The Australian Aboriginal languages consist of around 290-363 languages belonging to an estimated twenty-eight language families and isolates, spoken by Aboriginal Australians of mainland Australia and a few nearby islands. The relationships between these languages are not clear at present. Despite this uncertainty, the Indigenous Australians' languages are collectively covered by the technical term "Australian languages", or the "Australian family".[a]
The term can include both Tasmanian languages and the Western Torres Strait language, but the genetic relationship to the mainland Australian languages of the former is unknown, while that of the latter, which shares some features with the Papuan Eastern Trans-Fly Meriam Mer tongue, has not yet been established with certainty. Most Australian Aboriginal languages belong to the Pama-Nyungan family, while the remainder are classified as "non-Pama-Nyungan", which is a term of convenience that does not imply a genealogical relationship.
In the late 18th century, there were more than 250 distinct Aboriginal social groupings and a similar number of languages or varieties. At the start of the 21st century, fewer than 150 Aboriginal languages remain in daily use, and all except only 13, which are still being transmitted to children, are highly endangered. The surviving languages are located in the most isolated areas. Of the five least endangered Western Australian Aboriginal languages, four belong to the Ngaanyatjarra grouping of the Central and Great Victoria Desert.
Yol?u 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. Some Aboriginal communities and linguists show support for learning programmes either for language revival proper or for only "post-vernacular maintenance" (teaching Indigenous Australians some words and concepts related to the lost language).
Whether it is due to genetic unity or some other factor such as occasional contact, typologically the Australian languages form a language area or Sprachbund, sharing much of their vocabulary and many distinctive phonological features across the entire continent.
A common feature of many Australian languages is that they display so-called avoidance speech, special speech registers used only in the presence of certain close relatives. These registers share the phonology and grammar of the standard language, but the lexicon is different and usually very restricted. There are also commonly speech taboos during extended periods of mourning or initiation that have led to numerous Aboriginal sign languages.
For morphosyntactic alignment, many Australian languages have ergative-absolutive case systems. These are typically split systems; a widespread pattern is for pronouns (or first and second persons) to have nominative-accusative case marking and for third person to be ergative-absolutive, though splits between animate and inanimate are also found. In some languages the persons in between the accusative and ergative inflections (such as second person, or third-person human) may be tripartite: that is, marked overtly as either ergative or accusative in transitive clauses, but not marked as either in intransitive clauses. There are also a few languages which employ only nominative-accusative case marking.
A typical Australian phonological inventory includes just three vowels, usually [a, i, u], which may occur in both long and short variants. In a few cases the [u] has been unrounded to give [a, i, ?].
There is almost never a voicing contrast; that is, a consonant may sound like a [p] at the beginning of a word, but like a [b] between vowels, and either symbol could be (and often is) chosen to represent it. Australia also stands out as being almost entirely free of fricative consonants, even of [h]. In the few cases where fricatives do occur, they developed recently through the lenition (weakening) of stops, and are therefore non-sibilants like [ð] rather than sibilants like [s] which are common elsewhere in the world. Some languages also have three rhotics, typically a flap, a trill, and an approximant; that is, like the combined rhotics of English and Spanish.
Besides the lack of fricatives, the most striking feature of Australian speech sounds is the large number of places of articulation. Nearly every language has four places in the coronal region, either phonemically or allophonically. This is accomplished through two variables: the position of the tongue (front or back), and its shape (pointed or flat). There are also bilabial, velar and often palatal consonants, but a complete absence of uvular or glottal consonants. Both stops and nasals occur at all six places, and in some languages laterals occur at all four coronal places.
A language which displays the full range of stops and laterals is Kalkatungu, which has labial p, m; "dental" th, nh, lh; "alveolar" t, n, l; "retroflex" rt, rn, rl; "palatal" ty, ny, ly; and velar k, ng. Wangganguru has all this, as well as three rhotics. Yanyuwa has even more contrasts, with an additional true dorso-palatal series, plus prenasalized consonants at all seven places of articulation, in addition to all four laterals.
A notable exception to the above generalizations is Kalaw Lagaw Ya, which has an inventory more like its Papuan neighbours than the languages of the Australian mainland, including full voice contrasts: /p b/, dental /t? d?/, alveolar /t d/, the sibilants /s z/ (which have allophonic variation with [t?] and [d?] respectively) and velar /k ?/, as well as only one rhotic, one lateral and three nasals (labial, dental and velar) in contrast to the 5 places of articulation of stops/sibilants. Where vowels are concerned, it has 8 vowels with some morpho-syntactic as well as phonemic length contrasts (i i:, e e:, a a:, ? ?:, ? ?:, o o:, ? ?:, u u:), and glides that distinguish between those that are in origin vowels, and those that in origin are consonants. Kunjen and other neighbouring languages have also developed contrasting aspirated consonants ([p?], [t], [t?], [c?], [k?]) not found further south.
Descriptions of the coronal articulations can be inconsistent.
The alveolar series t, n, l (or d, n, l) is straightforward: across the continent, these sounds are alveolar (that is, pronounced by touching the tongue to the ridge just behind the gum line of the upper teeth) and apical (that is, touching that ridge with the tip of the tongue). This is very similar to English t, d, n, l, though the Australian t is not aspirated, even in Kalaw Lagaw Ya, despite its other stops being aspirated.
The other apical series is the retroflex, rt, rn, rl (or rd, rn, rl). Here the place is further back in the mouth, in the postalveolar or prepalatal region. The articulation is actually most commonly subapical; that is, the tongue curls back so that the underside of the tip makes contact. That is, they are true retroflex consonants. It has been suggested that subapical pronunciation is characteristic of more careful speech, while these sounds tend to be apical in rapid speech. Kalaw Lagaw Ya and many other languages in North Queensland differ from most other Australian languages in not having a retroflexive series.
The dental series th, nh, lh are always laminal (that is, pronounced by touching with the surface of the tongue just above the tip, called the blade of the tongue), but may be formed in one of three different ways, depending on the language, on the speaker, and on how carefully the speaker pronounces the sound. These are interdental with the tip of the tongue visible between the teeth, as in th in English; dental with the tip of the tongue down behind the lower teeth, so that the blade is visible between the teeth; and denti-alveolar, that is, with both the tip and the blade making contact with the back of the upper teeth and alveolar ridge, as in French t, d, n, l. The first tends to be used in careful enunciation, and the last in more rapid speech, while the tongue-down articulation is less common.
Finally, the palatal series ty, ny, ly. (The stop is often spelled dj, tj, or j.) Here the contact is also laminal, but further back, spanning the alveolar to postalveolar, or the postalveolar to prepalatal regions. The tip of the tongue is typically down behind the lower teeth. This is similar to the "closed" articulation of Circassian fricatives (see Postalveolar consonant). The body of the tongue is raised towards the palate. This is similar to the "domed" English postalveolar fricative sh. Because the tongue is "peeled" from the roof of the mouth from back to front during the release of these stops, there is a fair amount of frication, giving the ty something of the impression of the English palato-alveolar affricate ch or the Polish alveolo-palatal affricate ?. That is, these consonants are not palatal in the IPA sense of the term, and indeed they contrast with true palatals in Yanyuwa. In Kalaw Lagaw Ya, the palatal consonants are sub-phonemes of the alveolar sibilants /s/ and /z/.
These descriptions do not apply exactly to all Australian languages, as the notes regarding Kalaw Lagaw Ya demonstrate. However, they do describe most of them, and are the expected norm against which languages are compared.
Probably every Australian language with speakers remaining has had an orthography developed for it, in each case in the Latin script. Sounds not found in English are usually represented by digraphs, or more rarely by diacritics, such as underlines, or extra symbols, sometimes borrowed from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Some examples are shown in the following table.
|Pitjantjatjara||pa?a||'earth, dirt, ground; land'||diacritic (underline) indicates retroflex 'n'|
|Wajarri||nhanha||'this, this one'||digraph indicating 'n' with dental articulation|
|Yol?u||yol?u||'person, man'||'?' (from IPA) for velar nasal|
Most Australian languages are commonly held to belong to the Pama-Nyungan family, a family accepted by most linguists, with Robert M. W. Dixon as a notable exception. For convenience, the rest of the languages, all spoken in the far north, are commonly lumped together as "Non-Pama-Nyungan", although this does not necessarily imply that they constitute a valid clade. Dixon argues that after perhaps 40,000 years of mutual influence, it is no longer possible to distinguish deep genealogical relationships from areal features in Australia, and that not even Pama-Nyungan is a valid language family.
However, few other linguists accept Dixon's thesis. For example, Kenneth L. Hale describes Dixon's skepticism as an erroneous phylogenetic assessment which is "such an insult to the eminently successful practitioners of Comparative Method Linguistics in Australia, that it positively demands a decisive riposte." Hale provides pronominal and grammatical evidence (with suppletion) as well as more than fifty basic-vocabulary cognates (showing regular sound correspondences) between the proto-Northern-and-Middle Pamic (pNMP) family of the Cape York Peninsula on the Australian northeast coast and proto-Ngayarta of the Australian west coast, some 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi) apart, to support the Pama-Nyungan grouping, whose age he compares to that of Proto-Indo-European.
Johanna Nichols suggests that the northern families may be relatively recent arrivals from Maritime Southeast Asia, perhaps later replaced there by the spread of Austronesian. That could explain the typological difference between Pama-Nyungan and non-Pama-Nyungan languages, but not how a single family came to be so widespread. Evans suggests that the Pama-Nyungan family spread along with the now-dominant Aboriginal culture that includes the Australian Aboriginal kinship system.
In late 2017, Mark Harvey and Robert Mailhammer published a study in Diachronica that hypothesized, by analyzing noun class prefix paradigms across both Pama-Nyungan and the minority non-Pama-Nyungan languages, that a Proto-Australian could be reconstructed from which all known Australian languages descend. This Proto-Australian language, they concluded, would have been spoken about 12,000 years ago in northern Australia.
For a long time unsuccessful attempts were made to detect a link between Australian and Papuan languages, the latter being represented by those spoken on the coastal areas of New Guinea facing the Torres Strait and the Arafura Sea. In 1986 William A. Foley noted lexical similarities between Robert M. W. Dixon's 1980 reconstruction of proto-Australian and the East New Guinea Highlands languages. He believed that it was naïve to expect to find a single Papuan or Australian language family when New Guinea and Australia had been a single landmass (called the Sahul continent) for most of their human history, having been separated by the Torres Strait only 8000 years ago, and that a deep reconstruction would likely include languages from both. Dixon, in the meantime, later abandoned his proto-Australian proposal.
Australian languages divide into approximately 30 primary sub-groups and 5 isolates.
It has been inferred from the probable number of languages and the guesstimate of pre-contact population levels that there may have been from 3,000 - 4,800 speakers on average for each of the 250 languages. A number of these languages were almost immediately wiped out within decades of colonization, the case of the Aboriginal Tasmanians being one notorious example of precipitous linguistic ethnocide. Tasmania had been separated from the mainland at the end of the Quaternary glaciation, and Indigenous Tasmanians remained isolated from the outside world for around 12,000 years. Claire Bowern has concluded in a recent study that there were twelve Tasmanian languages, and that those languages are unrelated (that is, not demonstrably related) to those on the Australian mainland.
In 1990 it was estimated that 90 languages still survived of the approximately 250 once spoken, but with a high rate of attrition as elders died out. Of the 90, 70% by 2001 were judged as 'severely endangered' with only 17 spoken by all age groups, a definition of a 'strong' language. On these grounds it is anticipated that despite efforts at linguistic preservation, many of the remaining languages will disappear within the next generation. The overall trend suggests that in the not too distant future all of the Indigenous languages will be lost, perhaps by 2050, and with them the cultural knowledge they convey.
During the period of the stolen generations, Aboriginal children were removed from their families and placed in institutions where they were punished for speaking their Indigenous language. Different, mutually unintelligible language groups were often mixed together, with Australian Aboriginal English or Australian Kriol language as the only lingua franca. The result was a disruption to the inter-generational transmission of these languages that severely impacted their future use. Today, that same transmission of language between parents and grandparents to their children is a key mechanism for reversing language shift. For children, proficiency in the language of their cultural heritage has a positive influence on their ethnic identity formation, and it is thought to be of particular benefit to the emotional well-being of Indigenous children. There is some evidence to suggest that the reversal of the Indigenous language shift may lead to decreased self-harm and suicide rates among Indigenous youth.
Languages with more than 100 speakers:
Total 45 languages, 42,300 speakers, with 11 having only approximately 100. 11 languages have over 1,000 speakers.