‘When language is lost, knowledge and wisdom are lost, and so too is identity. It is through language that we interpret our belief systems; our religion, spirituality, knowledge of country and so much more.’

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

It is estimated that there were 250 Indigenous languages at the time of European settlement. According to the National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005:

  • only 18 Indigenous languages are now considered strong and have speakers across all age groups
  • around 110 Indigenous languages are still spoken by older people but can be considered endangered



Identifying as a speaker of a particular language or dialect can be very important for Aboriginal people. It is a way of expressing membership in a particular family. Even small differences in dialect can be significant. People are categorised in language, which illustrates the complex structure of family and kin relationships. The way in which age and status influences the various forms of language can be a form of social control.

Not only is language important to Aboriginal people in terms of identification and social control but it is also essential to Dreamtime. It is through oral communication that concepts and beliefs about the Dreaming are passed on from one generation to the next, as traditionally these stories are not written down. These stories help in understanding about the past, present and future and are an explanation of how the world was created by Dreamtime ancestors. Each tribe had its own song styles and used special words not used in the everyday language.


It is thought that the indigenous languages of mainland Australia and Tasmania are not related to any languages outside Australia. Linguists classify mainland Australian languages into two distinct groups, the Pama-Nyungan languages and the non-Pama Nyungan. In the late 18th century, it is estimated that there were between 350 and 750 distinct languages and dialects, however they have been in decline ever since. About 50 000 people speak an Australian indigenous language as their first language. The only strong Aboriginal languages left are found in the most remote and least urbanised areas of Australia, such as the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and central Australia.

Special speech etiquette

Some Tribes had a special ‘avoidance’ style of speaking. This had to be used in the presence of a relative with whom one could have only formal contact according to the laws of the kinship system. An example of this would be woman and her son-in-law, who were often not allowed to look directly at one another, and had to use an avoidance speech style when in each other’s presence.

Decline of the Language

The dramatic impact on the languages of Aboriginal people from European invasion cannot be underestimated. Of the estimated 700 language groups that existed prior to the arrival of the first European settlers, fewer than 150 Indigenous Australian languages remain in use and all but about 20 of these are highly endangered. Strong languages are underpinned by a large community of speakers and children who are learning them as their first language. The removal of children from their families also negatively impacted upon indigenous languages as the children were forced to speak English and were not allowed to speak their native language.

Many of Australia’s Aboriginal languages face an uphill battle for survival, despite the vigorous efforts by communities to retain their language heritage wherever possible. However, all Aboriginal languages are in danger because of the decline in the number of speakers and often it is only older people who still speak certain dialects.

‘As a qualified linguist and an Aboriginal community person, I believe there must be more discussion around pertinent issues such as the control and management of language materials, intellectual property rights and the return of products back to the community.’

Jeanie Bell, lecturer in the Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the Northern Territory

Modern Languages

Due to the vast differences in dialect and the introduction of English, some traditional Aboriginal languages have evolved and changed over the years.

Aboriginal English

Often there are things within Aboriginal communities and families that cannot be explained adequately in English as there is no direct translation. As a result a distinct type of speech known as Aboriginal English has developed and it is considered to be an enrichment of the English Language.


Each Aboriginal tribe or community has its own distinct dialect. When people who speak very different languages come into contact a mixture of languages is the result. A mixture of English and Aboriginal languages has developed in Australia. Over time this has created a new language called Creole (or Kriol, as spelled in the north of Australia). People speak Creole in addition to their own language so they can communicate with people from outside their community.

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