Aboriginal languages are the great majority of the native language
s of Australia
. Only the languages of the Torres Strait Islands
(which are New Guinean), and possibly the extinct ones of Tasmania
, are not Aboriginal
(in an ethnic sense). About 250 languages existed at the time of the European invasion
; perhaps 150 exist now; many of those cannot survive. Very few flourish; two that do are Pitjantjatjara
) and Eastern Arrernte
For a detailed description of one typical language, see Bidyara.
It is probable that all Aboriginal languages are genetically related, and there are a number of features common to most of them. The pronoun 'I' begins with nga-; monosyllables do not occur; and no distinction is made between voiced and voiceless consonants.
Most Aboriginal languages belong to the Pama-Nyungan family, which occupies about five-sixths of the continent. It is named from two words for man, one from Cape York and the other from the Swan River. These languages are all clearly related and in many ways quite similar, suggesting that the expansion of the Pama-Nyungan-speaking peoples into these areas is comparatively recent, a lot later than the original very ancient human occupation of the land. Other linguists have suggested that for some unknown reason the normal pace of linguistic evolution has slowed down enormously in this area.
The non-Pama-Nyungan languages are found in Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys, and belong to about twenty-five distinct families, many of them with only one representative each. Examples are Gunwinggu, Rembarnga, Malak-Malak, and Tiwi.
Typically, nouns are inflected for case with suffixes. Many Aboriginal languages are ergative. Dyirbal (Djirbal) is of especial interest because it exemplifies a very rare phenomenon called syntactic ergativity. Some, for example Pitta-Pitta, use a different case for the subject of the future tense. In Lardil the direct object takes a different form in the future.
Phonetically most of them distinguish a number of places of articulation. As well as the bilabial stop P and velar stop K, they have dental, alveolar, retroflex, and palatal stops, with corresponding nasals and laterals. These stops are sometimes written TH, T, RT, and TY (or TJ) respectively. The dental T is like a French T, the alveolar is like the English one, and the retroflex is the way an Indian tends to pronounce English T. The palatal TJ resembles English CH.
Because there is usually no voiced/voiceless distinction, the consonants are often also written B, G, DH, D, RD, and DY or DJ. The choice may depends on the exact shade of sound in the language, though there is also a recent scholarly preference for the voiced symbols: so Kamilaroi is now seen as Gamilaraay. Most smaller languages haven't any official orthography and the transcription is the choice of a linguist, not a native community.
There are usually nasal consonants at each place of articulation: M, NG, NH, N, RN, NY (or NJ); and there may be several laterals LH, L, RL; and several kinds of R. Generally there are no fricatives at all.
Many of them have only three vowels, A, I, and U.
A peculiarity of some is avoidance speech or so-called "mother-in-law language", as exemplified in Dyirbal, in which in the presence of a taboo relative a restricted special lexicon must be used.
The world's principal expert on Aboriginal languages is Professor Bob Dixon of the ANU; another is Barry Blake.