145, and counting: Celebrating Language this Indigenous Literacy Day

Many people think of diversity as being a recent development for Australia, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. An estimated 250 languages were spoken at the time of colonisation. 

Today, things have changed. Nearly three-quarters of Australians only speak English. But when it comes to language, the impact of our First Peoples may be further-reaching than you think – just ask Aunty Munya.

Have you ever wondered how many Aboriginal languages are spoken in Australia today?

If so, the answer is equally fascinating – and complex. “There are many responses to that,” says Evolve Co-Director Aunty Munya Andrews.

Luckily for us, Aboriginal language is an area of interest for Aunty. So much so, in fact, that she is writing a book about it.

So … how many are there?

“I think the most common answer is that there are about 145 languages,” she explains, “… but on a regular, daily basis, I’d say probably about 40 are spoken.”

145 might sound like a lot. But if this is the case, consider that some estimates place the number closer to 200. With so much diversity, is there a common thread that runs though each one?

“The sounds tend to be the same,” she explains. “They also follow the same kind of grammatical structure – it’s very Indigenous-based.”

And what about differences?

“The differences would be the individual words. This is where you will get one language being completely different from another, because of the words and the meaning of the words, for example.”

How do Aboriginal languages compare to Australian English?

When it comes to comparison with English – or the uniquely Australian version spoken on this continent – we already know about some of the differences. For instance, we’ve explored the fact that there are no equivalent words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Aboriginal languages as they’re simply redundant.

But what about similarities?

This is where things start to get really interesting.

“Many people have said that the Australian accent has been influenced by Aboriginal languages,” explains Aunty Munya. “It’s been fashioned by the land, the structure of the land, and by Aboriginal speakers as well.”

But that’s not all.

“The Australian tendency to shorten English words like ‘afternoon’ into ‘arvo’ comes from Aboriginal culture. That’s very common in our culture.”

So that distinctly Aussie-sounding sentence you might have occasionally uttered, when you told somebody that you’d pop into the servo during smoko to grab some arvo tea?

It might be even more Australian than you thought!

Aside from accent and common conventions, like shortening words, there are other signs that Aboriginal languages have become embedded in the way we speak.

Namely: words.

The problem is, explains Aunty Munya, we can’t count on this as a language preservation strategy – because we’re doing it wrong.

Is that really how you say it?

“A lot of [words] are mispronounced,” she explains. “’Kangaroo’, for instance, is an Aboriginal word. But traditionally, it would not have been pronounced as ‘kangaroo,’ but gungaroo.

And it’s not just fuzzy marsupials that we’re mislabelling. ‘Kookaburra’ is another example.

Evolve Co-Director Carla Rogers hears this, and agrees. “We need a bigger education campaign on that.”

And she’s right.

Celebrating Indigenous Literacy – September 2

On Wednesday, Indigenous Literacy Day will prompt discussion and celebration across Australia. It will be the perfect chance to honour the incredible diversity and importance of these languages, and by extension, the peoples who speak them – and have shared them for tens of thousands of years.

But as Carla has hinted, it’s important to remember that we can’t take these for granted.

“Many of these languages are threatened with extinction,” explains Aunty Munya matter-of-factly. “We will lose them if nothing is done today to try and save them.”

So what can we do?

It’s important to keep Language in our thoughts – not just on Indigenous Literacy Day, but every day. Understanding the value and significance of these 145+ languages will help lead to action, to enable them to be actively shared and passed down.

And of course, there are some great resources out there to explore.

If you are looking for an introduction into the richness and complexity of Aboriginal languages, stay tuned for Aunty Munya’s next book, Can You Speak Googuburra?

You may now recognise that its playful title – and alternate spelling for a certain iconic, laughing bird – packs a one-two punch.

It’s both a sign of what we might learn when we open its pages – and a gentle reminder of why we need it in the first place.

Indigenous Literacy Day will take place on Wednesday, 2nd September. Visit the event website for more information.

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