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Aboriginal LanguagesAboriginal Languages


Australian Aboriginal languages are not hard to pronounce, once a few basic principles are understood. The first is that every vowel should be clearly pronounced. As a rule, u is like the oo in the English word 'boot', i like the vowel in 'bit' and a like that in 'hat'. If a vowel letter is doubled, then pronounce it very long.

In most languages b can be substituted for p, d for t and g for k with no difference to the meaning of the word. Some people use b, d and g while others prefer p, t and k; either set of letters is satisfactory. Thus, the name of the language spoken west of Alice Springs is sometimes spelt Pintupi and sometimes Bindubi; and the name of the large black kangaroo in GuuguYimidhirr can be written either kang-urru or gang-urru.

While English distinguishes between b and p (but most Aboriginal languages don't), Australian languages recognise a distinction between two kinds of r sound (which are treated as variants of one sound by speakers of English). There is the trilled sound, written rr, similar to that heard in Scottish English, and a liquid sound, r, similar to that in normal Australian English.

Where dh or th is written, they indicate a sound like d or t but with the tongue touching the teeth.

The hardest sound for English speakers to master is ng. English does have this sound, but only at the end of a word; it is the sound after the a in 'bang'. Australian languages have ng at the beginning of words. In many languages the pronoun 'I' is ngayu. It only needs a bit of practice to say ng at the beginning of a word. Say bang-ayu (make sure you just say ng, as in 'singer', and not ng + g, as in 'finger'). Say bangayu a few times and gradually drop off the ba-. Thus, bang-ayu, bangayu, ngayu.

The alphabet has only been invented two or three times in the history of the world. Speakers of one language tend to 'borrow' an alphabet used by some other language, and adapt it for their own needs. The English alphabet was taken from Latin, which was based on the Greek alphabet, which was in turn based on an alphabet that was probably invented in the ancient Middle East. Australian languages are now being written in a phonetic alphabet, with one symbol for each sound wherever possible (for ng we have to use two, since the Roman alphabet has no suitable letter). These Australian alphabets are being used for books, and in newspapers.

The present situation

For generations, Aboriginal children attended schools in which reading and writing were taught only in English, a language which some of them could not speak or understand. In the early 1970s bilingual education was introduced in some Aboriginal communities; children learn to read and write in their native language first, and later switch to English. This is a major factor in ensuring that some Aboriginal languages will survive.

Many Aboriginal people are deeply concerned about the state of their languages. Language centres have been established in different parts of the country to keep the languages going. Aboriginal media associations, which broadcast radio and television programs in Aboriginal languages, are another important means of preservation.

The languages are also being modified. Speakers of Aboriginal languages have evolved words and phrases to describe introduced technology, social structures and activities, and other changes that have occurred since European contact. Sometimes they borrow words from English; sometimes they make up new words; and sometimes they extend the meaning of existing words. For example, in many Aboriginal languages the word for 'stone, pebble' is now used for 'money' as well.

Two new Aboriginal languages have evolved; these are 'creoles'. One, Cape York Creole, is spoken on Torres Strait Islands and Queensland communities; the other, Kriol, is spoken across northern Australia. Many of the words in Kriol are borrowed from English, but they are pronounced with the phonetics of an Aboriginal language, put together in sentences with the rules of Aboriginal grammar, and given Aboriginal meanings (which often differ quite a bit from their original English meanings).

While opinions differ about the future of Kriol, many young Aborigines in the north recognise Kriol as their 'own' language, and bilingual education is proceeding in this new mode of speech.

Further reading

The best introductory book is Australian Aboriginal Languages by Barry Blake (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1981). The most comprehensive treatment is The languages of Australia by R.M.W. Dixon (Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Modified version of original text by R.M W Dixon Commonwealth of Australia (reproduced with permission from ATSIC)

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