A Guide To Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Languages

Perfect China Incentive, Sydney, 2013 | Courtesy of Tourism Australia © SDP Media
Perfect China Incentive, Sydney, 2013 | Courtesy of Tourism Australia © SDP Media
Photo of Ellie Griffiths
9 February 2017

In the late 18th century, it was reported that there were roughly 250 distinct Australian Aboriginal social groupings that have today formed into 27 language families and isolates, with over 300 dialects within the families. With many languages having become extinct or endangered, The Culture Trip takes a look at some of the most popular languages still spoken today, alongside those that are currently being revived.


Also known as Aranda and Arandic, the Arrernte language is a dialect spoken in and around Alice Springs. In 2006, the census found 5,500 native speakers of the language, although there have been numerous debates as to whether the different varieties of the languages are dialects or separate languages. The language itself is a free-word-order language; however, it tends to follow subject-object-verb (SOV) – for example, if English was to follow SOV, you would say ‘Sally oranges ate’. Most primary schools across Alice Springs require the students to learn Arrernte as a compulsory language alongside the optional French or Indonesian languages. Following this, the language can be learnt in high school, college and TAFE. Many workplaces today require employees in Alice Springs to learn basic Arrernte words to better communicate with the locals. Words include:

werte = G’day, what’s up?

ware = nothing much

Unte mwerre? = Are you alright?

Urreke aretyenhenge = see you later

Arandic languages (green) ) | © Kwamikagami / WikiCommons

Kala Lagaw Ya

In the 2006 census, it was reported that 1,200 people were native speakers of the Kala Lagaw Ya, or Western Torres Strait, language. The language is native to the central and western Torres Strait Islands off Queensland; however, many islands have replaced the language with Brokan (Torres Strait Creole English). Prior to colonisation, this language was spoken heavily by those in this region, with many Papuans and Aboriginal people adopting the language too. Simplified for the younger generations, the Kala Lagaw Ya language has a light, or simplified, form which consists of words such as:

maapu = heavy

paad(a) = hill

waaru = turtle

miina = real, true, very

Range of Kalaw Lagaw Ya (orange) in the Torres Strait | © Kwamikagami / WikiCommons


In the south-west corner of Western Australia, the Aboriginal people speak one of the numerous dialects within the Noongar, or Nyungar, language. The 2006 census reported 232 native speakers belonging to one of the subgroups: Wudjari, Minang, Bibelman (aka Bibbulman), Kaneang (Kaniyang), Wardandi, Balardung, and Yuat (Juat). It is believed that these dialects have merged into the modern form of the Noongar language following the colonisation of Australia, despite there being no single standard Noongar language form. As the language borders on being endangered, there has been a revival of interest in recent years, bringing the language back to life. Further, numerous places throughout Western Australian end in –up (such as Joondalup and Manjimup), which in Noongar means ‘place of’. Similar to other Aboriginal languages, Noongar tends to follow the SOV pattern, whilst grammar, syntax and orthography vary. Words include:

Djiripin = happy

Kada Kada = make believe

Ngalak = we, us

Uliwa = look out, beware

Noongar groups of the Southwest of Western Australia | © John D. Croft / WikiCommons


On the coast of Northern Australia lies the Tiwi Islands, where the Australian Aboriginal language here is known as Tiwi. This language has long been recognised as a language isolate, meaning it is a natural language that has no relationship to any other language. In 2006, 1,700 people were reported to be native speakers, with most of them being people over the age of 50 speaking the traditional form of this polysynthetic language. Although the complexity of the grammar has been lost in the younger generations, it is believed that about one of the ten percent of Australian languages taught to children is the Tiwi language.

Traditional Tiwi:

(Nyirra) ampi-ni-watu-wujingi-ma-j-irrikirnigi-y-angurlimay-ami. = She (the sun) is shining over there in the morning

Modern Tiwi:

Japinara jirra wokapat ampi-jiki-mi kutawu with layit. = morning she walk she.NPST–CONT-do over.there with light

Map of the Northern Territory of Australia showing language borders with Tiwi shaded in purple | © Jangari / WikiCommons


Lying in the Northern Territory is one of Australia’s largest Aboriginal languages in terms of the number of people speaking the language. Spoken by roughly 3,000 Warlpiri people is the Warlpiri language. Forming as one of the Ngarrkic languages, this language sees all words ending in a vowel, and none beginning with a vowel. It has been found that Warlpiri words that end in a consonant have been ‘corrected’ to suit the style by adding a meaningless suffix, usually -pa. Whilst this may be the case, there are no accent marks, only ordinary letters in the Warlpiri alphabet. This language has also been identified to hold a developed sign language. Words include:

jaala = back and forth, up and down, to and fro

ngakurru = melon, watermelon, any juicy fruit

rdaaly(pa) = breaking, shattering, snapped

waji = water

Warlpiri language (blue) | © Olegzima / WikiCommons

Western Desert

Within the Pama-Nyungan language family lies the dialect cluster of languages that are collectively known as the Western Desert language, or Wati. Over 7,400 native speakers were reported in the 2006 census, with the speakers living in the communities or close to their traditional lands across the borders of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Many, however, have relocated to one of the many towns that now line the desert, including Kalgoorlie, Alice Springs, Port Augusta and Fitzroy Crossing. Some of the closely related dialects within this language include Luritja, Martu Wangka, Ngaatjatjarra, Watha and Wong-gie. With thousands of people speaking the numerous dialects, Wati has become ‘one of the strongest Indigenous Australian languages’. Today, the languages – in particular, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara dialects in South Australia – are still being passed onto children with a long-running bilingual program.

Wati languages (green) | © Kwamikagami / WikiCommons


In recent years, the Wiradhuric group has been revived through the ongoing support of Uncle Stan Grant, focusing on the regional towns of Parkes and Forbes and their Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Within this language, Wiradhuric, lies the subgroup Wiradjuri, which was reported to be spoken by roughly 100 people in the 2006 census. Wiradjuri is the traditional language of Australia’s Wiradjuri people in central New South Wales. With the progressive revival underway, the language is bound to increase in native speakers in the upcoming years. Words and phrases include:

Wambuwany = kangaroo

gunya = home

widyu-ndhu yuwin ngulung? = what’s your name?

Yuwin ngadhi John = My name is John

Wiradhuric languages (green) | © Kwamikagami / WikiCommons


In Western Australia, alongside the Noongar language, is the Walmajarri people who live near, or within, the Great Sandy Desert. Although various events led them to nearby towns and missions in the North, scattering the tribes and forming several dialects, the 2006 census reported 520 native speakers of the language. Once scattered, the language was not influenced by neighbouring languages, nor contact, which allowed the development of the four syntactic cases within the Walmajarri language that cause ‘noun phrases of a sentence to differ in meaning’, as the order of the words can vary, freely. Words include:

amarra = to avoid, because of, in case of

kajalu = in front, ahead

nalija = tea, tea leaves

takipari = skilled person (e.g. someone with a weapon)

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