Noongar language

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Noongar (/ˈnʊŋɑːr/; also Nyungar /ˈnjʊŋɡɑːr/[a]) is an Australian Aboriginal language or dialect continuum, spoken by some members of the Noongar community and others. It is taught actively in Australia, including at schools, universities and through public broadcasting.[3][4] The country of the Noongar people is the southwest corner of Western Australia. Within that region, many Noongar words have been adopted into English, particularly names of plants and animals.[5]

RegionWestern Australia
EthnicityNoongar (Amangu, Ballardong, Yued, Kaneang, Koreng, Mineng, ?Njakinjaki, Njunga, Pibelmen, Pindjarup, Wardandi, Whadjuk, Wiilman, Wudjari)
Native speakers
475 (2016 census)[6][better source needed]
  • Wudjari (Kwetjman; incl. Goreng?)
  • Minang (Mirnong)
  • Bibbulman (Pipelman)
  • Kaniyang (Kaneang)
  • Wardandi
  • Balardung (incl. Tjapanmay?)
  • Yuat (Juat)
  • ?Wiilman
  • ?Wajuk (Whadjuk)
  • ?Pinjarup
Language codes
ISO 639-3nys[1] – inclusive code
Individual codes:
xgg – Goreng
xrg – Minang (Mirnong)
xbp – Bibbulman (Pipelman)
wxw – Wardandi
pnj – Pinjarup
xwj – Wajuk (Whadjuk)
qsz Juat (Yuat)

Noongar was first recorded in 1801 by Matthew Flinders, who made a number of word lists.[8]

Dialects/languages of the Noongar subgroup[edit]

The Noongar language subgroup, and its individual dialects/languages, before contact with Europeans.
Map of Perth showing Noongar names for places where recorded in the Open Street Map project, and English names where they are not. Names recorded for features such as Swan River, Perth Oval and Lake Monger are not shown in this map.

It is generally agreed that there was no single, standard Noongar (or Nyungar) language before European settlement: it was a subgroup (or possibly a dialect continuum) of closely related languages, whose speakers were differentiated geographically and, in some cases, by cultural practices. The dialects merged into the modern Noongar language following colonisation. A 1990 conference organised by the Nyoongar Language Project Advisory Panel recognised that the Noongar subgroup included at least three distinct languages. This was highlighted by the 2011 Noongar Dictionary, edited by Bernard Rooney, which was based on the dialect/language of Yuat (Juat), from the northwest part of the Noongar subgroup area.[9]

The highlighted area of the map shown on the right may correspond to the Noongar subgroup. The subdivisions shown correspond to individual dialects/languages. In modern Noongar, these dialects/languages have merged. There is controversy in some cases as to whether all of these dialects/languages were part of the original Noongar subgroup. Some may have been distinct languages and some may have belonged to neighbouring subgroups.

Many linguists[who?] believe that the northernmost language shown, Amangu, was not part of the Noongar subgroup, was instead a part of the Kartu subgroup, and may have been a dialect of the Kartu language Nhanda. (As such, Amangu may have been synonymous with a dialect known as Nhanhagardi, which has also been classified, at different times, as a part of Nhanda, Noongar, or Widi.)

There is a general consensus that the following dialects/languages belong to the Noongar subgroup:[7] Wudjari, Minang, Bibelman (a.k.a. Pibelman; Bibbulman),[b] Kaneang (Kaniyang), Wardandi, Balardung (a.k.a. Ballardong; which probably included Tjapanmay/Djabanmai), and Yuat (Juat). Wiilman, Whadjuk (Wajuk) and Pinjarup are also usually regarded as dialects of Noongar, although this identification is not completely secure.[citation needed] The Koreng (Goreng) people are thought to have spoken a dialect of, or closely related to, Wudjari, in which case their language would have been part of the Noongar subgroup.[citation needed] Njakinjaki (Nyakinyaki) was possibly a dialect of Kalaamaya – a language related to, but separate from, the original Noongar subgroup. It is not clear if the Njunga (or Nunga) dialect was significantly different from Wudjari. However, according to Norman Tindale, the Njunga people rejected the name Wudjari and had adopted some of the customs of their non-Noongar-speaking eastern neighbours, the Ngadjunmaya.[10]


The Noongar names for birds were included in Serventy and Whittell's Birds of Western Australia (1948), noting their regional variations.[11] A later review and synthesis of recorded names and consultation with Noongars produced a list of recommended orthography and pronunciation for birds (2009) occurring in the region.[11] The author, Ian Abbott, also published these recommendations for plants (1983) and mammals (2001), and proposed that these replace other vernacular in common use.[12]

A number of small wordlists were recorded in the early days of the Swan River Colony, for example Robert Menli Lyon's 1833 publication A Glance at the Manners and Language of Aboriginal Inhabitants of Western Australia. Lyon acquired much of his information from Yagan while Yagan was incarcerated on Carnac Island. Despite the significance of Lyons work in being the first of its kind, George Fletcher Moore diary republished in 1884 described Lyons work as "containing many inaccuracies and much that was fanciful".[13] During August and October 1839 the Perth Gazette published Vocabulary of the Aboriginal people of Western Australia written by Lieutenant Grey of HM 83rd Regiment.[14][15] Grey spent twelve months studying the languages of the Noongar people and came to the conclusion that there was much in common between them, just prior to the publication he received from Mr Bussel of the Busselton district a list of 320 words from that region which was near identical to those he had collected in the Swan River region. The work of Grey much to his disappointment was published in an unfinished list as he was leaving the colony, but he believed that the publication would assist in communication between settlers and Noongar people. Also noted by Grey was that the Noongar language had no soft c sound, there was no use of f and that h was very rarely used and never at the start of a word.[16]

Serious documentation of the Noongar language began in 1842 with the publication of A Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language in Common Use Amongst the Aborigines of Western Australia by George Fletcher Moore, later republished in 1884 as part of the diary of George Fletcher Moore. This work included a substantial wordlist of Noongar. The first modern linguistic research on Noongar was carried out by Gerhardt Laves on the variety known as "Goreng", near Albany in 1930, but this material was lost for many years and has only recently been recovered. Beginning in the 1930s and then more intensively in the 1960s Wilfrid Douglas learnt and studied Noongar, eventually producing a grammar, dictionary, and other materials.[17] More recently Noongar people have taken a major role in this work as researchers, for example Rose Whitehurst who compiled the Noongar Dictionary in her work for the Noongar Language and Culture Centre.[18] Tim McCabe has recently finished a PhD in the Noongar language, having been taught a variety of the language by Clive Humphreys of Kellerberrin, and is teaching Noongar to inmates in Perth prisons.

Peter Bindon and Ross Chadwick have compiled an authoritative cross referenced "A Nyoongar Wordlist: from the South West of Western Australia", by assembling material from all of the above writers in their original spelling. It is clear from this reference that the orthographies used did not only reflect dialectical differences, but also how the various authors "heard" and transcribed spoken Noongar.[19]

Current situation[edit]


RegionSW Australia
Native speakers
(undated figure of 8,000)[20]
Language codes
ISO 639-3

An English dialect with Noongar admixture, known as Neo-Nyungar, is spoken by perhaps 8,000 ethnic Noongar.[21][needs update]

Number of speakers[edit]

According to the 2016 census, 443 people spoke[clarification needed] Noongar at home.[22]

Since the late 20th century, there has been increased interest in reviving the Noongar/Nyungar language, including teaching it at many schools throughout the south west of Western Australia. As of 2022 it is one of the 24 Aboriginal languages being taught at 68 schools in Western Australia to around 10,000 students.[23][24] Curtin University offers an open online Noongar language and culture course.[3]

Noongar Language Centre[edit]

The Noongar Language and Culture Centre was set up at the Bunbury Aboriginal Progress Association in 1986, and grew to include offices in Northam and Perth. Authors such as Charmaine Bennell have released several books in the language.[25] Educators Glenys Collard and Rose Whitehurst started recording elders speaking using Noongar language in 1990.[26]

In 1997 at a meeting of around 200 Noongar people at Marribank, a standard orthography was agreed on for teaching the language in schools. A unanimous vote decided that the language would be spelt "Nyoongar", but later, as teaching and learning resources were being developed for the Languages Other Than English (LOTE) curriculum which would be taught in schools, it was decided to change to "Noongar".[27]

By 2010, 37 schools in the South West and Perth were teaching the language.[26]

In 2014, the Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation (NBLCAC) was incorporated, and the Commonwealth Government provided funding for four years from 2015 under the Indigenous Languages Support program to establish the Noongar Language Centre.[27] The offices are located in Cannington.[28]


"Djena djen", performed by Noongarpedia mob written by Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

In 2015 Professor Len Collard from the Indigenous Studies faculty at the University of Western Australia challenged the science behind the claim that it is an endangered language, citing the lack of rigour in the data. Collard began leading a project to create the "Noongarpedia", recording the language in a wiki format, allowing for expansion over time.[5] The project is continuing as of April 2021, with the site growing in the Wikimedia Incubator. It is the first Wikipedia in an Aboriginal Australian language site, but it is intended to be bilingual, so as to be used as a teaching aid in schools.[29]

Daisy Bates Online[edit]

The collaborative work of digitising and transcribing many word lists created by ethnographer Daisy Bates in the 1900s at Daisy Bates Online[30] provides a valuable resource for those researching, especially Western Australian languages.[31] The project is co-ordinated by Nick Thieburger, who works in collaboration with the National Library of Australia "to have all the microfilmed images from Section XII of the Bates papers digitised".[32] Started in 2017,[30] the project is ongoing.[32]

Language through the arts[edit]

Singer-songwriter Gina Williams has promoted the use of the language through song, including lullabies for children and a translation of the song "Moon River".[33]

An adaption and translation of the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth into Noongar was performed at the 2020 Perth Festival. The play, named Hecate, is produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company with Bell Shakespeare, and performed by an all-Noongar cast. The play took years to translate, and has sparked wider interest in reviving the language.[33][34]


The following are the sounds in the Noongar language:[18]


Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a


Peripheral Laminal Apical
Labial Velar Palatal Alveolar Retroflex
Stop b/p ɡ/k ɟ/c d/t ɖ/ʈ
Nasal m ŋ ɲ n ɳ
Lateral ʎ l ɭ
Rhotic r
Approximant w j ɻ


Many words vary in a regular way from dialect to dialect, depending on the area. For example: the words for bandicoot include quernt (south) and quenda (west); the word for water may be käip (south) or kapi (west), or the word for fire may vary from kaall to karl.

A large number of modern place names in Western Australia end in -up, such as Joondalup, Nannup and Manjimup. This is because in the Noongar language, -up means "place of". For example, the name Ongerup means "place of the male kangaroo".[35] The word gur, ger or ker in Noongar meant "a gathering". Daisy Bates suggests that central to Noongar culture was the karlupgur, referring to those that gather around the hearth (karlup).[36]

Noongar words which have been adopted into Western Australian English, or more widely in English, include the given name Kylie, "boomerang",[37] gilgie or jilgie, the freshwater crayfish Cherax quinquecarinatus, and gidgie or gidgee, "spear". The word for smoke, karrik, was adopted for the family of compounds known as karrikins.[37] The word kodj "to be hit on the head"[citation needed] comes from the term for a stone axe.[38] The word quokka, denoting a type of small macropod, is thought to come from Noongar.[39]


Basic counting 1 through to 10 plus twenty
Letter English sound Nyunga sound
B /b/; "book" boodjar
D /d/; "dog" darbal
DJ or TJ /d͡ʒ/; "jewish" djen or nortj
NY /ɲ/; "canyon" nyungar
NG /ŋ/; "sing" ngow


Noongar grammar is fairly typical of Pama–Nyungan languages in that it is agglutinating, with words and phrases formed by the addition of affixes to verb and noun stems.[40] Word order in Noongar is free, but generally tends to follow a subject–object–verb pattern.[41] Because there are several varieties of Noongar,[42] aspects of grammar, syntax and orthography are highly regionally variable.


Like most Australian languages, Noongar has a complex tense and aspect system.[43] The plain verb stem functions as both the infinitive and the present tense. Verb phrases are formed by adding suffixes or adverbs to the verb stem.[44]

The following adverbs are used to indicate grammatical tense or aspect.[45][46]

  • boorda           later (boorda ngaarn, "will eat later")
  • mila               future (mila ngaarn, "will eat after a while")
  • doora             conditional (doora ngaarn, "should eat")

Some tense/aspect distinctions are indicated by use of a verb suffix. In Noongar, the past or preterite tense is the same as the past participle.[45]

  • -iny           progressive (ngaarniny, "eating")
  • -ga            past (ngaarnga, "ate, had eaten")

A few adverbs are used with the past tense to indicate the amount of time since the event of the verb took place.[45]

  • gorah              a long time (gorah gaarnga, "ate a long time ago")
  • karamb           a short time (karamb ngaarnga, "ate a little while ago")
  • gori                 just now (gori ngaarnga, "just ate")


There are no articles in Noongar.[47][48] Nouns (as well as adjectives) take a variety of suffixes which indicate grammatical case, specifically relating to motion or direction, among other distinctions.[49][50]

Colours spelt both in Noongar and English
  • -(a)k           locative (boorn-ak, "in the tree")
  • -(a)k           purposive (daatj-ak, "for meat")
  • -(a)l            instrumental (kitj-al, "by means of a spear")
  • -an/ang       genitive (noon-an kabarli, "your grandmother")
  • -(a)p           place-of (boorn-ap, "place of trees")
  • -koorl          illative (keba-koorl, "towards the water")
  • -ool             ablative (kep-ool, "away from the water")
  • -ngat           adessive (keba-ngat, "near the water")
  • -(a)biny       translative (moorditj-abiny, "becoming strong")
  • -mokiny       semblative (dwert-mokiny, "like a dog")
  • -boorong      having or existing (moorn-boorong, "getting dark")
  • -broo           abessive (bwoka-broo, "without a coat")
  • -kadak         comitative (mereny-kadak, "with food")
  • -mit             used-for (kitjal baal daatj-mit barangin'y, "a spear is used for hunting kangaroos")
  • -koop          belong-to, inhabitant of (bilya-koop, "river dweller")
  • -djil             emphatic (kwaba-djil, "very good")
  • -mart           species or family (bwardong-mart, "crow species")
  • -(i)l             agentive suffix used with ergative

The direct object of a sentence (what might be called the dative) can also be expressed with the locative suffix -ak.[51][52]

Grammatical number is likewise expressed by the addition of suffixes. Nouns that end in vowels take the plural suffix -man, whereas nouns that end in consonants take -gar.[53][54] Inanimate nouns, that is, nouns that do not denote human beings, can also be pluralized by the simple addition of a numeral.[54]


Noongar pronouns are declined exactly as nouns, taking the same endings.[52][55] Thus, possessive pronouns are formed by the addition of the regular genitive suffix -ang.[55] Conversely, object pronouns are formed by the addition of the -any suffix.[55] Notably, there does not appear to be a great deal of pronominal variation across dialectal lines.[53]

Subject Object Possessive
I ngany nganyany nganyang
he/she/it baal baalany baalang
they baalap baalabany baalabang
you noonook noonany noonang
we ngalak ngalany ngalang

Noongar features a set of dual number pronouns which identify interpersonal relationships based on kinship or marriage. The "fraternal" dual pronouns are used by and for people who are siblings or close friends, "paternal" dual pronouns are used by and for people who are paternal relatives (parent-child, uncle-niece and so forth),[56] and "marital" pronouns are used by and for people who are married to each other or are in-laws.[57]

Fraternal Paternal Marital
1st person ngali ngala nganik
2nd person nubal nubal nubin
3rd person bula bulala bulen

Typically, if the subject of a sentence is not qualified by a numeral or adjective, a subject-marker pronoun is used. Thus: yongka baal boyak yaakiny (lit. "kangaroo it on-rock standing"), "the kangaroo is standing on the rock."[58]


Adjectives precede nouns.[58] Some adjectives form the comparative by addition of the suffix -jin but more generally the comparative is formed by reduplication, a common feature in Pama-Nyungan languages.[59] The same is also true for intensified or emphatic adjectives, comparable to the English word very. The superlative is formed by the addition of -jil.[60]


Statements are negated by adding the appropriate particle to the end of the sentence. There are three negation particles:

  • bart              used generally with verbs
  • yuada           used generally with adjectives

There is also an adverbial negation word, bru, roughly equivalent to the English less or without.[61]


Questions are formed by the addition of the interrogative interjection kannah alongside the infinitive root of the verb.[62]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ISO 639-3 uses Nyungar, changed from Nyunga in 2019[1] with the rationale "Australian government used and currently published name".[2]
  2. ^ Spelling may vary, especially in the case of "Bilelman" and "Nadji Nadji", which are apparent errors for Bibbulman and Njakinjaki.


  1. ^ a b "639 Identifier Documentation: nys". SIL International. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  2. ^ "Request for Change to ISO 639-3 Language Code" (PDF). SIL International. 22 August 2018. Retrieved 10 July 2022.
  3. ^ a b "Noongar Language and Culture". Curtin University. 2022. Retrieved 9 July 2022.
  4. ^ "Learn some of the Noongar language". ABC Education. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2 December 2021. Retrieved 9 July 2022.
  5. ^ a b Collard, Len (7 September 2015). "Noongarpedia". RTR FM Radio (Interview). Interviewed by Todhunter, Rhian. Archived from the original (Audio, text introduction) on 8 April 2020. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  6. ^ "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved 28 October 2017.
  7. ^ a b W41 Noongar at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  8. ^ "Language". Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  9. ^ Rooney, Bernard (2011). Nyoongar Dictionary. Batchelor Press. ISBN 9781741312331.
  10. ^ "Njunga (WA)". South Australian Museum. 5 June 2019. Retrieved 14 June 2021.
  11. ^ a b Abbott, Ian (2009). "Aboriginal names of bird species in south-west Western Australia, with suggestions for their adoption into common usage" (PDF). Conservation Science Western Australia Journal. 7 (2): 213–78 [255].
  12. ^ Abbott, Ian (2001). "Aboriginal names of mammal species in south-west Western Australia". CALMScience. 3 (4): 433–486.
  13. ^ Bindon, Peter; Ross, Chadwick (2011). Nyoongar Wordlist (second ed.). Welshpool WA: Western Australian Museum. ISBN 9781920843595.
  14. ^ Grey, Sir George (1812–1898). Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 25 August 2011.
  15. ^ Grey, George (1839). Vocabulary of the Aboriginal Language of Western Australia  – via Wikisource.
  16. ^ "VOCABULARY OF THE ABORIGINAL LANGUAGE OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA". The Perth Gazette And Western Australian Journal. Vol. VII, no. 346. Western Australia. 24 August 1839. p. 135. Retrieved 22 May 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  17. ^ Douglas, W. (1996) Illustrated dictionary of the South-West Aboriginal language Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  18. ^ a b Whitehurst, R. (1997) Noongar Dictionary Noongar to English and English to Noongar (2nd Ed) Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  19. ^ Bindon, Peter and Chadwick, Ross (2011), "A Nyoongar Wordlist: from the South West of Western Australia" (WA Museum books)
  20. ^ Nyunga at Ethnologue (8th ed., 1974). Note: Data may come from an earlier edition.
  21. ^ Nyunga at Ethnologue (12th ed., 1992).
  22. ^ "Language Statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2016". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 11 April 2022. Table 1.2.1 Census 2016. Retrieved 9 July 2022.
  23. ^ Bourke, Keane (4 July 2022). "Indigenous languages being taught to 10,000 Western Australian school kids". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 4 July 2022.
  24. ^ Wynne, Emma (1 August 2021). "WA schools take first steps towards offering formal Noongar language learning". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 4 July 2022. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of our schools are in Noongar country, so we feel a real significant need to expand the support that we provide for teachers of Noongar in particular.
  25. ^ "Western and Northern Aboriginal Language Alliance Conference - List of Authors". Batchelor Press. 2013. Archived from the original on 7 March 2016. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  26. ^ a b Kennedy, Sharon (20 July 2010). "Learning Noongar language". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 May 2016.
  27. ^ a b "History". Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  28. ^ "[Home page]". Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  29. ^ Woods, Meghan (10 November 2016). "NoongarPedia created as first Wikipedia site in Aboriginal language". ABC News. Radio National (Awaye!). Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  30. ^ a b "Digital Daisy Bates". Digital Daisy Bates. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  31. ^ "Map". Digital Daisy Bates. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  32. ^ a b "Technical details". Digital Daisy Bates. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  33. ^ a b Turner, Rebecca (25 January 2020). "Noongar language reborn in Hecate, an Aboriginal translation of Shakespeare's Macbeth at Perth Festival". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  34. ^ "Shakespeare in Noongar a world first" (PDF). Perth Festival. 31 October 2019. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  35. ^ "Place of the Male Kangaroo" Albany GateWAy Co-operative Limited, 28 July 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2006.
  36. ^ Bates, Daisy (1937), "The Passing of the Aborigines"
  37. ^ a b "A Noongar word for 'smoke' finds a place in science". University of Western Australia News. 6 March 2009.
  38. ^ "Kodj (axe)". Western Australian Museum. 2019. Retrieved 8 July 2021.
  39. ^ Oxford Dictionary of English, p 1,459.
  40. ^ Baker, Brett (2014). "Word Structure in Australian Languages". In Koch, Harold and Rachel Nordlinger. The Languages and Linguistics of Australia. De Gruyter. p.164.
  41. ^ Spehn-Jackson, Lois (2015). Noongar Waangkiny: A Learner's Guide to Noongar. Batchelor Press. p.12.
  42. ^ Bates, Daisy M (1914). “A Few Notes on Some South-Western Australian Dialects.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 44.6 pp.77.
  43. ^ Stirling, Lesley and Alan Dench. "Tense, Aspect, Modality and Evidentiality in Australian Languages: Foreword." Australian Journal of Linguistics 32.1 (2012): 3
  44. ^ Symmons, Charles (1842) "Grammatical Introduction to the Study of the Aboriginal Language of Western Australia." Western Australia Almanack. p.xvii.
  45. ^ a b c Symmons 1842, p.xvii.
  46. ^ Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.16.
  47. ^ Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.11.
  48. ^ Bates 1914, p.66.
  49. ^ Symmons 1842, p.viii.
  50. ^ Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.18-19.
  51. ^ Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.18.
  52. ^ a b Symmons 1842, p.xiii.
  53. ^ a b Bates 1914, p.68.
  54. ^ a b Symmons 1842, p.ix.
  55. ^ a b c Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.20.
  56. ^ Symmons 1842, p.xiv.
  57. ^ Symmons 1842, p.xv.
  58. ^ a b Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.13.
  59. ^ Baker 2014, p.182.
  60. ^ Symmons 1842, p.xi.
  61. ^ Symmons 1842, p.xxvi.
  62. ^ Spehn-Jackson 2015, p.15.

External links[edit]