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
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
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.
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
(reproduced with permission from ATSIC)