Australia People: Languages

Australian English

Any visitor from abroad who thinks Australian (that's 'Strine') is simply a weird variant of English/American will soon have a few surprises. For a start many Australians don't even speak Australian - they speak Italian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Turkish or Greek.

Those who do speak the native tongue are liable to lose you in a strange collection of Australian words. Some have completely different meanings in Australia than they have in English-speaking countries north of the equator; some commonly used words have been shortened almost beyond recognition. Others are derived from Aboriginal languages, or from the slang used by early convict settlers.

There is a slight regional variation in the Australian accent, while the difference between city and country speech is mainly a matter of speed. Some of the most famed Aussie words are hardly heard at all - 'mates' are more common than 'cobbers'.

If you want to pass for a native try speaking slightly nasally, shortening any word of more than two syllables and then adding a vowel to the end of it, making anything you can into a diminutive (even the Hell's Angels can become mere 'bikies') and peppering your speech with as many expletives as possible. The list that follows may give you an idea of what it is like:

arvo - afternoon
award wage - minimum pay rate
barbie - barbecue (bbq)
beaut - beauty
bikies - motorcyclists
billy - tin container used to boil tea in the bush
bloke - man
bush - country, anywhere away from the city
cocky - small-scale farmer
cow cocky - small-scale cattle farmer
dul - idiot
earbash - talk nonstop
furphy - a rumor or false story
g'day - good day, traditional Australian greeting
mate - general form of familiarity, whether you know the person or not
never-never - remote country in the outback
paddock - a fenced area of land intended for livestock
sheila - woman
smoko - tea break
station - large farm
tea - evening meal
uni - university
yahoo - noisy and unruly person
yakka - work (from an Aboriginal language)
Aboriginal Language

At the time of European contact there were around 250 separate Australian languages, comprising about 700 dialects. Often three or four adjacent tribes would speak what amounted to dialects of the same language, but another adjacent tribe might speak a completely different language.

It is believed that all the languages evolved from a single language family as the Aboriginal people gradually moved out over the entire continent and split into new groups. There are a number of words that occur right across the continent, such as jina (foot) and moZa (hand), and similarities also exist in the often complex grammatical structures.

Following European contact the number of Aboriginal languages was drastically reduced. At least eight separate languages were spoken in Tasmania alone, but none of these was recorded before the native speakers either died or were killed. Of the original 250 or so languages, only around 30 are today spoken on a regular basis and are taught to children.

Aboriginal Kriol is a new language which has developed since European arrival in Australia. It is spoken across northern Australia and has become the 'native' language of many young Aboriginal people. It contains many English words, but the pronunciation and grammatical usage are along Aboriginal lines, the meaning is often different, and the spelling is phonetic. For example, the English sentence 'He was amazed' becomes 'I bin luk kwesjinmak' in Kriol.

There are a number of generic terms which Aborigional people use to describe themselves, and these vary according to the region. The most common of these is Koori, used for the people of south-east Australia. Nunga is used to refer to the people of coastal South Australia, Murri for those from the north-east, and Nyoongah is used in the country's north-west.