Australian Languages

Australian Languages

The Australian continent is linguistically diverse. The ‘Australian’ phylum comprises more than 360 Aboriginal languages, from 28 language families or isolates, as well as the Western Torres Strait language. Yet the typological diversity of Australian languages is quite unevenly distributed. The patchy distribution of certain grammatical features and lexical items across the continent contributes to an emerging picture of a dynamic migration patterns and language contact spanning at least 65,000 years.

Areas of interest

Australian languages in social interaction

This strain of descriptive research is devoted to understanding how words, phrases and grammatical constructions from Aboriginal languages are used within everyday interactional settings. Interactional linguistics is concerned with meaningful actions within interaction and with problems relating to human coordination and intersubjectivity. It hinges on the analysis of transcribed audio of video and audio recordings. While Aboriginal language conversations contribute enormously to the science of human communication, interactional linguistics in turn contributes to the maintenance and revitalisation of Australia’s endangered linguistic heritage by providing baseline data about everyday language use.

Language maintenance, revitalization and revival

All Australian languages are under pressure from English, to varying degrees. While a small number of these languages are still being acquired by children, many languages are no longer actively spoken or are highly endangered. Across the country myriad grass-roots programs attempt to inject new life into languages that have been sleeping, are no longer used for daily conversation, or merely need some help adapting to the demands of 21st century life.

Socio-cultural dimensions of Australian language use

The diversity in Australian linguistic types is matched by enormous cultural diversity and systems of social organisation. Australian languages provide fascinating insights into the differing world views of different Aboriginal groups, as revealed through semantic categories and systems of language use (pragmatics). Linguistic research on Australian languages is often very interdisciplinary, dovetailing with anthropology (especially as pertaining to kinship, social organisation and land tenure), ethnobiology, musicology, sociotopography and archaeology.

Sound structures of Australian Languages

Using lexical, acoustic, instrumental, and corpus analysis, we are investigating the properties of sounds in Australian languages: consonants and vowels, and how they are organized into syllables, word, phrases, and utterances. This work informs our understanding of individual indigenous languages, historical relationships between language families in Australia, as well as theories of phonological and prosodic structure in human language in general.

Current Projects

Conversational Interaction in Aboriginal and Remote Australia (CIARA)

An ARC Discovery Project (DP180100515: Dr Joe Blythe, Associate Professor Ilana Mushin, Professor Lesley Stirling, Associate Professor Rod Gardner)

This project aims to re-examine claims that Aboriginal Australians conduct conversations in different ways to Anglo-Australians. It will investigate and compare ordinary conversations in these groups on a large scale. The project expects to provide new evidence to explicate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conversational norms, pinpointing differences which may lead to intercultural miscommunication. Expected outcomes include endangered language documentation, and evidence-based findings to disseminate to service providers, to communities and to Aboriginal organisations to improve ways of engaging with each other. In addition, the project will benefit Aboriginal communities with new approaches to language revitalisation. Key contact: Dr Joe Blythe

Kaytetye and Prosodic Theory

An ARC Discovery Project (DP150100845: Associate Professor Mark Harvey, Dr Myfany Turpin, Dr Michael Proctor)

We are examining the phonological structure of the Australian language Kaytetye, a member of the Arandic language family. Arandic languages have previously been analyzed as having unusual (VC) syllable structures, raising important questions for phonological theory. Through careful documentation and phonetic analysis of Kaytetye word and sentence structure, we aim to shed more light on its phonological organization, and implications for general theories of phonology and universals in language. Key contact: Dr Michael Proctor

Conversational Interaction in Jaru

This interactional linguistics project describes the use of the Jaru language within face-to-face conversation. Jaru is an endangered language (Ngumpin, Pama-Nyungan) of the East Kimberly region of Western Australia. Jaru conversation exhibit a substantial degree of mixing with Kriol, a contact Creole from northern Australia.

Josua Dahmen, Dr Joe Blythe, Dr Scott Barnes

Gesture in Gija Conversation

Gija is an endangered Jarragan language from the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. This interactional linguistics project explores the use of gesture and language within a corpus of face-to-face conversations

Caroline De Dear, Dr Joe Blythe, Dr Scott Barnes

Acquiring Kinship in an Australian Aboriginal Community

Dr Joe Blythe (DE130100399)

This project investigates the acquisition of kinship concepts by Murrinhpatha speaking children in Wadeye, NT.

Our people

Academic staff

Dr Joe Blythe

Dr Michael Proctor

Associate Professor Mridula Sharma

Professor Katherine Demuth

Research officers

Dr Francesco Possemato (CIARA project)

Dr Isabel O’Keeffe (Linguist and musicologist, Child Language Lab)

Current HDR students

Josua Dahmen

Caroline De Dear

Learn more about Australian languages

Undergraduate units LING293 – Australia's Indigenous Languages

Postgraduate units (BPhil/MRes) LING793 – Advanced Topics in Australia's Indigenous Languages

For further information about Australian language research in the Department of Linguistics, or to enquire about research supervision in this area, please contact Dr Joe Blythe.

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