Aboriginal language basics

Learn about the many roles language has in Aboriginal culture, the main language groups and their biggest threat.

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Language and culture

Language is a fundamental part of Aboriginal culture and identity, even for those who do not speak an Aboriginal language. As a diverse people there are also a range of relationships to language:

  • speaking multiple Aboriginal languages besides one's own,
  • speaking one Aboriginal language as a first language (mother tongue),
  • learning an Aboriginal language to revive it (either one's own or another language),
  • not speaking a language (because too much (or all) of it has been lost).

All Aboriginal languages can be beneficial, socially and economically, and provide income or employment. Those who can still (or are learning to) speak an Aboriginal language are healthier, learn better and enjoy better mental health, even for Aboriginal people who have lost ties to their culture and acquire a language later in life.

Languages don't just carry information. They also link to land, stories, Dreaming tracks, botanical, medicinal and navigational techniques, and historical experiences of colonialism, racism and prejudice.

Statistically fewer and fewer First Nations people learn and speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. The number declined from 16.4% in 1991 to 9.8% in 2016. And while the median age of speakers in 2006 was 23 years, it had increased to 26 years in 2016, which means younger people are less likely to learn a language.

At the beginning, the country gave us language to describe the country. And through that language to describe the country, it gave us identity.

— Darren Charlwood, Wiradjuri artist and Aboriginal cultural heritage officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens

Language and Country

Aboriginal languages in particular are tied to Country. Linguists speak of onomatopoeic wording, words that evoke the actual sound of the thing they refer to or describe. In English, examples include the “boom” of a firework exploding, the “tick tock” of a clock, and the “ding dong” of a doorbell, in Aboriginal languages such words mimic the sound of bird or an animal found on that country. For example, the Dharug word for kangaroo, buru, is the sound the kangaroo makes when it jumps.

The languages change as you move between different environments. Aboriginal people who lived near the coast have a lot of words for shellfish and tidal rivers, while more inland-living people have a lot of words for river fish, animals and birds.

Thus paying attention to local languages helps learn about how Aboriginal people adapted to and managed Country.

"[Aboriginal] language is an important embodiment of cultural heritage, knowledge, tradition and identity unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples," explains Russell Taylor, Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

For Yolngu Elder Laurie Baymarrwangga language carries the essence of Aboriginal culture. "The important thing about language and what it means is that language contains the essence of the ancestors, every word comes from place, and identifies people and links to land, country, the dreaming; they are all inherent in language, therefore it means the people, the land, everything."

Yolngu [north-Australian] language is our power, our foundation, our root and everything that holds us together. [It] gives us strength; language is our identity, who we are. Yolngu language gives us pride. Language is our law and justice.

— Yalmay Yunupingu, Aboriginal teacher

In the language are our ideas and we need them, the world needs them.

— Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal author and educator

Where are First Nations languages spoken today?

While most First Nations people live in New South Wales, more than half of people who speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in Australia live in the Northern Territory.

Distribution of speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages by state and territory
State or territoryFirst Nations speakers
[% of total speakers]
Northern Territory54.5
Western Australia15.8
South Australia5.2
New South Wales2.8
Australian Capital Territory0.2

Compare this distribution with the percentages of First Nations people in the population of the state or territory.

Most people who spoke a First Nations language live in very remote (72.6%) and remote (12.3%) regions. Only 4.8% lived in major cities or inner regional Australia (2.6%).

Dissecting an Aboriginal word

Many Aboriginal words are compounds made up of the combination of individual words, similar to the long words found in other languages such as German.

For example, the name of the Buruberongal clan of the Dharug people is a compound of the words for gal (people) belonging to (beron) the kangaroo (buru).

Have you ever listened to Aboriginal language?

Many people, even many Australians, have never listened to an Aboriginal language.

Here's a video where teenager Taliah King sings the Australian anthem in Dharawal language, recorded at the Reconciliation ceremony in Shellharbour City in 2013:

Multilingual memory masters

Aboriginal people were experts when it comes to language. Before the invasion many were able to speak at least two or three, and up to five, languages or dialects fluently. Because they had an oral culture they were masters in remembering, contrary to the dominant Western cultures today who rely on the written word.

In my community, it was common to speak 10 languages. Speaking three wasn't that impressive.

— Lorraine Injie, Aboriginal woman, Pilbara, WA

Languages vs language groups

Language groups, such as Yolnu Matha ("the people's tongue"), are not languages. The Yolŋu Matha family of languages comprises between 48 and 60 languages.

When considering Aboriginal language groups today, consider that many Aboriginal people have moved inter-state, voluntarily or not. An Aboriginal person living in a particular state may not be from that state originally.

For example, if an Aboriginal person originally from Western Australia is now living in NSW, they would still consider themselves to be a Nyoongar rather than a Koori.

Aboriginal language group names
State or territoryAboriginal language group(s)
New South WalesKoori, Goorie, Koorie, Coorie, Murri
Northern TerritoryYolngu (top end), Anangu (central)
South AustraliaNunga, Nyungar, Nyoongah
TasmaniaPalawa, Koori
Western AustraliaNyungar, Nyoongar

The continuing loss of Aboriginal languages

For some Aboriginal people their mother language is still strong and actively spoken. Others are trying desperately to save the little that remains, or is known, of their language. Often the diaries of the invaders are the only source for reconstruction.

But there is a shocking statistic that makes language preservation and revival extremely difficult: The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people – more than 90% – do not speak their traditional language. No wonder that all of Australia’s Aboriginal languages are under threat.

Relatively new languages, on the other hand, particularly Kriol and Yumplatok, are some
of the strongest Aboriginal languages in Australia, and their use is growing.

Census data shows the small number of Aboriginal people who speak an Aboriginal language at home.

Aboriginal language spoken at home
English only83.9
Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole)0.9

The remaining percentage covers specific Aboriginal languages and people who did not respond to the Census question.


View article sources (12)

[1] [1a] [1b] 'National Indigenous Languages Report', Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), and the Australian National University, 2020, available at
[2] 'New language courses reclaim the mother tongue', NIT 25/1/2007 p.13
[3] 'Australia’s endangered languages', Honi Soit 13/11/2014,, retrieved 16/11/2014
[4] [4a] [4b] 'Language Statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples', Australian Bureau of Statistics, 11/4/2022, available at
[5] [5a] [5b] [5c] 'So you can say 'bonjour' – but how about hello in a local Indigenous language?', SMH 26/11/2020
[6] 'Prestigious award win for AIATSIS', Koori Mail 452 p.42
[7] 'Fighting for language', Koori Mail 525 p.4
[8] 'NT Govt accused of endangering culture', Koori Mail 439 p.8
[9] ''Do more' challenge for us all', Koori Mail 441 p.40
[10] 'Project aims to halt loss of Aboriginal languages', AFP 26/10/2010
[11], retrieved 4/3/2018
[12] '2016 Census: Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples QuickStats', Australian Bureau of Statistics, 23/10/2017

Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal language basics, <>, retrieved 14 June 2024

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