Nyungar language

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Noongar regions map.svg
Map of possible Nyungar clans and perhaps dialects
Region Western Australia
Native speakers
240  (2006 census)[1]
Wudjari (Kwetjman; incl. Goreng?)
Minang (Mirnong)
Bibbulman (Pipelman)
Kaniyang (Kaneang)
Balardung (incl. Tjapanmay?)
Yuat (Juat)
?Wajuk (Whadjuk)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nysinclusive code
Individual codes:
xgg – Goreng
xrg – Minang (Mirnong)
xbp – Bibbulman (Pipelman)
wxw – Wardandi
pnj – Pinjarup
xwj – Wajuk (Whadjuk)
Linguist list
qsz Juat (Yuat)
Glottolog nyun1247[2]

Nyungar (Nyunga), or Noongar (Noonga), is an endangered Australian Aboriginal language, or language complex, primarily spoken by the Noongar people who live in the southwest corner of Western Australia. The 1996 census recorded 170 speakers, but that number increased to 240 by 2006. The word Nyunga means "human being" in the language.

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


There was no standard Nyungar language, but a number of dialects. A 1990 conference organized by the Nyoongar Language Project Advisory Panel recognized that there were at least three. Rooney's 2011 Nyoongar dictionary is based on the northwestern dialect, known as Yuat.

The blue region of the map in the box at right may correspond to Nyungar. The subdivisions correspond to clans, who may have spoken distinct dialects, though these divisions have been lost. In several cases, it's not clear if a clan shown on the map actually spoke Nyungar. There is general consensus on the following:[3]

Wudjari, Minang, Bibbulman,[4] Kaniyang (Kaneang), Wardandi, Balardung (perhaps including Tjapanmay), Yuat.

The Goreng are thought to have spoken Wudjari, in which case they would have been Nyungar as well.

Additional varieties may have been Nyungar, but their identification is not secure. These are Wiilman, Wajuk (Whadjuk), and Pinjarup on the map.

Inland, Njakinjaki[4] was perhaps a dialect of Kalaamay, a close relative of Nyungar.

Amangu in the north is thought to have been the southern dialect of Nhanda. It may have been the same as or similar to Nhanhagardi, which occurred in that area of the map, though Nhanhagardi has been variously classified as a dialect of Nhanda, of Nyungar, or as Widi, which in turn was a dialect of or related to Badimaya.

There is no recorded language where generic "Njunga" is labeled in the east.


Yagan was a leader among the Nyungar people who helped resist British colonization.

A number of small wordlists were recorded in the early days of the Swan River Colony, for example Robert Lyon's 1833 publication A Glance at the Manners and Language of Aboriginal Inhabitants of Western Australia. 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.[5] Grey spent twelve months studying the languages of the Nyungar 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 Vasse 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 swan river colony, but he believed that the publication would assist in communication between settlers and Nyungar people. Also noted by Grey was that the Nyungar 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.[6]

Serious documentation of the Nyungar language began in 1842 with the publication of A Descriptive Vocabulary of the Language of the Aborigines by George Fletcher Moore, later republished in 1884 as part of Moore's Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia. This work included a substantial wordlist of Nyungar. The first modern linguistic research on Nyungar 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 Nyungar, eventually producing a grammar, dictionary, and other materials. More recently Nyungar 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. Tim McCabe has recently finished a PhD in the Nyungar language, having been taught a variety of the language by Clive Humphreys of Kellerberrin, and is teaching Nyungar to inmates in Perth prisons.

Current situation[edit]

Region SW Australia
Native speakers
unknown (undated figure of 8,000)[7]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Glottolog None

Today the Nyungar language is regarded as endangered, with few fluent speakers, although there has been a revival of interest in recent years. The Noongar Language and Culture Centre was set up by concerned individuals and has now grown to include offices in Bunbury, Northam and Perth.

An English dialect with Nyungar admixture, known as Neo-Nyungar, is spoken by perhaps 8,000 ethnic Nyungar.[1]


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 kep (south) or kapi (west), or the word for fire may vary from kall to karl.

A large number of modern placenames 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".[8]

Nyungar words which have been adopted into West Australian English, or more widely in English, include the given name Kylie ("boomerang"),[9] gilgie (or jilgie) a freshwater crayfish similar to yabbies, and gidgie (or gidgee), meaning "spear". The word for smoke, karrik, was adopted for the family of compounds known as karrikins.[9]


  1. ^ a b Nyungar at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Goreng at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Minang (Mirnong) at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    Bibbulman (Pipelman) at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Nyungar". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b Nyungar at the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  4. ^ a b Spelling may vary, especially in the case of "Bilelman" and "Nadji Nadji", which are apparent errors for Bibbulman and Njakinjaki.
  5. ^ "Grey, Sir George (1812–1898)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 25 August 2011. 
  6. ^ Perth Gazette 24 August 1839 viewed online with NLA Newspapers collection
  7. ^ Nyungar language reference at Ethnologue (14th ed., 2000)
  8. ^ "Place of the Male Kangaroo" Albany GateWAy Co-operative Limited, 28 July 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2006.
  9. ^ a b University News A Noongar word for ‘smoke’ finds a place in science University of Western Australia