Australian Aboriginal English

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Australian Aboriginal English
Latin (English alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottologabor1240  code abandoned, but bibliography retained

Australian Aboriginal English (AAE) is a dialect of Australian English used by a large section of the Indigenous Australian (Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander) population. It is made up of a number of varieties which developed differently in different parts of Australia. These varieties are generally said to fit along a continuum ranging from light forms, close to Standard Australian English, to heavy forms, closer to Kriol.[2][3] There are generally distinctive features of accent, grammar, words and meanings, as well as language use.[4] AAE is not to be confused with Kriol, which is a separate language from English spoken by over 30,000 people in Australia.[5] Speakers have been noted to tend to change between different forms of AAE depending on whom they are speaking to, e.g. striving to speak more like Australian English when speaking to a non-Indigenous English-speaking person.[3]

Several features of AAE are shared with creole languages spoken in nearby countries, such as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Pijin in the Solomon Islands, and Bislama in Vanuatu.

AAE terms, or derivative terms, are sometimes used by the broader Australian community. Australian Aboriginal English is spoken among Aboriginal people generally, but is especially evident in what are called "discrete communities", i.e. ex-government or mission reserves such as the DOGIT communities in Queensland. Because most Aboriginal Australians live in urban and rural areas with strong social interaction across assumed rural and urban and remote divides, many urban people also use Aboriginal English.


Auxiliary verbs[edit]

Aboriginal English does not make use of auxiliary verbs, such as to be and to have, or copulas to link things together. For example, the Aboriginal English equivalent of "We are working" would be "We workin'". Linguists do not regard this as "just dropping words out", but as a fundamental change to the way in which English is constructed.[6]


Although he and him are masculine pronouns in standard English, in Aboriginal English, particularly in northern Australia, it may also be used for females and inanimate objects. The distinction between he as the nominative form and him as the oblique form is not always observed, and him may be found as the subject of a verb.


In some forms of Aboriginal English, fellow (also spelt fella, feller, fullah, fulla, balla etc.) is used in combination with adjectives or numerals, e.g. big fella business = "important business", one-feller girl = "one girl". This can give it an adverbial meaning, e.g. sing out big fella = "call out loudly". It is also used with pronouns to indicate the plural, e.g. me fella = "we" or "us", you fella = "you all". Other words include blackfella (an Aboriginal man) and whitefella (a white man).



Balanda is a word used by the Yolŋu people for European people; originally from the Makassar language, via the Malay "orang belanda" (Dutch person).[7]


Many Aboriginal people use the word business in a distinct way, to mean matters. Funeral and mourning practices are commonly known as sorry business. Financial matters are referred to as money business, and the secret-sacred rituals distinct to each sex are referred to as women's business and men's business. "Secret women's business" was at the centre of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy.


Many Aboriginal people refer to their house as their camp, particularly in Central Australia and the Top End of the Northern Territory.


"Cheeky" may be used to describe a dog or other animal that is likely to bite or attack.


Dardy, meaning "cool", is used amongst South West Australian Aboriginal peoples. This word has also been adopted by non-Indigenous Australian teens, particularly in the skateboarding subculture. Many Australian teens also use the word to describe something worth buying.[citation needed]


Deadly is used by many Aboriginal people to mean excellent, or very good, in the same way that wicked is by many young English speakers. The Deadlys were awards for outstanding achievement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This usage is not exclusive to Aboriginal people. It is commonly heard in Ireland.[citation needed]


Victorian era English word for pretend. Still used by some Australian Aboriginal people to mean joking generally. Gammoning – usually pronounced Gam'in'. This word is widely used across the Northern Territory of Australia by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and is now gaining usage elsewhere in Australia.

Australian language expert, Sidney J. Baker, lists "gammon" used by "whitefellas" as "falsehood".


Gubbah is a term used by some Aboriginal people to refer to white people. The Macquarie Dictionary has it as "n. Colloq. (derog.) an Aboriginal term for a white man." Also, "gubba, n. Colloq. (derog.) 1. a white man. 2. a peeping tom. [Aboriginal: white demon]." It is also said to be a shortening of the word "government man", which is itself 19th-century slang for "convict". Another theory is that it is a contraction of "Governor". It has also been suggested the word is the "diminutive of garbage".[8] It is often used pejoratively and even considered unreasonably rude within urban Aboriginal circles.[citation needed]


Used in Nunga English (South Australia) to refer to non-Aboriginal people.[9]


Whereas humbug in broader English (see Charles Dickens's Scrooge character) means nonsensical, or unimportant information, humbug in Aboriginal English means to pester with inane or repetitive requests. The Warumpi Band's most recent album is entitled Too Much Humbug. In the Northern Territory, humbug is used by both black and white in this latter, Aboriginal way. The most commonly recognised definition of humbug, refers to an Aboriginal person asking a relative for money. Humbugging can become a serious burden where the traditional culture is one of communal ownership and strong obligations between relatives.


Colloquially used to mean a group of Aboriginal people associated with an extended family group, clan group or wider community group, from a particular place or country. It is used to connect and identify the person and where they are from.[10] "My mob" means my people, or extended family.

Mob is often used to refer to a language group, as in that Warlpiri mob.

The term is also found in the name of hip-hop group, The Wilcannia Mob, from the town of Wilcannia in New South Wales .


While "rubbish" as an adjective in many dialects of English means wrong, stupid, or useless, in the north of Australia, "rubbish" is usually used to describe someone who is too old or too young to be active in the local culture. Another use is meaning something is "not dangerous"; for example, non-venomous snakes are all considered to be "rubbish", while in contrast, venomous snakes are "cheeky". In both cases, "rubbish" approximately means "inert".


English word for a long story, often with incredible or unbelievable events. Originally a sailors' expression, "to spin a yarn", in reference to stories told while performing mundane tasks such as spinning yarn.[11] In Australian English, and particularly among Aboriginal people, has become a verb, to talk. Often, Yarnin.


Often conjoined with the word "deadly", "unna" means "ain't it?" This word is used frequently in the 1998 novel Deadly, Unna? by Phillip Gwynne.


Sutton (1989) documents that some speakers of Aboriginal English in the area around Adelaide have an uncommon degree of rhoticity, relative to both other AAE speakers and Standard Australian English speakers (which are generally non-rhotic). These speakers realise /r/ as [ɹ] in the preconsonantal postvocalic position – after a vowel but before another a consonant – within stems. For example: [boːɹd] "board", [t̠ʃɜɹt̠ʃ] "church", [pɜɹθ] "Perth"; but [flæː] "flour", [dɒktə] "doctor", [jɪəz] "years". Sutton speculates that this feature may derive from the fact that many of the first settlers in coastal South Australia – including Cornish tin-miners, Scottish missionaries, and American whalers – spoke rhotic varieties. Many of his informants grew up in Point Pearce and Point McLeay.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ P4 Australian Aboriginal English at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. ^ Butcher, Andrew (2008). "Linguistic aspects of Australian Aboriginal English". Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. 22 (8): 625–642. doi:10.1080/02699200802223535.
  3. ^ a b Eades, Diana. "Aboriginal English", Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas. Mouton de Gruyter, 1996, p. 133–141.
  4. ^ Eades, Diana. "Aboriginal English". Retrieved 4 June 2011.
  5. ^ Harris, John. "Linguistic responses to contact: Pidgins and creoles," The Habitat of Australia's Aboriginal Languages: Past, Present and Future. Mouton de Gruyter, 2007, p. 131–151.
  6. ^ "What is Aboriginal English like, and how would you recognise it?". NSW Board of Studies. 7 November 2015. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
  7. ^ Walker, Alan & Zorc, R. David (1981). "Austronesian Loanwords in Yolngu-Matha of Northeast Arnhem Land". Aboriginal History. 5: 109–134.
  8. ^ Wilkes, G.A. A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney: Fontana/Collins, 1978, p. 167
  9. ^ Amery, Rob (2016). Warraparna Kaurna!: Reclaiming an Australian language (PDF). University of Adelaide Press. pp. 13–15, 17. doi:10.20851/kaurna. ISBN 978-1-925261-25-7. Retrieved 20 November 2020.
  10. ^ "What is the difference between mob, clan, tribe, language group?". Deadly Story. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  11. ^ "Online etymology dictionary".
  12. ^ Sutton, Peter (1989). "Postvocalic R in an Australian English dialect". Australian Journal of Linguistics. 9 (1): 161–163. doi:10.1080/07268608908599416.

Further reading[edit]