The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (2023)

In 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in Australia, it is estimated that up to 700 indigenous languages were spoken nationally. Fast forward to 2020 and just over 100 indigenous languages are spoken — with sadly more predicted to become extinct.

Aboriginal activists are working tirelessly across the country to preserve these languages, so they can be passed onto our future generations.

Last year, the United Nations announced that 2019 would be the International Year of indigenous Languages. To celebrate, The Australian indigenous Languages playlist wasreleased on Spotify and six Aboriginal Language dictionaries were released by the Aboriginal Studies Press.

But what are the primary indigenous languages spoken in each state capital?

And what are their personal histories?

It’s crucial that adults, teens and children become educated on indigenous languages and culture in order to understand diversity.

Today, I’ll delve into a handful of the languages of Australia’s first people.

NOTE: I could have covered many more indigenous Australian languages, but for this article I wanted to focus on what is/was spoken in the areas of the state and territory capital cities.

Also be sure to check out my detailed post on the origin of Australian English (which mentions indigenous language influence).

Table of Contents:

  1. Sydney (Dharug)
  2. Canberra (Ngunnawal)
  3. Melbourne (Woiwurrung)
  4. Brisbane (Turrbal)
  5. Adelaide (Kaurna)
  6. Darwin (Laragiya, Umbugarla and Limilngan)
  7. Perth (Nyungar/Noongar)
  8. Hobart (Palawa Kani (conlang))

Dharug language (Sydney, NSW)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (1)

The Dharug language is 5000 years old and was spoken throughout most of Sydney. It was the first Aboriginal language heard by British colonists.

William Dawes (an astronomer, scientist and officer in the First Fleet) formed bonds with the Eora people and recorded data about the Dharug language before he was sent back to England.

The Dharug language is often reported in the media as being extinct or lost but individuals such as Dharug elder Richard Green, who is a language teacher at Chifley College in Western Sydney and songman has revitalised the language for today’s generation by working with the NSWBoard of Studies on the Aboriginal Languages curriculum.

Dharug sample words:

DharugEnglish
wirreenggaa woman
thoorlgalaa man
wibungAustralian magpie
gaxabaraa dance
wurabataanger

Dharug language resources:

Dharug and Dharawal Resources (includes Dharug dictionary and audio pronunciations of words)

(Video) Australian Aboriginal Languages

Ngunnawal language (Canberra, ACT)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (2)

The Ngunnawal language is the traditional Aboriginal language of Canberra spoken by the Ngunnawal and Gundungurra peoples — their land stretched out all the way from Young to Goulburn to Canberra.

In 2014, Ngunnawal community members from The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) met to discussthe Ngunnawal Language Revival Project.

The project’s aim is to revitalise the Nugunnawal language by getting it back into the ACT school curriculum. By 2016, Nugunnawal was being taught to Canberra school children through a pilot program but the program has now sadly ended.

Earlier this year, history was made when the Ngunnawal language was used in the ACT’s parliament in the acknowledgement of country. Chief Minister Andrew Barr told the Legislative Assembly:

“There is a need to recognise, and do what we can to support, revive and protect the languages of the traditional custodians and occupants of the land.”

Ngunnawal sample words:

NgunnawalEnglish
gudalito hunt
guginyakookaburra
bunburungsmall lizard
wolwaywaterfall
yaarhrunning water

Ngunnawal language resources: Aboriginal Languages by linguist David Nash

Woiwurrung language (Melbourne, Victoria)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (3)

There are 38 languages and 11 language families in Victoria with Woiwurrung being the Aboriginal language for Melbourne and the Wurundjeri people.

Wurundjeri is derived from the Woiwurrung language word ‘wurun’ which means Eucalyptus and ‘djeri’ which is a grub found near Eucalyptus trees along the Yarra River.

The four Woiwurrung clans were often referred to as the Yarra Yarra Tribes after colonisation.

Woiwurrung sample words:

WurundjeriEnglish
wominjekawelcome
gunungriver
ballukswamp
ngamudjiwhite male
niracave

Woiwurrung Language Resources:

Victorian Aboriginal Corporation For Languages (VACL)

The Aboriginal History of Yarra

https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/

Turrbal language (Brisbane, Queensland)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (4)

The Turrbal language, also known as Yuggera (or Jagera) was the Aboriginal language native to Brisbane.

(Video) How can Australian Aborigines and an Indian carpenter share the same language?

The Aussie word “yakka” (as in “hard yakka”) is derived from the Yuggera language — meaning hard work.

There seems to be a lot of confusion and disagreement around the languages and dialects of Greater Brisbane. Also it appears vague as to the breadth these languages were spoken.

Yuggera sample words:

YuggeraEnglish
gigashoulder
gibarrboy
yuinginfriend
barbanggrandmother
mirraginstars

Yuggera Language Resources:

Yuggera Everyday Words

Kaurna language (Adelaide, South Australia)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (5)

Adelaide’s original Aboriginal language is the Kaurna Language.

The Kaurna language belongs to the family of Pama-Nyrungan languages and is spoken by the inidgenous peoples of the Adelaide Plains.

It has been in revival since the eighties and is taught in primary schools and high schools throughout South Australia. A Kauma linguistics course has existed at the University of Adelaide since 1997.

In 2002, Kaurna Elders Dr. Lewis Yerloburka and Dr. Alitya Wallara Rigney created a group that promotes recovery of the Kaurna language after a successful series of workshops.

Kaurna sample words:

KaurnaEnglish
niina marnihello
tarndamale kangaroo
ngaityalyaThank you
marnigood
kuku’aiI am sick

Kaurna language resources:

Adelaide Education Resources - Kaurna Dictionary

SA government Kaurna Language History

(Video) Aboriginal Documentary Australian -Living the Language Australia The Aboriginal People

Australian Kriol/Darwin Region Languages (Darwin, NT)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (6)

The Darwin Region Languages are the true languages of Darwin’s Indigneous. They’re a tiny group of Aboriginal languages proposed by Mark Harvey — the Associate Professor of Languages and Landscape at Newcastle University. They consist of Laragiya, Umbugarla and Limilngan. Laragiya is said to nearly be extinct, Umburgarla became extinct in 2000 and Limilingan became extinct in 2009.

Australian Kriol is the main language spoken by Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory but Kriol wasn’t even considered to be a language until the seventies.

Australian Kriol sample words:

Australian KriolEnglish
olaa lot
abatabout
yelabalaAboriginal
ablekin
adrockhard rock

Obviously, the majority of indigenous language work is happening in East Arnhem (Yolŋu). For more info on those, see ARDS.

Australian Kriol language resources:

Australian Society For indigenous Languages

Nyungar language (Perth, Western Australia)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (7)

The Nyungar language (Noongar) is spoken today in the South-East of Western Australia. The language was first recorded by British cartographer and navigator, Captain Matthew Flinders in 1801.

Linguists claim that there were 66 Aboriginal languages spoken in W.A at the time of European settlement with The National indigenous Languages Report stating that only 17 of those 66 languages are spoken in WA today, including: Ngaanyatjarra, Yinjibarndi, Martu Wangka and Bardi.

In 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald spoke to the Senior Consultant of Aboriginal Languages with the WA Department of Education, Lola Jones. Jones said that 16 of those languages were being taught in 41 schools throughout the state.

Nyungar sample words:

NyungarEnglish
balaknaked
kwilanadolphin
moolymareeface
narnakbeard
weerlobird

Nyungar Language Resources:

There’s a free online course for Nyungar from edX with the option of Curtin University accreditation.

South-west Aboriginal Land and Sea Council

(Video) Aboriginal culture | Why is Country Spelled With a Capital ‘C’?

Palawa Kani (Hobart, Tasmania)

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (8)

Palawa kani (‘Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak’) is actually a conlang (constructed language) that was created in the nineties by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. It is said that up to sixteen Aboriginal languages may have existed in Tasmania once. Thankfully for historians, remnants of some of those original languages were documented in wordlists throughout the colonial period.

Fanny Cochrane Smith (the last fluent Tasmanian Aboriginal Speaker) was recorded singing songs in the early 1900s in her own language.

On the Tasmania Aboriginal Centre website, it states:

“Most tragic of all, there aren’t enough words or information recorded of any of the original languages to rebuild any one of them exactly as it was. As a result, palawa kani combines words retrieved from as many of the original languages as possible.”

Palawa kani sample words:

Palawa kaniEnglish
nanistone
nangafather
wītamoon
poamother
pögöli-nasun

Palawa kani Language Resources:

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

Revival and preservation of Australian Aboriginal languages

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Professor of Linguistics and Endangered languages at the University of Adelaide once said: *“I believe the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land.” *

Research has shown that reconnecting Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander Peoples with their traditional language not only improves their mental health but lowers suicide rates throughout their communities.

The revival and preservation of Aboriginal languages is vital for future generations. It empowers Australia’s indigenous people, giving them a sense of belonging whilst restoring their cultural identity.

All Aussies, both indigenous and non-indigenous must come together in solidarity and take steps to revive these languages which are rapidly becoming extinct.

But noone articulates it better than Brooke Joy (who is a descendent of the Boandik people in South Australia) in The Report of the Second National indigenous Languages Survey:

Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining one’s language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves. Traditional language is important for maintaining strong cultural connections. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops. To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital.

Other useful resources

AUSTLANG - an online database which collates information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Bibliography of Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islands - published works on Inidgenous languages.

The Aboriginal Australian Languages Native To Each Capital (9) Grab the link to this article

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FAQs

What Aboriginal languages are spoken in Australia? ›

Over 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in 2021. 76,978 (9.5%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported speaking an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2021, up from 63,754 (9.8%) in 2016. Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole) was the most commonly spoken language.

What is the native Aboriginal language? ›

Yolŋu languages from north-east Arnhem Land are also currently learned by children. Bilingual education is being used successfully in some communities. Seven of the most widely spoken Australian languages, such as Warlpiri, Murrinh-patha and Tiwi, retain between 1,000 and 3,000 speakers.

What are the 3 main languages spoken in Australia? ›

Top 10 languages spoken in Australia, by English Language Proficiency (ELP)
#Top 10 most spoken languages
1Mandarin
2Arabic
3Vietnamese
4Cantonese
6 more rows
Mar 27, 2020

What are the 3 main languages spoken in the Torres Strait Islands? ›

There are two traditional languages of the Torres Strait Islands, Meriam Mir and Kala Lagaw Ya as well as Torres Strait Creole, a recently developed community language. Meriam Mir (also written as Miriam Mer) is the Language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait.

What is the oldest Australian Aboriginal language? ›

The results traced Pama-Nyungan back to a site south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and indicate it emerged in the mid-Holocene period 4,000 to 6,000 years ago and rapidly replacing the existing languages.

How many Aboriginal languages were spoken in Australia before invasion? ›

Before European settlement in 1788, more than 250 Indigenous languages — including 800 dialect varieties — were spoken across the continent.

What are the four most commonly spoken languages in Australia? ›

More than one-fifth (21 per cent) of Australians spoke a language other than English at home. After English, the next most common languages spoken at home were Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.

How many spoken languages in Australia? ›

More than 250 Indigenous languages, including 800 dialects, are spoken throughout Australia. Every language has unique geographical and linguistic characteristics. Many diverse languages are spoken across a limited area in some places, like Arnhem Land.

How do you say hello in Australia? ›

The most common verbal greeting is a simple “Hey”, “Hello”, or “Hi”. Some people may use Australian slang and say “G'day” or “G'day mate”. However, this is less common in cities. Many Australians greet by saying “Hey, how are you?”.

Which 3 languages have the most native speakers? ›

The most spoken languages in the world
  • Mandarin (1,117 million speakers)
  • Hindi (615 million speakers)
  • Spanish (534 million speakers)
  • French (280 million speakers)
  • Arabic (274 million speakers)
  • Russian (258 million speakers)
  • Portuguese (234 million speakers)
  • Indonesian (198 million speakers)
Oct 23, 2022

How do you say hello in Brisbane? ›

Galang nguruindhau (Turrbal) & Gurumba bigi (Yuggera)! Or "Hello from Brisbane!".

What are the 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories? ›

The following are the Official Languages of the Northwest Territories:
  • Chipewyan.
  • Cree.
  • English.
  • French.
  • Gwich'in.
  • Inuinnaqtun.
  • Inuktitut.
  • Inuvialuktun.

What are the top 3 languages spoken in Australia 2022? ›

  • English only – 72.7% (17,020,417)
  • Mandarin – 2.5% (596,711)
  • Arabic – 1.4% (321,728)
  • Cantonese – 1.2% (280,943)
  • Vietnamese – 1.2% (277,400)
Oct 21, 2022

What is the most common language spoken in Australia? ›

The majority of Australians speak English as a first or other language, however a significant number of people also speak languages other than English. About 76% of Australians reported speaking only English at home in the 2021 Census.

What is Australia's official language? ›

English, as our national language, connects us together and is an important unifying element of Australian society. English language proficiency is a key contributor to better educational and employment outcomes and social participation levels.

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