Monday, May 4, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Australia

This week we're taking a look at the incredible linguistic diversity of Australia, the sixth largest country in the world. It was once home to well over 300 indigenous languages, though sadly many of them have become extinct or severely threatened since the establishment of British settlements in Australia starting in the late 1700s.

The National Language

Unlike most other countries, Australia does not have any official languages. However, English is considered to be the de facto national language since it is the native language spoken by the majority of Australians. The English language was first introduced to the continent by the British in the late 18th century when they began to create penal colonies in Australia.

Over the centuries, Australian English has evolved from British English into a distinct variety that has its own unique characteristics, including differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling. Two notable characteristics of Australian English include the use of the term outback to refer to "remote areas" and the frequent use of mate for "friend", which is also found in some dialects of British English.

It's nearly impossible to write a blog post about Australia
without using a photo of an adorable baby koala...
Aboriginal Languages

It is thought that there were over 400 indigenous languages in existence prior to European contact with Australia. Sadly, very few of these languages, which are thought to have belonged to nearly 30 different language families, have survived over the centuries. According to Ethnologue, 177 Australian languages are extinct, 141 are dying, and 35 are in trouble.

That said, there are still a few indigenous languages in Australia with relatively healthy numbers of speakers. Another term used to refer to these languages and the ethnic groups that speak them is aboriginal, a word which means "indigenous", though in modern times it is most often used to specifically reference groups that are indigenous to Australia.

The most spoken Aboriginal languages include Arrernte, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Tiwi, Walmajarri, and Warlpiri. Kalaw Lagaw Ya is especially interesting because it was an important lingua franca before colonization throughout parts of what is now Australia and Papua New Guinea. Another fascinating language is Tiwi, a language isolate, which is still being taught to children in hopes of preserving the language for future generations.

Immigrant Language

Australia also has many large immigrant populations that often speak their own native languages at home. Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, and Vietnamese are each spoken by approximately 1% of Australians.