Aboriginal English - a dialect of English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Introduction

2. Language varieties
2.1 Pidgins / Creoles
2.2 Indigenised varieties
2.3 National dialects

3. Linguistic features of Aboriginal English
3.1 Pronunciation
3.2 Grammar
3.3 Vocabulary

4. Pragmatics and sociolinguistic issues
4.1 Pragmatics
4.2 Aboriginal English in the law

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

During the last decades the use of English around the world became increasingly widespread. Therefore it is an important means of communication not only between speakers of different native languages as a lingua franca but also as a significant feature for self- identification since there are so many varieties of English with distinctive linguistic as well as pragmatic features. The far-reaching influence and use of English throughout the world dates back to the colonisation centuries ago. There are various varieties of English spoken by a large percentage of people, whereas Crystal states that about one-third of the world’s population “are in theory routinely exposed to English” (quoted in Kandiah 1998: 1). Colonisation and the building of the British Empire brought English to distant places all over the world, where different forms of English began to emerge, whereas the most recent development of a so-called “global village” contributes to the rise of new varieties of English.

There are several attempts to classify the different varieties of English with different frameworks. The most prominent classification is the idea of three concentric circles, which was first proposed by Kachru in 1985. This theory suggests an inner circle, where English “is the primary language [and] dominated by the ‘mother tongue’ varieties of the language” (quoted in Kandiah 1998: 6). This circle includes the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The outer or extended circle is described by Kachru as the countries where English is “an additional language” and represents “the earlier phases of the spread of English and its institutionalization in non-native contexts” (quoted in Kandiah 1998: 6). Therefore regions like India, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines are named in this circle. The last circle is called the expanding circle, whose varieties of English are considered as “performance varieties”, i.e. “the rest of the world where English is used as a primary foreign language” (quoted in Kandiah 1998: 7). However, this framework for classification lacks the ability to cover all existent varieties of English, most important the English-based pidgins and creoles.

Another theory for the classification of the varieties of English around the world is the division in “three broadly distinct classes” (Kandiah 1998: 8), which are ‘Older Englishes’, ‘New Englishes’ and English-based Pidgins and Creoles as well as decreolised varieties. The varieties of English which fall in the category of ‘Older Englishes’ are listed above under the term ‘inner circle’. ‘New Englishes’ are made up of African varieties such as Nigerian English, South Asian varieties such as Indian English and Pakistani English and Southeast Asian varieties like Malaysian English and Singapore English. The third class of Pidgins, Creoles and decreolised varieties is formed by languages like Tok Pisin of New Guinea, Bislama of Vanuatu or Kriol in Australia. Although this framework fits better to a classification, it still lacks full applicability. Some varieties termed ‘Older Englishes’ for example are actually newer varieties than some ‘New Englishes’, as it is the case with Australian English. Furthermore some open questions remain when it comes to the classification of language varieties like Aboriginal English. This shows that both frameworks are not absolutely applicable to all varieties of English.

2. Language varieties

Since the above mentioned classifications and categories do not fully account for the great number of Englishes, different terms have to be introduced. Therefore definitions of the terms ‘pidgins/creoles’, ‘indigenised varieties’, ‘regional dialect’ and ‘minority dialect’ should be taken into consideration in order to help finding a suitable label for Aboriginal English.

2.1 Pidgins / Creoles

Pidgins and creoles are generally defined as “new varieties of language generated in situations of language contact” (Rickford and McWhorter 1996: 238), whereas pidgins are the first stage in the development of these new varieties. One language, mostly the dominant language, serves as the superstrate or lexifier language, i.e. most of its lexicon comes from that language. The traditional language of the users functions as substrate language, from which phonological and grammatical features are taken. However, pidgin languages are less complex in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon as well as in their usage. Since pidgin languages are relatively young languages without any native speakers, the communication patterns are restricted to necessary parts of communication like trading. When this pidgin stabilises and expands in its usage, the limited linguistic features begin to expand also. Since expanded stable pidgins then begin to function as a means for communication among people who speak different languages, it is mostly learnt as a second language. Creolisation is the next stage in the development of the language variety and “occurs as a result of rapid social change and the demand for a primary language in a newly-emerged community” (Harris 1991: 200). Therefore a creole can be defined as a pidgin which has been learnt by children as a mother tongue with its vocabulary still mostly drawn from a lexifier language but with unique grammatical rules and which functions in all possible communication patterns in a community’s everyday life.

When looking at Kriol, the “English-based creole, widely spoken by Aboriginal Australians in the ‘Top end’ of the Northern Territory and adjacent regions” (Harris 1991: 195), it becomes clear that due to the “pre-European background”, which the indigenous peoples of Australia had, Kriol differs from other creoles in plantation and post-plantation societies. However, it also has distinctive features which characterise it as a creole. Although there has been a Portuguese-Malay trade language ‘Macassan’ Pidgin for communication in the trading relationship with South-east Asia, it developed rapidly into an English-based pidgin when the British settlers arrived in Australia. The “widely-understood lingua franca ‘Northern Territory Pidgin English’” (Harris 1991: 200) experienced a drastic and rapid social change due to the severe decimation of Aboriginal people and the establishment of an Anglican Church mission for refugees from eight groups of different Aboriginal tribes. This means that the normal language transmission was disrupted and a new community emerged with the need for a new primary language. Therefore the English-based pidgin creolised into what is now referred to as Kriol and serves for all communicative needs.

2.2 Indigenised varieties

Siegel defined the term indigenised variety as “originally foreign language which has become adapted to the local culture and undergone linguistic changes which reflect the influence of local languages” (quoted in Malcolm 2001: 202). From that point of view Aboriginal English could be compared to these ‘New Englishes’. However, the adoption of English and the creation of a new variety of English happened very differently in countries like India for example. When the British Empire created a colony in India, it was “primarily for the purpose of enriching the home country” (Kandiah 1998: 27). Therefore the indigenous cultures and languages of the country were not affected as severely as in other colonies and a multicultural and multilinguistic society remained since “displacement or eradication of the indigenous cultures and languages […] was not part of the agenda” (Kandiah 1998: 28). Apart from this there was a utilitarian motive which affected the development of English in India and which makes the difference to the development of English in former colonial countries of the British Empire. In contrast to America or Australia, proper settlement of Europeans did not take place but a small proportion of the indigenous population had to have knowledge of English in order to “bridge the linguistic gap between the administration and the general populace, who knew no English, to maintain records, to help effectuate directives, implement decisions and so on” (de Souza quoted in Kandiah 1998: 29). Another crucial point is the political motive, as de Souza puts it, to create “an influential western-oriented intelligentsia as an aid to stabilizing colonial rule” (quoted in Kandiah 1998: 29). This led to the establishment of an English-based education system, which was extraordinary in India since education was extended even to the university level at the end of the nineteenth century.

When it comes to language transmission, Indian English also differs greatly from that in Australia. At the beginning of the colonisation, the first speakers of English of the population did not learn the language from their parents or through everyday use as a language of communication. Therefore the mode of language transmission can be termed as broken. However, this situation began to change during the next generations due to the emergence of a bilingual elite which spoke English in official situations and their traditional language in domestic situations. This means that neither English nor the indigenous language was “an all-purpose language” (Kandiah 1998: 31). English had also a high prestige since the British were seen as cultural and intellectual superior. Therefore English became “the language of polite social intercourse among the elite and […] entered into their everyday social, emotional and imaginative lives” (Kandiah 1998: 32). Thus, the mode of language transmission changed as well because the children began to learn English from their parents and in normal everyday life. These facts show that Aboriginal English can hardly be described as an indigenized variety since the development differed greatly.

2.3 National dialects

National dialects are the language varieties spoken in different nations like American English in the USA, British English in the UK and Australian English in Australia. However, it has to be noted that a national dialect is far from being uniform. There are several varieties within one dialect, having differences according to factors like for example region or social status. In Australia the standard dialect is called Standard Australian English which does not mean that one dialect is better or more educated than another one.

It is simply the dialect of English which is spoken by the more powerful, dominant groups in society, and which has therefore become the language of education, the media, government and the law. (Eades 1993: 1)

Apart from this, there are dialect varieties like for example minority dialects which are an important means of marking identity in certain minority ethnic groups. One example of a minority dialect in Australia is Aboriginal English. As Eades defines it “Aboriginal English is the name given to dialects of English which are spoken by Aboriginal people and which differ from Standard Australian English in systematic ways” (Eades 1993: 2). These differences are to be found in pronunciation, grammar, the lexicon and pragmatics and are important for Aboriginal communities to express their identity and culture, although it is wrong to speak of one dialect of Aboriginal English. It could be said that there is a continuum of Aboriginal English dialects which vary from its ‘light’ varieties, mainly spoken in urban areas, and which is closer to Standard Australian English till its ‘heavy’ varieties on the other end of the continuum, mainly spoken in remote areas and which is closer to Kriol.

As mentioned before Aboriginal English differs from indigenised varieties because of the way it developed. It could also be claimed that Aboriginal English had developed out of a pidgin language and is therefore a creole. However, this is not true since the development of Aboriginal English is quite complex. In areas where speakers of the early pidgin languages in Australia had constant contact to English speaking people the pidgin did not change into a creole but was depidginised into Aboriginal English. In areas where the pidgin had already creolised and where the similar constant contact situation took place it decreolised into Aboriginal English. In addition in some areas where Aboriginal people grew up learning Standard Australian English as their first language they began to change it in sounds, grammar, vocabulary and the meaning of words into Aboriginal English. This development is called “Aboriginalisation of English” (Eades 1993: 2).

3. Linguistic features of Aboriginal English

As already stated, Aboriginal English cannot be separated to Standard Australian English by its level of education or sophistication. Nevertheless Aboriginal English is classified clearly by distinct linguistic and pragmatic features and can therefore be distinguished from other dialects of English. This affects the sounds of Aboriginal English, its grammar and its vocabulary.

3.1 Pronunciation

Since Aboriginal English is not a uniform dialect all over the country, and due to the continuum from heavy to light varieties, not all linguistic features can be found in every variety of the dialect. In addition only the most prominent features should be given as detailed examples. Due to the fact that traditional Aboriginal languages have no h sound a salient marker for Aboriginal English is the dropping of word initial h. This feature can also be found in some other non-standard dialects of English and must not be mistaken for wrong or uneducated pronunciation. It is also often accompanied by the attempt to overcompensate for the omission of h by adding a word initial h sound to Standard English words beginning with a vowel. Another prominent phonological feature is the change of the consonants f, v and th into p, b and t or d. This also stems from the lack or the rareness of these consonants in traditional languages of Aboriginal people and can cause confusion when the context is not clear. The Aboriginal English example We ‘ ad a bight, which in Standard Australian English means We had a fight, could easily be mistaken for We had a bite when the hearer is not sure about the context (Eades 1993: 3).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Aboriginal English - a dialect of English
University of Regensburg
Contact Varieties
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ISBN (eBook)
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Aboriginal, English, Contact, Varieties
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Anonymous, 2006, Aboriginal English - a dialect of English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/65157


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