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Aboriginal English

(written by Diana Eades)


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Aboriginal English is the name given to the various kinds of English spoken by Aboriginal people throughout Australia. Technically, the language varieties are dialects of English. They have much in common with other varieties of Australian English, but there are distinctive features of accent, grammar, words and meanings, as well as language use. These Aboriginal English features often show continuities with the traditional Aboriginal languages. In many subtle ways Aboriginal English is a powerful vehicle for the expression of Aboriginal identity.


Before the British invasion of Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, there were approximately 250 different indigenous languages spoken throughout the country, with approximately 600 dialects. The languages were very complex, and the differences between neighbouring languages were often as complicated as the differences between English and Spanish, for example.

The British were generally reluctant to learn any of the Aboriginal languages. Consequently, since the first contact with the invaders, it was left up to Aboriginal people to use some English in their dealings with them. At first this was a simplified kind of language, used only between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in situations of limited contact. This kind of English is referred to by linguists as 'pidgin English'.

But within a few generations this pidgin began to develop an important communicative function between different Aboriginal groups who did not have a shared language, and so it expanded linguistically, as well as socially. The social and linguistic development of the early pidgin English gave birth to Aboriginal dialects of English all over the country, as well as to two creole languages in some northern areas (Kriol and Torres Strait Creole).

But in some areas it seems that Aboriginal English developed not from pidgin English, but from the Aboriginalization of English as speakers learnt the language. That is, Aboriginal people in areas where there was no pidgin language made English into an Aboriginal English by bringing into it accents, words, grammar and ways of speaking from their Aboriginal languages and those of their parents.

It is both linguistically inaccurate and derogatory to use the term 'pidgin English' to refer to the kinds of English spoken by Aboriginal people today.

Attitudes and current use

Aboriginal English is probably the first language of the majority of Aboriginal people in Australia, who make up approximately 2% of the total population of the country. While many people speak it as their 'mother tongue', in more remote areas it is spoken as a second or third or fourth language, by speakers of 'traditional' Aboriginal languages and the creole languages.

Aboriginal English is important to Aboriginal identity, both in terms of self-identity and the identification of other Aboriginal people, particularly in parts of Australia where the traditional languages and cultural practices no longer survive, or are no longer strong. Although it is primarily an oral language, Aboriginal English is now being used in some published literature.

Like many other non-standard language varieties, Aboriginal English has a history of being dismissed as 'bad English'. It is only since the 1960s that linguists and educators have recognized it as a valid, rule-governed language variety.

Today many, if not most, non-Aboriginal Australians are still ignorant about Aboriginal English. However, it does have recognition at a number of levels of government. Departments of education around the country are well aware of the fact that they will not succeed in providing successful literacy education for speakers of Aboriginal English unless they recognize and accept Aboriginal English as the home language of many students. Several states have literacy programs for Aboriginal English speakers which build on the students' home language.

And there have been some important developments in the recognition and understanding of Aboriginal English in the legal system, following a number of key criminal cases involving Aboriginal English speaking witnesses. (See for example the Queensland handbook Aboriginal English and the Courts .)


There is quite a bit of variation in the different varieties of Aboriginal English throughout Australia, but probably not as much as is found in English in Britain (compare the differences in grammar, sound systems, and vocabulary between Cockney, Scottish and 'Geordie' English). It is an oversimplification to speak of one dialect of Aboriginal English, just as it would be to speak of one dialect of British English.

There are a number of Aboriginal English dialects, or more accurately, there are a number of continua of Aboriginal English dialects, ranging from close to Standard English at one end ( the 'light' varieties), to close to Kriol at the other (the 'heavy' varieties). Heavy Aboriginal English is spoken mainly in the more remote areas, where it is influenced by Kriol, while light varieties of Aboriginal English are spoken mainly in urban, rural and metropolitan areas. But even in these areas, some Aboriginal people in certain Aboriginal situations use a heavier Aboriginal English.


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In the area of lexicon or vocabulary there is often regional variation. So, for example, the word for policeman is:

monatj  in Western Australia
booliman  in Queensland
gunji or gunjibal  in New South Wales

And the word for white man is:

balanda  in Arnhem Land (Northern Territory)
gubba or gub  in south eastern Australia
migaloo  in Queensland
wajala  in Western Australia
walypala  in parts of northern Australia

There are also some English words used with different meanings in Aboriginal English. In many varieties of Aboriginal English, the word mother means 'the woman who gave birth to a person, and that woman's sisters'. This shows the continuity of Aboriginal kinship where a mother's sister often is treated as a mother, and a single word in many Aboriginal languages would translate into standard English as both 'mother' and 'mother's sister'.

Another important example is the word country which refers to land generally, but also has a more specific meaning of 'place of belonging'. Some other examples are:

Aboriginal English

standard Australian English





big mob

a lot of


Aboriginal language

sorry business

ceremony associated with death

grow [a child] up

raise [a child]




pretending, kidding, joking


mischievous, aggressive, dangerous



to tongue for

to long for

An interesting Aboriginal English word is deadly which would translate as 'really good or impressive' in standard English. It appears that this is a word which is spreading from Aboriginal English into general Australian usage, especially among young people (compare the way that the African American English word 'bad' to describe something very good has spread into many other varieties of English).


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The sound system of Aboriginal English has been influenced by the traditional languages, as well as the different kinds of British and Irish English brought to Australia.

One of the most distinctive features of the Aboriginal English sound system is found in the many words which start with a vowel, where the standard English translation starts with 'h', for example

Aboriginal English

standard English

Enry's at

Henry's hat

This feature is shared with many other varieties of English around the world, such as Cockney English. The traditional Aboriginal languages have no 'h' sound. Over the generations, Aboriginal speakers have learnt English with an Aboriginal accent. So when they have learnt standard English words which start with an 'h' sound, the Aboriginal accent has produced such words without this 'h' sound. This pronunciation is probably also influenced by the accent of many of the early non-Aboriginal Australians (especially Cockney convicts), and it also coincides with some other nonstandard varieties of English. But it is a mistake to assume that the pronunciation of words without 'h' is 'uneducated' English. It is just as much a part of the Aboriginal accent, as the 'sophisticated and charming' vowel pronunciations of French speakers of English are part of the French accent. It should be respected as part of the Aboriginal accent, and recognized as a feature of which many Aboriginal people are proud.

While this feature of Aboriginal English pronunciation is shared with a number of other non-standard English varieties, there is a related characteristic of Aboriginal English pronunciation which is much less commonly found in non-Aboriginal varieties of English: namely the addition of the h sound to English words which start in a vowel, as in:

Aboriginal English

standard English

Huncle Henry

Uncle Henry

This tendency to overcompensate in using the 'h' sound at the beginning of a word is an example of a general linguistic pattern, technically known as 'hypercorrection'. Different examples of hypercorrection can be found in diverse language situations throughout the world.

In heavy varieties of Aboriginal English we see a different pattern of consonants when compared to Standard English and General Australian English, for example:

  • initial 'd' in AE corresponds to initial 'th' in SE

    Aboriginal English

    standard English





  • initial 'b', 'p' in AE corresponds to initial 'v', 'f' in SE

    Aboriginal English

    standard English



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Question structure

Perhaps one of the most persistent and widespread grammatical features of Aboriginal English involves the structure of questions. It is common for Aboriginal English speakers to ask a question using the structure of a statement with rising (question) intonation. This structure is also used sometimes in colloquial Standard English. It is common for Aboriginal English questions like this to be finished with a question tag. In much of Australia this tag is eh?, in South Australia it is inna, and in the south west of Western Australia, it is unna.

Aboriginal English

standard English

You still sitting there that time?

You were still sitting there then?
Were you still sitting there then?

They bite, eh?

They bite, don't they?

Sentences formed by joining two phrases

One of the most persistent features of Aboriginal English is the expression of equational, descriptive and locational sentences with the joining of two phrases without adding any endings or extra words (like the verb 'to be'). This characteristic feature of Aboriginal English is one which appears not to be shared with other nonstandard varieties of English in Australia. It also parallels the grammatical structure of Aboriginal languages.

Aboriginal English

standard English

E my cousin brother.

He's my cousin.

They just normal, but they steel.

They're just normal, but they're steel.

My uncle back there.

My uncle's back there.

E big.

He's big.

Noun Phrase + there

Existential sentences are sometimes expressed with the structure Noun Phrase followed by there, which translates to standard English 'It's a ... ' (followed by Noun Phrase) or 'there is/are...' (followed by Noun Phrase).

Aboriginal English

standard English

Three pies there, eh?

Are there three pies?

When the river go down,
  this little island there.

When the river goes down,
   there's a little island


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Pragmatics is the term linguists use to refer to the way language is used (rather than the way it is structured, for example). Many Australians do not recognize important pragmatic differences between Aboriginal English and other varieties of Australian English.

For example, in many varieties of Aboriginal English, questions are often not used to seek important information. People use more indirect ways of finding things out, using hinting or triggering statements. Silence is also important to many Aboriginal interactions, and unlike the use of silence in many Western interactions, it is not seen to be an indication that communication has broken down.

Such pragmatic features of Aboriginal English are widespread, even where grammar and accent are very close to other kinds of Australian English. The recognition and understanding of Aboriginal English pragmatics is essential to effective cross-cultural communication.


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Malcolm, I., Haig, Y., Konigsberg, P., Rochecouste, J, Collard, G., Hill, A., & Cahill, R. (1999a). Two-Way English: Towards More User-Friendly Education for Speakers of Aboriginal English. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Malcolm, I., Haig, Y., Konigsberg, P., Rochecouste, J, Collard, G., Hill, A., & Cahill, R. (1999b). Towards More User-Friendly Education for Speakers of Aboriginal English. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Western Australia, Department of Education (1999). Solid English.

[These three Western Australian books report on research on Aboriginal English, and provide guidelines and practical suggestions for teachers.]


Deadly eh, Cuz: Teaching Speakers of Koorie English. Goulburn Valley Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Incorporated. Shepparton, Victoria.

[A kit for teachers of Aboriginal English speaking students in Victoria.]


NSW Early Childhood Aboriginal Literacy Resource Kit. Sydney: Board of Studies

[A kit for teachers of young Aboriginal English speaking students in New South Wales.]


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