Should we learn to speak “Australian”?

Linguists argue about the specifics, but by some counts there were hundreds of Australian aboriginal languages and there remain dozens spoken today. But these languages are dying out. The 2001 census reported that only four aboriginal languages had 2000+ speakers, and that most aboriginal languages are endangered. Badimaya was said to have three speakers, Thalanyji had six and Wagiman eleven.

2005 government report lamented the decline of aboriginal languages, and came up with 51 recommendations about spending money, writing reports, drawing funky flow-charts and having committees.

They totally failed to come to terms with the simple fact that languages have network qualities so that they are only functionally useful when there is a critical mass of other speakers. Unless a language is functionally useful it is unlikely to survive long-term. That is why the vast majority of languages on earth have disappeared, and that is why most aboriginal languages will die out.

I don’t believe it is possible to save most aboriginal languages, and it may not be possible to save any (except in history books). But I’d like to suggest one controversial approach…

We should pick one aboriginal language and promote is as the language “Australian”.

Schools could offer a few lessons of Australian (including basic words like hello, thanks, 1-2-3, my name is…), people curious about aboriginal culture or languages would have an obvious langauge to study, speakers would have a larger pool of people from around the country to converse with, and we may be able to reach critical mass so that the language becomes functional.

For leftie-anthropologists and linguistic purists this will seem like sacrilege, as they continue to dream of a quirky utopia where each group of 100 people pass down their obsolete language while singing kum-ba-ya and milking a Bolivian yak. But back in reality, I think the only way to save any aboriginal language is to try and increase the real-world appeal of learning the language — and that requires building networks of more than 2000 people who can understand the language. Theoretically we could aim to save several languages, but I think by dividing our efforts we are making it more difficult to build critical mass and we’re decreasing the incentive for non-aboriginals to recognise and learn the language.

Another response to this idea would be to ask “why bother”? Languages come and go, and clearly the most useful language at the moment is English so it is in the best interests of aboriginal people to concentrate on English and integrate into modern Australian society. It’s true that learning English must be a priority in education for all Australians, but I think languages have cultural value and provide a sense of belonging to a cultural group. We quite rightly refer to the “anglosphere” and identify that linguistic group with a culture. We recognise that some minorities are proud to remember elements of their original culture’s language. It is no coincidence that many language courses around the world are bundled together as “language and culture” courses. Indeed… along with food & religion, language is one of the key ways to define and distinguish between cultures.

Saving an aboriginal language not only provides aboriginal Australians with a functional and continuing language, but it also provides non-aboriginal Australians with an obvious way to understand and reach out to aboriginal culture… by learning some of the language and recognising it as part of our country. We may already say that we respect aboriginal languages, but by not even knowing how many there are or what they’re called or how to say “hello” we have no meaningful appreciation of, or engagement with, that element of aboriginal culture. A single languages provides an opportunity for real engagement. Perhaps in the future most Australians will know how to say “Hello” in Australian, just as most Kiwis knows the Maori greeting “Kia Ora”.

(btw, “hello” in Pitjantjatjara is “Wai palya”.)

There is, of course, the problem of deciding which language should become the Australian language. One promising option is to develop an official combined version of the many Western Desert Languages, including Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Pintupi and others. Many of these languages are mutually understandable and, if combined, there are already over 5000 current speakers, mostly around the SA/NT border.

It could also be possible to include Warlpiri (spoken by about 3000 people near Alice Springs), which is also a member of the SoutWest sub-section of the Pama-Ngungan language family. Also Arrernte (spoken by about 2000 people near Alice Springs) is apparently quite similar to Pitjantjatjara.

In addition, it is important that the writing system for Australia is simple and easy to use, such as the wonderfully phonetic spelling for Bahasa Malayasia/Indonesia. By making learning easier, this will encourage greater literacy. (An example of Pitjantjatjara writing).

Developing the combined language won’t be easy. It is much easier to try and offend nobody and talk about saving all the languages and slowly watch as they all die out.

But for people who like the idea of a continuing aboriginal language & culture, we should not balk at the idea of language consolidation. Indeed… it is a process that has occurred all around the world as societies shifted from being fragmented and agrarian into larger civilisations. Mandarin Chinese is slowly taking over from various other “dialects” in China. The same applies with Jakarta-based Bahasa Indonesia. This language evolution has had the dual benefits of increasing the size of the language network and also of creating a common bond between the speakers. There is no reason we should object to the same sort of aboriginal unity and cultural consolidation in Australia. The alternative may be no active aboriginal language at all.

(Cross-posted from my personal blog —

21 thoughts on “Should we learn to speak “Australian”?

  1. The immediate question is, who will decide which language to retain, and who will pay to develop a teachable version? Some people might be offended by choosing one language over another, but others may be offended by being asked to pay for a language that has no utility. Just saying.

  2. There are already people who study aboriginal languages. I’m suggesting that instead of just documenting dead languages and wishing for a revival that will never come… they put their skills to good use and help aboriginal Australians develop a unified language that can last.

    This isn’t really a political post. I’m not calling for mandatory Australian lessons or government funding. I’m just saying to the defenders of aboriginal languages that they should either pick one or be prepared to lose them all.

  3. Trying to preserve indigenous Australian languages is similar to trying to revive Latin. While I think there’s value in having a record of such languages I’m not sure there’s value in trying to teach any. The main interest in declining or dead languages is mostly academic.

    I do think that schools (individually, of course!) could implement a stronger “indigenous culture” curriculum that included small parts of language study. But I don’t think there’s any real reason to have a course DEDICATED to a particular language, or combined language, because as far as I’m concerned language IS functional. And the identity and culture side of things isn’t really going to be embraced by a bunch of snotty grade sixes anyway.

  4. There’s no need to do any of that!
    Years ago, I thought of a story set in contemporary Australia, but with roots back in the Dreamtime. To be consistent, I ‘came up’ with a base language, based on the most constant features in many Aboriginal, which I still might use as a source for names for future stories.
    This language is called Vurlinyin, pronounced Thaalineen, and means Tongue-shared.
    So if this were a serious proposal, I have a dictionary that has over a thousand words in it, because I kept thinking ‘I might need that, so I’ll put it in.’

  5. you attempts to create a single Aboriginal language based on bits and pieces of existing ones is similar to the Esperanto experiment, which wasn’t terribly successful. Artificial languages generally don’t work.

    It should be left up to the Aboriginals thelselves to form a common language naturally over time if they want to, otherwise just use English. Many if not most Indigenous languages will eventually die out through lack of use but so be it. It would be worth recording them for historical record, and in just in case there is a future group who wish to revive, say, the Badimaya language of their ancestors.

    After all we’re free-marketeers here, and that should apply equally to language.

  6. Shem — nobody is talking about forcing schools to do anything.

    Papa — I’m suggesting picking a language, not building an artificial new one. How you do that is up to experts in aboriginal languages. To be helpful, I suggested making a combination of similar mutually understandable languages (like Swedish & Norweigen, or Hokkien & TeoChew Chinese) as I think that would increase the number of speakers and so kick-start the shift towards functionality… but if you want to insist that the central language be Pitjantjatjara with no borrowing words from Arrernte, then that is an option too. Either way, people interested in the language need to pick one or accept that we’ll end up with none.

    All languages have gone through consolidations in the past, so it shouldn’t be something to fear.

  7. Shem I don’t see how schools could possibly implement more indigenous culture if my experience was anything to go by. I was subjected to study Aboriginal culture every year of my schooling except year 12. Even in kindergarten – I kid you not. In year 9, my entire year of history class was wasted on learning about Aboriginals. History is normally a highly valuable and interesting subject but this year left me cynical, resentful and bored. On the other hand, my year 8 history teacher covered topics like ancient world history, the reformation in Europe and basic modern history ie: WWI and WWII. He provided useful data and interesting insights and looking back I now regard him as one of the best teachers I ever had.

    Also, can someone give some examples of the supposed cultural value in a dialect of Aboriginal language to an average Australian person?
    Personally I don’t get much value from Aboriginal culture although the bushtucker stuff is interesting. eg/ I think their art is generally primitive and uninspiring. 2D dot paintings in limited colours.

    IMO, what Australian culture needs is more individualism and independence. The fact that the country is young and has high immigration levels from a wide range of countries around the world is perfect for achieving this sense of unique individualism. This is the only way to increase my pride in Australian culture or in John’s words, to achieve a “sense of belonging” – although this wording sounds collectivist and even a bit nationalistic to me.

  8. Mi parolas Esperanton.

    There’s about 100,000 fluent speakers of Esperanto, only about 2,000 of which learnt it as a first language. An experimental aboriginal language could work. But as John said it’d be more similar to Dutch and German being “combined” into a single language that is 90% intelligible to both groups.

    And John, I know that this is a non-political discussion- I just had to reinforce that the schools would do it individually for my own peace of mind.

  9. Tim- that’s totally different to my experience.

    Grade 4-6 we mostly did “the explorers” thing, focusing on Abel Tasman, Captain Cook, etc.

    Grade 7 history I can’t remember. Grade 8 was Greeks/ Romans. Grade 9 was Medieval Britain. Grade 10 was the World Wars.

    Primarily. There was some studies of how the evil white man butchered the aborignals in there, but I’d say we learnt more about Asian cultures than aboriginal ones.

  10. “Unless a language is functionally useful it is unlikely to survive long-term. That is why the vast majority of languages on earth have disappeared, and that is why most aboriginal languages will die out.”

    No. It is because of corporations!

  11. John/Shem – our resident speaker may correct me here but I understand Esperanto is loosely based on latin-based languages with a bit of German and Slavic chucked in plus a few made-up suffixes and simplified grammar. As an experiment I checked out a couple of Esperanto pages on ‘Vikipedio’ and could generally follow it (I speak French and have some Spanish plus a smattering of Russian)

    So it is similar to creating a universal Aboriginal language by combining say Pitjanjara and a couple of others. A great idea in theory, which sometimes happens naturally over time, but not something you can force on the Aboriginals.

    Remember Esperanto was intended to be a worldwide lingua franca, but with only 100,000 speakers plus 2,000 native speakers thats 0.0015%, if the same ratio was applied to the Australian population you’d have 338 speakers and only 7 native speakers. And that’s for the most successful constructed language of all time.

  12. I had a few esperanto lessons a while ago, but didn’t have enough time to continue that experiment. All I remember is “Knabo trinkus lakton” which apparently means “the boy drinks milk”.

    As I understand it, most of the latin-based langauges (and Esperanto) are now sufficiently different so that they make communication difficult. I believe that some of the aboriginal languages are only as different as Norweigen & Swedish, or Hokkien & TeoChew. In my opinion, the degree of mutual understandability mean that these aren’t different languages… but different dialects. It wouldn’t be hard to make a single “official” dictionary which was understandable to speakers of various current aboriginal languages.

    But that is all a side-track. If you think that adding a few phrases from Arrernte into the Pitjantjatjara dictionary will confuse everybody and lead to everybody giving up… then perhaps we should keep those words out. The fundamental point I’m making is that we need to have a single aboriginal language or accept that they will all die out.

    As for “forcing” a langauge on people… that can and has been done successfully throughout history. Most people in China now speak Mandarin Chinese, which is a slight varient on Beijing-hua (combined with a few of the nearby similar dialects and cleaned up a bit).

    Though I’m not suggesting we force anything on anybody. Just that the linguists agree on a single dominent aboriginal language and try to promote that… instead of hoping to save all and eventually saving none.

  13. There might be an advantage for Australians in learning an Aboriginal language. If english really does become the world language, then one way of not becoming a mini-American would be to have another language as Australia’s language.
    And some minimal language can still be fun! -Loo and -Na are common endings on placenames, with -loo meaning a subject, and -na meaning an object. Cut these off and you have the original word. -Ba, -bah, -pah, and -p are -place endings. -bu, boo, bool, mean two, or pair of. With this minimal knowledge, I already feel like an expert!

  14. The point of learning languages is to read texts written before living memory. Languages of non-literate cultures died out because they weren’t useful for anything.

  15. John, your Esperanta phrase (Note that I’m using the adjective case for Esperanto) actually translates as ‘A boy might drink milk.’ ‘La’ means ‘the’, and ‘-us’ as an ending means ‘can, could, might’. hope this sets you straight!

  16. I’m opposed to centralised curriculum and I’m opposed to a science subject teaching stuff other than fundamentals in grade 7 (I’m opposed to Darwin’s or Edison’s personal life being part of a science subject, too!).

    So no. My wishes aren’t coming true.

  17. We should all learn Danish, so we can speak to Queen Mary and her family when they pay a visit to the colonies.

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