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 or AbE) is a dialect of 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, and grammar and pronunciation differs from standard Australian English, along a continuum. Some words have also been adopted into standard or slang Australian English.

General description[edit]

There are generally distinctive features of accent, grammar, words and meanings, as well as language use in Australian Aboriginal English,[2] compared with Australian English. Pronunciation is one of the fundamental differences: even where the words mean the same thing in both varieties of English, some Aboriginal people pronounce words and letters differently; letters may be overcompensated, left out or substituted. The language is also often accompanied by a lot of non-verbal cues.[3]

There exists a continuum of varieties of Aboriginal English, ranging from light forms, close to standard Australian English, to heavy forms, closer to Kriol. The varieties developed differently in different parts of Australia, by Aboriginal peoples of many language groups.[4][5] Kriol is a totally separate language from English, spoken by over 30,000 people in Australia.[6] 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.[citation needed]

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.[5] This is sometimes referred to as diglossia and is common among Aboriginal people living in major cities.[7]

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.[8]


In Aboriginal English, particularly in northern Australia, the pronouns he and him may be used for females and inanimate objects in additional to the expected masculine case. This is also shared in standard English with the masculine pronouns possessing a neuter case, uncommonly (often historically) referring to an unspecified sex (e.g. one must brush his teeth). 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.


Sutton (1989) documents that some speakers of Aboriginal English in the area around Adelaide in South Australia 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.[9]



Balanda is a word used by the Yolŋu people for European people; originally from the Makassar language, via the Malay "orang belanda" (Dutch person).[10]


Aboriginal people (particularly those in the outback and in the Top End) often refer to themselves and other Aboriginals as "blackfellas". The Australian Kriol term for an Aboriginal is "blackbala", which comes from this term.


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".[11] "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.[citation needed]


"Cheeky" (or "tjiki") may be used to mean "sly, cunning, malicious, malevolent, spiteful, ill-disposed, ill- natured, mischievous, vicious, bad, wicked, [or] evil", so can be used to describe a person, dog, mosquito or snake, and "a cheeky bugger is a universal substitute for just about anything or anybody on earth".[12] It can be used to denote a dangerous or aggressive animal or person, so for instance could be used describe a dog that is likely to bite or attack.[13]


The word "country" has special meaning for Aboriginal people; it has a "spiritual and philosophical dimension" by which they relate to a certain place. This meaning is now regarded to be part of Australian English, as it has become familiar to non-Indigenous Australians, for example in Welcome to Country ceremonies and the term connection to country, signifying the deep attachment to, and obligation to care for, the traditional lands of their group.[14][13][11]

Country (short for "countryman") can be used as a greeting or salutation for someone from one's own group or home location.


Dardy originates in South-western Western Australia and means "cool", or really good.[15][16]


Deadly is used by many Aboriginal people to mean excellent, or very good, in the same way that "wicked", "sick" or "awesome" is by many young English speakers.[13][11] Deadly Awards (aka 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.[17]


In some forms of Aboriginal English, "fellow" (usually spelt fella, feller, fullah, fulla, 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).


In Victorian era slang used by criminals, "gammon" was to swindle someone or cheat them,[18] used for example in the sense of creating a distraction while pickpocketing; or, more generally, nonsense, "humbug".[19] Its origin has been variously thought to be related to leg of cured ham known as gammon or the game of backgammon.[18][20]

The word is used across Australian Aboriginal communities, with its meaning given variously as inauthentic, cheap or broken;[19] to be pretending or joking; or just pathetic[20] or lame. Macquarie Dictionary's Australian Word Map ascribes six meanings, based on feedback from around the country, in which the word is used as several different parts of speech, mainly relating to deceit, joking, and false, but also to a lame (pathetic, bad) idea. As a verb ("gammon/gamin/gammin around") means to fool around, and may also be used as an expression equivalent to "As if!". The word is also used by non-Aboriginal people, and it has been noted that the PNG Tok Pisin word for liar is giaman or giamon.[21]


Gubbah, also spelt gubba, is a term used by some Aboriginal people to refer to white people or non-Aboriginal people.[11] 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]". A 1972 newspaper article suggested that the word is the "diminutive of garbage".[22]

It is said to be derived from "government", and while can be used derogatorily,[23] is also used to refer to friends as "gubba mates". Other words for white people are balanda (see above), migaloo,[24] and wadjela.[23]


Used in Nunga English (South Australia) to refer to non-Aboriginal people.[25]


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 released an album 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.[26] "My mob" means my people, or extended family.[13][11]

Mob is often used to refer to a language group, as in "that Warlpiri mob".[11]

Mob and mobs are also used to describe a lot of people or things when an actual number is not stated, and is usually associated with "big" or "biggest". Examples include, "There was a big mob (or the biggest mob) at the football." or "There was no moon, so we could see the biggest mobs of stars".


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".


Yarn is an English word for a long story, often with incredible or unbelievable events.[citation needed] Originally a sailors' expression, "to spin a yarn", in reference to stories told while performing mundane tasks such as spinning yarn.[27]

In Aboriginal English, the word is used as a verb (yarning), referring to a "conversational and storytelling style where Indigenous people share stories based on real experience and knowledge, from intimate family gatherings to formal public presentations".[28] A "yarning circle" is a way of passing on cultural knowledge and building respectful relationships within a group.[29] A 2021 article about Indigenous health communication says that yarning "includes repetition as a way to emphasise what is important in the message", and suggests that using the method can be useful in imparting health information.[30]


Often conjoined with the word "deadly", "unna" means "ain't it?".[13] It is used primarily by the Nunga (including Ngarrindjeri), Noongar, and Yolngu peoples.[11] This word is used frequently in the 1998 novel Deadly, Unna? by Phillip Gwynne.


In Aboriginal communities, particularly those in the outback and the Top End, Aboriginals often refer to white people as "whitefellas". In Australian Kriol, "waitbala" means "a white person" and comes from this word.

Other words[edit]

Some other words with particular meanings in Aboriginal English, or derived from an Aboriginal language, and/or pertaining to Aboriginal culture, include:[14][13][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Cleverman, TV series.


  1. ^ P4 Australian Aboriginal English at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  2. ^ Eades, Diana. "Aboriginal English". Retrieved 4 June 2011.
  3. ^ Working with Aboriginal people and communities: A practice resource (PDF). NSW Department of Community Services. Aboriginal Services Branch. February 2009. ISBN 978-1-74190-097-2.
  4. ^ Butcher, Andrew (2008). "Linguistic aspects of Australian Aboriginal English". Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics. 22 (8): 625–642. doi:10.1080/02699200802223535. PMID 18770096. S2CID 32763088.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Dickson, Greg. "Aboriginal English(es)", Australian English Reimagined: Structure, features and developments. Routledge, 2019, p. 134–154.
  8. ^ "What is Aboriginal English like, and how would you recognise it?". NSW Board of Studies. 7 November 2015. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
  9. ^ Sutton, Peter (1989). "Postvocalic R in an Australian English dialect". Australian Journal of Linguistics. 9 (1): 161–163. doi:10.1080/07268608908599416.
  10. ^ Walker, Alan & Zorc, R. David (1981). "Austronesian Loanwords in Yolngu-Matha of Northeast Arnhem Land" (PDF). Aboriginal History. 5: 124.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Korff, Jens (17 February 2021). "Aboriginal words in Australian English". Creative Spirits. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  12. ^ Vaszolyi, Eric G. (4 July 2016). "Aboriginal Australians speak: An introduction to Australian Aboriginal linguistics". Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, Mount Lawley College of Advanced Education. p. 50. Retrieved 13 September 2021 – via Edith Cowan University: Research Online. PDF
  13. ^ a b c d e f Reid, Sarah (18 October 2020). "20 Aboriginal words you should know before visiting Australia". The Culture Trip. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  14. ^ a b Browning, Daniel (3 September 2016). "The etymology of country" (Audio + text). ABC Radio National. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  15. ^ "How to understand Australians - Slang Words & Expressions". mmmEnglish. 4 June 2020. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  16. ^ Hansen, Jennet Jeniffer (December 2016). Examining the Effectiveness of Including Aboriginal Perspectives to Engage Aboriginal Students in High School Science (PDF) (Thesis). Curtin University. p. 143.
  17. ^ Mitarcheva, Irina (31 May 2019). "On the Irish variety of the English language". DSpace Home (in Latin). ISSN 2682-9460. Retrieved 27 August 2021.
  18. ^ a b Jones, Paul Anthony (25 January 2019). "12 Old-Timey Ways of Saying "Nonsense"". Mental Floss. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  19. ^ a b Fisher, Daniel (2010). "On gammon, global noise and indigenous heterogeneity: Words as things in Aboriginal public culture". Critique of Anthropology. 30 (3): 265–286. doi:10.1177/0308275X09364068. ISSN 0308-275X. S2CID 143553835. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  20. ^ a b Verass, Sophie (7 February 2018). "Words you thought were Indigenous that actually aren't". NITV. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  21. ^ "Gammon". Macquarie Dictionary. Australian Word Map. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  22. ^ Wilkes, G.A. A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms 5th ed. (1990), p. 164. Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia. 1990 edition, or Oxford Reference, 5th ed. (1990)
  23. ^ a b "27 Aboriginal words and phrases that all Australians should know". Welcome to Country. 5 January 2021. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  24. ^ Grant, Lowanna; McCarthy-Grogan, Grayson (15 March 2019). "50 ways you know you're a blackfella". NITV. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ "What is the difference between mob, clan, tribe, language group?". Deadly Story. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  27. ^ "Yarn". Origin and meaning of yarn by Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  28. ^ "10 ways Aboriginal Australians made English their own". University of Western Australia. 6 February 2020. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  29. ^ "Yarning circles". Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority. Queensland Government. Retrieved 13 September 2021.
  30. ^ Louro, Celeste Rodriguez; Collard, Glenys Dale (28 July 2021). "Yarns from the heart: the role of Aboriginal English in Indigenous health communication". University of Western Australia. Retrieved 13 September 2021. This article by Celeste Rodriguez Louro and Glenys Dale Collard, from The University of Western Australia was originally published in The Conversation.

Further reading[edit]