Aboriginal Languages

The Australian Aboriginal languages comprise up to twenty-seven language families and isolates native to the Australian Aboriginal people of Australia and a few nearby islands, but by convention excluding the languages of Tasmania and the eastern Torres Strait Island languages. The relationships between these languages are not clear at present, although substantial progress has been made in recent decades.

In the late 18th century, there were between 350 and 750 distinct Aboriginal social groupings, and a similar number of languages or dialects. At the start of the 21st century, fewer than 150 Indigenous languages remainin daily use, and all except roughly 20 are highly endangered. Of those that survive, only 10% are being learned by children and those languages are usually located in the most isolated areas. For example, of the 5 least endangered Western Australian Aboriginal languages, 4 belong to the Ngaanyatjarra grouping of the Central and Great Victoria Desert. 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 and Tiwi, retain between 1,000 and 3,000 speakers. Some Aboriginal communities and linguists show support for learning programs either for language revival proper or for only "post-vernacular maintenance" (teaching Indigenous Australians some words and concepts related to the lost language).

The Tasmanian people were nearly eradicated early in Australia's colonial history, and their languages were lost before much was recorded. Tasmania was separated from the mainland at the end of the last ice age, and the Tasmanian Aborigines apparently remained isolated from the outside world for around 10,000 years. Too little is known of their languages for classification, though they seem to have had phonological similarities with languages of the mainland.

Aboriginal word glossary