The text below is a modified version of a paper by
R M W Dixon produced for and published by ATSIC 1997 (reproduced with
permission from ATSIC)
© Commonwealth of Australia
Tribes and language
Before the European invasion in 1788, there were between 600 and
700 distinct 'tribes' in Australia. Each had its own territory, its
own political system and laws, and its own language. The 600 to 700
tribe-nations spoke, between them, between 200 and 250 languages.
These were separate languages, as distinct from each other as are
French and German, or Chinese and Japanese. Sometimes two or three,
or even five or six, adjacent tribes spoke what were really dialects
of one language. In other situations a single tribe spoke its own
language, different from the languages of neighbouring groups.
The first words from an Australian language were written down in
1770 by Captain Cook, from the Guugu-Yimidhirr people at the Endeavour
River in North Queensland. They included kang-ooroo, the name
for a species of large black kangaroo. When Governor Phillip brought
the first group of convicts to Sydney in 1788, he took down some words
in the local language, Dharuk. They included a number which have since
been adopted into English, such as boomerang and din-go
'tame dog' (now used in English for 'wild dog'). As settlers spread
out from Sydney they encountered many different Aboriginal languages.
Then, in 1841, the explorer George Grey studied some of the vocabularies
that had been collected from different localities and noticed some
similarities between them. For example, the word for 'water' at Adelaide
was kauw-ee and that at Perth gab-by or kuyp-e;
but a tribe not far from Perth had kow-win for 'water', a form
very similar to that used at Adelaide. Grey suggested that the languages
of Australia might be related as members of one 'language family'.
The languages are related
Across the languages of the continent there are some words that recur
- nouns such as jina 'foot', mala or mara 'hand'
and mayi 'vegetable food', and verbs such as pu- 'hit',
ka- 'carry' and nya- 'see'. There are also similarities
of grammar. The ending used on a noun when it is subject of a sentence
is -lu in some languages and -ngku in others. A number
of languages show both affixes. In the language spoken in the Western
Desert (covering a large part of Western Australia, as well as portions
of South Australia and the Northern Territory) the names of people
take subject ending -lu, while common nouns (such as 'man',
'girl' or 'emu') take -ngku. This is all extra evidence that
the languages are related, as George Grey suggested in 1841.
Most of the languages from Europe across to north India have been
shown to belong to the IndoEuropean language family. They are descended
from a single original language which is believed to have been spoken
about 7000 years ago, somewhere between the Black Sea and the Baltic
In exactly the same way, linguists have shown that almost all the
languages of Australia belong to one language family. That is, they
are all descended from one original language which may have been spoken
somewhere on the central north coast (quite possibly in the vicinity
of Darwin) many thousands of years in the past.
Aborigines then moved out over the whole continent. One tribe-nation
would have split up into two or three new groups, which would have
spread out in different directions. Language is always changing and
over time what were just different dialects developed into distinct
languages, that were no longer mutually understandable.
There were eight or more separate languages spoken in Tasmania. Unfortunately,
only a few fragments were recorded before their speakers died or were
killed. There had been no contact between Tasmanians and mainland
Aborigines since the Bass Strait was submerged at the end of the last
Ice Age, about 10 000 years ago. It is impossible to tell whether
Tasmanian and mainland languages were originally related. No relationship
has yet been proved between Australian or Tasmanian languages and
languages spoken anywhere else in the world.
Complicated words in the north
Those languages that differ most from the common Australian pattern
are found in the north, from the Kimberley in Western Australia to
Mornington Island and Burketown in the Queensland Gulf Country. Some
of these languages have developed very complex structures - often
a single word will express what in most languages would be a sentence
of several words.
Most of these northern languages can be shown to belong to the Australian
language family; Rembarrnga, for instance, has pu- 'hit', ka
'take' and na- 'see'. There are just a few languages such as
Tiwi from Melville and Bathurst Islands that seem really different.
Either they are not related to other Australian languages, or else
they have changed so much that a connection cannot now be recognised.
Literature and special speech styles
Australian languages have a rich cultural heritage - long narrative
and song cycles have been handed down from parent to child for thousands
of years. These provide an explanation of how the world was created
by Dreamtime ancestors. Each tribe had its own song styles, which
often had a special metrical pattern, and used special words not in
the everyday language style.
Many tribe-nations had a special 'avoidance' style of speaking,
which had to be used in the presence of a relative with whom one could
have only formal contact (with no joking), according to the laws of
the kinship system. A man and his mother-in-law, or a woman and her
son-in-law were often not allowed to look directly at one another,
and had to use an avoidance speech style when in the other's presence.
Avoidance styles had the same grammar as the normal, everyday language
style, but showed a number of different words.