, has a vocabulary of thousands of words and can have up to 63 unique clicks.

Psycholinguist, Professor Catherine Best of the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University, says these click languages are thought to be uniquely African. But the Lardil people of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria were the only non-African speakers to use clicks for verbal communication, in the Damin language.

Damin is now considered extinct. Only used by the men of the tribe, it was spoken and taught during ritual ceremonies that signified male rites of passage.

Through technology, determination, and the removal of government policies designed to wipe them out, Australia’s original languages are having a true resurgence.

What’s the language group of the country you are on today?

(Lead image: Magicmicka / Pixabay)

Find your local Indigenous language on the Gambay First Languages Map and learn more about the International Year of Indigenous Languages.