How New Indigenous Languages Are Changing Australia

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

They are a bridge between traditional indigenous languages and a future for these communities and their culture.

Before European colonization, as many as 300 languages were spoken on continental Australia, reflecting the cultural diversity among its original inhabitants. Today, only about 40 to 60 of these languages remain, with more than half of them no longer learned by any children.

Yet the dynamic nature of language is giving some indigenous groups and linguists something to cheer about: Younger indigenous generations are driving the rise of a new crop of languages — ones that fuse aspects of traditional languages with modern English.

One of the most widespread is Kriol. Spoken by about 20,000 people, mostly concentrated in northern and central Australia, it first gained serious recognition from linguists as a new, separate language in the 1970s but has only more recently become a means of communication between governments and indigenous populations. In 2014, national broadcaster the ABC began airing Kriol news bulletins, marking growing recognition of what experts believe is a steadily growing number of Kriol speakers. The language is distinct from the creoles common in the Americas.

News wrap in Kriol

Top stories this week in Kriol 🗞️You can get the news wrap in Kriol, Yolngu Matha and Warlpiri.

Posted by ABC Darwin on Friday, November 1, 2019
An ABC Kriol broadcast

Linguists are also beginning to find more languages that have sprung from Kriol and draw heavily from traditional languages. The two most prevalent examples are Gurindji Kriol and Light Warlpiri, both of which have about 500 speakers and have evolved as a result of language mixing among indigenous groups. Light Warlpiri was recognized as a separate language only in 2013.

It’s good that [younger generations] keep Kriol going strong to keep this middle ground between English and our cultural languages.

Olive Knight, an indigenous Australian and a translator

For many, like Olive Knight — who hails from a small indigenous desert community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia — these new languages represent a positive identity marker and a “happy compromise” between traditional languages and English. Knight’s own native language — Walmajarri — has around 1,000 active speakers, but those numbers are declining.

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“[Kriol] is the closest nod to our traditional languages as it gets,” she says. “I think it’s good that [younger generations] keep Kriol going strong to keep this middle ground between English and our cultural languages.”

On the phone from the Fremantle office of the Western Australian Aboriginal Interpreting Service — where she provides her services as a linguist and translator, Knight says that Kriol stands a stronger chance of prospering in the future than traditional languages like her own. “I try to speak as much to my grandchildren as I can in Walmajarri to pass that down,” she says. “But older people who are fluent in traditional languages are passing on. That’s how it is. It’s also not really taught in schools.”

Yet to many other indigenous people, Kriol and its offshoots carry the dark overtones of colonization. Europeans brought about the loss of traditional language; they also brought on the rise of Kriol. European sailors who arrived in Australia in the late 18th century had to find a way to communicate with the local populations. What emerged was an English-based language infused with indigenous terms that became known as Port Jackson Pidgin English and spread from New South Wales up north through the booming cattle industry.

The frontier wars reduced the number of traditional language speakers, and the missions prioritized the teaching of English. Over several generations, many indigenous Australians learned English, but through the lens of their first languages. Holding on to this mix of language meant that, over time, it morphed into its own language. Kriol was born.  

“Essentially through this process Kriol became a language in its own right with its own words, sounds and grammar structures,” says Felicity Meakins, a linguist and professor at the University of Queensland. “Its grammar is a compromise between English and indigenous languages, and many words come from both English and local indigenous languages.”

Some blame Kriol too for contributing to the decline of other traditional languages. For example, Gurindji Kriol was born when a community of Gurindji speakers in the Northern Territory left one cattle station and walked to another where Kriol was being spoken.

“Gurindji didn’t disappear; Kriol didn’t dominate,” says Meakins. “Code switching between the languages fossilized into this new language called Gurindji Kriol.” Light Warlpiri, meanwhile, is a mix of Warlpiri, Kriol and English and is spoken almost exclusively by the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu in the Northern Territory. Most of its speakers are under the age of 40.

In many cases, newborns in these communities are learning the new languages, not English or traditional languages. “That can cause grief for some older generations who see their traditional languages as a link to their culture and identity,” Meakins says.

Most other Australians, meanwhile, aren’t exposed to the emergence of these new languages, experts say. There’s little focus on getting indigenous languages taught in classrooms, although some states are better than others. For example, the New South Wales state government has tried to steer efforts toward the revival of indigenous languages through an independent panel of Aboriginal language experts.

But what about the new crop of languages? “I don’t think they’re registering much with policymakers. There’s just very little attention on these languages in wider Australian society,” says Maia Ponsonnet, a linguistics professor at the University of Western Australia.

Back at the office in Fremantle, Knight says she looks forward to a day when Kriol and the other new languages are openly taught and accessible for all. “Right now, you get it if you’re immersed in a community — that’s how you learn Kriol,” Knight says. She says that’s sad because she believes nonindigenous people might want to learn these languages: “We want [other] people to learn it too.”

Still, Light Warlpiri and Gurindji Kriol — while modern variants of traditional languages — are still “deeply rooted and carry the traditions encoded in indigenous languages,” Meakins says.

Knight echoes that sentiment, speaking of Kriol. “It’s about us rejecting standard English … and our traditional ways of thinking are still in there in the language.”

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