Australian languages

Australian languages,

aboriginal languages spoken on the continent of Australia. The Australian languages do not appear to be related to any other linguistic family. The exact number of these languages and their dialects is not known, but has been estimated at about 200; of that number about 20 are not endangered to some degree, and about 80 are already extinct. Probably less than 100,000 persons still speak them. Many of the Australian languages have already died out. The Australian languages fall into two groups: the large Pama-Nyungan group, and the much smaller non-Pama-Nyungan group. Although their respective grammars exhibit a great degree of variation, the Australian languages still show many similarities. All of them inflect the noun, some having as many as nine cases. The verb lacks a passive voice. Postpositions are used instead of the prepositions typical of Indo-European languages. Most of the Australian languages have three markings for number: singular, dual, and plural. Word order tends to follow a similar pattern in the different tongues. They also show considerable similarity phonetically and have a small common vocabulary. Because of so many shared phonetic and grammatical characteristics some scholars believe that the Australian languages have all evolved from a single ancestor language and therefore belong to the same linguistic family, and a study published in 2018 found consistent similarities in the basic vocabularies of Australian languages. Others, however, feel that the term "Australian languages" constitutes a geographical rather than a linguistic classification.


See S. A. Wurm, Languages of Australia and Tasmania (1972); R. M. W. Dixon, The Languages of Australia (1980).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Australian Languages


a family of languages spoken by aboriginal residents of Australia. Over 600 Australian languages are known, of which about 450 have almost completely disappeared, including all the languages spoken in southwest Australia. The Australian languages are classified typologically and genetically into the so-called prefixing languages and suffixing languages. The prefixing languages, more precisely prefixing-suffixing languages, are spoken in the north of the continent, in almost the entire Arnhem Land and Kimberley peninsula, and Dampier Land. The suffixing languages are spoken in the rest of Australia and also northeast Arnhem Land and Cape York peninsula. The Dampier languages (Dampier Land and southwest Kimberley) occupy a special place among the prefixing languages. The suffixing languages are represented by the northwest languages (the “western desert” languages, such as Gara-djari, Yulbaridja, and Mudbura), the southwestern languages (for example, Wadjug), the Arunta languages (Aranda or Aranta, Gaididj, Yaroinga, and others) in central Australia, the Victorian languages (languages spoken in the state of Victoria and also Narrinyeri, spoken in the lower reaches of the Murray River), the Cape York-eastern Arnhem Land languages (Cape York, northeast Arnhem Land), and others. Attempts to establish an affinity between the Australian and other languages (for example, the Tasmanian and Papuan languages) have yielded no definitive results. Traces of external influences (apparently Papuan) are found only in the Dampier languages and in the languages spoken in the north of Cape York.

Most of the Australian languages and also the reconstructed proto-Australian distinguish three vowels—a, i, u. Voiced and unvoiced consonants are not distinguished, and there are no whistling or sibilant consonants. Intradental. apical, cerebral, and palatalized d (t), n, and l are contrasted phonologically. According to Capell (1962), proto-Australian was an analytical language featuring moderate agglutination of suffixes, with auxiliaries and relatively free order in the sentences. Traces of this condition are retained in the midwestern languages. The auxiliaries later became affixes. In the suffixing languages, the agglutinative suffixes and partially the fusionalenes express case and number in the noun, and tense, numerous moods, person, and number of the subject and object in the verb. The nominal indicators of number (plural, dual, sometimes trial) and the mood can be traced back to independent words, while verbal markers of person and number of subject and object can be traced back to pronouns. In the prefixing languages, the verb features suffixes (for tenses, moods, aspects, and the like) and prefixes (for person, number, and class of subject and object). Those languages (with the exception of the Dampier and several others) feature two to nine nominal classes.

The sentence structure in the Australian languages is usually ergative. All of the Australian languages reveal a common ancient vocabulary. The Australian languages usually lack numbers higher than three and have virtually no abstract words. In semantic structure, the Australian languages do not differ in principle from other languages spoken throughout the world.


Schmidt, W. Die Gliederung der australischen Sprachen. Vienna, 1919.
Schmidt, W. Personalpronomina in den Australischen Sprachen. Vienna, 1919.
Strehlow, T. G. H., and J. Whatmough. “Australian Languages.” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 2. Chicago, 1965.
Capell, A. A New Approach to Australian Linguistics. Sydney, 1956.
Capell, A. Linguistic Survey of Australia. Sydney, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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