Language

Aboriginal words in Australian English

Australia’s language is interspersed with words that come from Aboriginal languages.

Aboriginal words are still added to the Australian vocabulary, and meanings are not what you expected.

Article heading: 'Deadly vibe hits Albany'
Article heading in an Indigenous newspaper. What would you associate with this heading? [1]

What would you associate with the heading above? Shouldn’t the faces of the people pictured be concerned rather than happy because of the ‘deadly’ vibe that’s impacting the town?

This is an example for how Aboriginal words can be mistaken by speakers of the English language. ‘Deadly’ is an Aboriginal slang word for ‘fantastic’, ‘great’ or ‘awesome’. The article reports about the fun and joy people had at the two-day Aboriginal youth weekend Vibe 3on3.

While an increasing number of parents are using Aboriginal words for their children’s names [2] many Australians don’t know how to say ‘yes’ in any of the many Aboriginal languages.

We all know how to say yes in Spanish don't we? We all know how to say yes in German don't we? We all know how to say yes in French don't we? Do we know how to say yes in any of the 360 Aboriginal dialects in this country?—Ernie Dingo, Aboriginal actor and Yamatji man [3]

Some of the many words you find in Aboriginal English spoken in New South Wales shows the following table [4].

Aboriginal words common in NSW
Aboriginal English Standard English
country land, home
deadly fantastic, great, awesome
mob family, kin, group of people
lingo Aboriginal language
Sorry Business ceremony and rituals associated with the death of a loved one
gammon pretending, kidding, joking
shame embarrass, humiliate
tidda girl female friend, best friend, peer
sista/sister girl female friend, cousin, peer
brotha/brother boy male friend, cousin, peer
dubbay, dub girlfriend, female partner
gubba non-Aboriginal person
duri (doori) sex
charge-up, charge drink alcohol
shame, shamejob that’s embarrassing
gunjies police
mish mission

The Waratah is a red, large flower.
Waratah. ‘Waratah’ is an Aboriginal word which is used in today’s Australian English. It describes a stout, erect shrub which may grow to four metres. The Waratah was proclaimed the official floral emblem of New South Wales on 24 October 1962.

Australia’s language is interspersed with words that come from Aboriginal languages. Today around 400 words are in common usage which come from 80 different Indigenous languages [5]. Most of these words are used to describe flora and fauna or other “things”.

A survey of newspapers in July 2007 found that the most common Aboriginal word is ‘kangaroo’, followed by ‘wallaby’ (which might be influenced by the rugby team of the same name), ‘waratah’ (also a rugby team), ‘koala’, ‘billabong’, ‘kookaburra’, ‘dingo’ and ‘wombat’.

Not surprisingly, all of these words come from a language spoken in the area of Sydney and surrounds where they were adopted early on in Australia’s history. The uniform spelling was established in the 1830s.

‘Karrikins’—a new word from an Aboriginal language

Aboriginal words are still added to the Australian and international vocabulary.

In 2008 the word ‘karrikins’ was added [6]. It is derived from the Western Australian Noongar word karrik, one of the first recorded Aboriginal words for smoke from the Perth area in the 1830s. Karrikins describes a substance in plants that stimulates seed germination and seedling growth after bushfires.

Second only to the original language of Sydney Cove, Noongar has given more words to the English language than any other Indigenous Australian language.—Alan Dench, Professor of Linguistics, University of Western Australia [6]

The ‘Gubba Man’

The most fearful cry Aboriginal people in north-west NSW could hear in the 1850s was ‘Gubbamen’ or ‘Gubba Man’ [7].

This term resulted from an Aboriginal mispronunciation of ‘government’ and it meant officers were coming to take more children away or do other ills to the community.

The word (sometimes shortened to just ‘Gubba’) was later applied to all white persons.

Question: Why does the Warlpiri Aboriginal language have no words for saltwater things?

Tell me!

Answer:

Aboriginal languages can only have words for things within their local context. The Warlpiri Aboriginal people live in the central desert area of Australia and have no access to saltwater environments [8].

Footnotes

Article sources

[1] Koori Mail 448 p.44
[2] 'New language courses reclaim the mother tongue', NIT 25/1/2007 p.13
[3] 'Our finalists do us proud', Koori Mail 469 p.11
[4] 'Working with Aboriginal people and communities', guide by NSW Department of Community Services, 2/2009 p.22
[5] 'Author looks at swimmers, accents and black words', NIT 16/10/2008 p.13
[6] 'Noongar name for substance', Koori Mail 444 p.33
[7] National Indigenous Times 135 p.22
[8] 'A single national language', Koori Mail 429 p.25