Language and Aboriginal Culture in Australia: Linguistic Imperialism of English or Language Ecology

Examination Thesis, 2000

116 Pages, Grade: 2.0 (B)



0 Introduction

1 Australian Aborigines
1.1 Settlement of the Australian Continent
1.2 Aboriginal Culture
1.2.1 Dreamtime
1.2.2 Family
1.2.3 Death
1.3 Language
1.3.1 Structural Similarity
1.3.2 Mutual Intelligibility
1.3.3 Standardization
1.4 Aboriginal languages of Australia
1.4.1 Language names
1.4.2 Relations with languages outside Australia
1.4.3 Grammatical characteristics
1.5 Aboriginal English
1.5.1 Structural properties of Aboriginal English Grammatical Features Phonological Features Lexical F eatures
1.5.2 Criteria distinguishing Aboriginal English from Creoles Origin Targeted Learning Mutual Intelligibility Orthographic System Structure

2 Linguistic Imperialism
2.1 The principles of imperialism
2.1.1 Power
2.1.2 Correlations
2.1.3 Exertion Physical force Psychological force
2.1.4 The Centre - Periphery Concept
2.1.5 The Stages of Development
2.2 Linguistic Imperialism
2.2.1 A definition of linguistic imperialism
2.2.2 Mechanisms of validation Ethnocentricity (Anglocentricity) Professionalism Pro-English arguments
2.3 English Language Education
2.3.1 Colonial educational language policy
2.3.2 English Language Education in the early 20th Century
2.3.3 English Language Teaching - Five tenets English is best taught monolingually. The ideal teacher of English is a native (English) speaker. The earlier English is taught the better are the results. The more English is taught the better are the results. If other languages are used much, standards of English will drop.
2.4 English Language Promotion
2.4.1 Language Promotion in Britain - the British Council
2.4.2 Language Promotion in the United States
2.5 The role of the English language in the present world

3 Linguistic Ecology
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Ecology of language
3.2.1 Biological, cultural and linguistic diversity
3.2.2 The interdependency of biodiversity, cultural and linguistic diversity
3.2.3 An argument for linguistic diversity Language and identity
3.2.4 Arguments against linguistic diversity Cost and efficiency One nation - one state - one language?
3.2.5 Endangered Languages
3.2.6 Linguistic Genocide
3.2.7 Linguistic Human Rights - Historical Overview
3.3 Other fields of interest
3.3.1 Language and Ethology
3.3.2 Language and Conflict Ethnic Conflict in Sociology Political Language Conflict Glottophagia - a threat to multilingualism Solving conflict situations

4 Australia - Taking a closer look
4.1 Language politics of the Australian nation
4.1.1 Language politics in regard of ‘community languages’
4.1.2 Language politics in regard to Aboriginal languages The early years and the ‘crunch period’ The beginning of recognition and support Resurgence in Aboriginal language awareness and language maintenance
4.2 The state of language vitality
4.3 Factors contributing to language loss
4.3.1 Radical reduction in the number of speakers
4.3.2 The ‘stolengeneration’
4.3.3 Patterns of resettlement
4.3.4 Breakdown in isolation
4.3.5 Urbanisation
4.3.6 Increased intermarriage
4.3.7 Changes in economy and values
4.3.8 Media
4.3.9 Education
4.3.10 Speaker attitudes
4.4 Factors contributing to language survival
4.4.1 Language pride
4.4.2 Language as a symbol of identity
4.4.3 Geographical and social isolation
4.4.4 The outstation movement
4.4.5 Language maintenance programs
4.5 Language maintenance programs in Australia
4.5.1 Influencing factors State of language health Availability of skills and resources Community interest and support
4.5.2 Language centres
4.5.3 Bilingual education
4.5.4 Aboriginal language courses
4.5.5 Literacy
4.5.6 Oral history projects
4.5.7 The outstation/ homeland movement
4.5.8 Indigenous tertiary education
4.5.9 Organisations supporting Aboriginal languages Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (AIATSIS) Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC) Aboriginal Languages Association (ALA)
4.6 Hindrances to language maintenance in Australia
4.6.1 Insufficient funding
4.6.2 Problems of bilingual education
4.6.3 Staff turnover
4.6.4 Attendance and mobility

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography



Map 1 Approximate location of Aboriginal languages


Table 1 Personal pronouns in Warunga

Table 2 Who has the power and materialistic resources in the world?

Table 3 Endemism in language and higher vertebrates

Table 4 Bilingual schools in Australia


Figure 1 Idealistic - liberal relationship

Figure 2 Materialistic relationship


Chart 1 Vitality of Aboriginal languages


illustration not visible in this excerpt

0 Introduction

This paper is about linguistic imperialism and linguistic ecology in respect of the indigenous languages of Australia. The linguistic complexities in Australia are immense, as are the fields of research of linguistic imperialism and linguistic ecology. Neither is the research in the fields mentioned above terminated nor has the development in Australia reached an end. As a result, the paper is only able to provide a snapshot.

The first chapter serves as an introduction. The reader should familiarize her-/ himself with the history and culture of a people, which is unique and distinct from any other civilization. It refers to the initial settlement of the Australian continent, as well as it touches in short specific traits of Aboriginal culture. Answers are provided to questions like, ‘What is language?’, ‘What are the characteristics of Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal English?’

Linguistic imperialism will be discussed in chapter two. From what point on can a relationship between any given subjects be called, in its widest meaning, imperialistic? The chapter refers to Galtung (1980), whose observations are still valid today and gives a historical overview of the rise of the English language from a European Germanic language spoken on the British Islands to a global language, especially focusing on the development in the 19th and 20th century.

Linguistic ecology is a rather new field of research in linguistics. Chapter three reflects on a research orientation which developed in the 1960s and 1970s due to Haugen, who gave the term ecology a linguistic meaning. It tries to show the parallels between biodiversity and cultural/ linguistic diversity and why it has become so important to be aware that not only plants and animals are seriously endangered and need special protection, but also languages. Additionally, other fields of interest of language ecology are introduced in the chapter.

The last chapter deals with the impact European settlement had on indigenous language variety, and the problems contemporary Australian society is confronted with. Australia’s language policy will not only be outlined in regard of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s native tongue, but also in regard of community languages. Which possibilities has the Australian government to deal with the problem and which language maintenance efforts have been called into action so far?

1 Australian Aborigines

1.1 Settlement of the Australian Continent

The old ancestors of the Australian natives have, in all probability, entered the continent from Timor and set foot on the northwest shelf of the Australian continent between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. This would have been during the late Pleistocene. Sea levels were much lower, and the land areas were about 30 percent bigger than today, i.e. the Aborigines would have needed to cover a distance of about 90 km. These landing sites are now 100 m below sea level, which makes it very difficult to recover traces of these early coastal settlers. It is widely believed, that there have been two major waves of immigration. An original one, whose markers could be observed until recently in the Tasmanian Aborigines[1], and a second one of a people at a higher level of culture. With the first wave, the immigrants spread over the whole continent, including the south-east corner, which at this time presumably still was a promontorey and not a separate island. Due to continental drifting and post-glacial rising of the sea levels, this promontorey was split off from the mainland and Bass Strait was formed about 12,000 years ago, thus separating Australia and the island of Tasmania. When the second wave of immigrants later reached what nowadays is called Victoria, their advance was stopped by the sea. Why they did not cross Bass Strait is not known.

In contrast to the Aborigines living on mainland Australia, the Tasmanian Aborigines had only the simplest of devices for warfare, etc. Nearly nothing is known of their customs and beliefs. This being the main reason, why their culture is considered of being of a lower level.

Whether on mainland Australia these two races amalgamated, or whether the first was extinguished by the newcomers can only be subject to speculation. Spencer and Gillen (1997, 16) assume that the males were slaughtered and their women being appropriated by the newcomers, as is often the case when two people of different levels of culture are confronted with each other.

Australia’s other indigenous people are the Torres Strait Islanders, a Melanesian minority of about 21,000 whose culture is basically Papuan. The international border between Australia and Papua New Guinea passes through the islands which are an Australian possession administered by the Queensland Government. Torres Strait Islanders in the west and central island groups reflect Melanesian origins, while those in the east show some Polynesian heritage.

1.2 Aboriginal Culture

Human beings can be described as culture-building species. Culture appearingly presents to society what memories present for individuals (Triandis, 1994, 1). Already the ancient Chinese Confucian and Legalist philosopher Xun Kuang said: ‘Humans cannot function without social groups which cannot exist without the shared guidance or rules li (i.e., customary ruless of living or norms of conduct) or yi (i.e., a combination of rightousness, faithfulness, fairness, justice, or morality.’ (quoted in Lee, McCauley, Draguns (eds.), 1999, 6).

Culture of a particular race refers to their beliefs, customs and lifestyle. Broadly speaking culture is spiritual. It is a possibility for people to answer existential questions, like: Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my purpose in life? And What happens when I die? If this is case, as it is in Aboriginal society, culture would then need to be described as a subjective culture which refers to the ‘psychological and mental aspects of the human-made environment.’ (ibid., 5).

Culture is also a celebration of beliefs and usually (if not always) includes rites of passage from one stage of life to another. For the Australian Aborigines each day is a celebration of their Dreamtime beliefs. This involves beliefs about spiritual links to the ancestors who they believed created their land, the animals and plants. It also involves the process of initiation. During this process, boys become accustomed to the history and customs of the tribe and how to gather food in desert areas. Its purpose is also to make the growing young men independent from their mothers. Initiation could be circumscribed with Aboriginal education.

Culture is also stories and songs, which are very important to Australian Aborigines. These stories and songs, after all Aborigines do not have a written language, contain all their information about creation, the relationship between mankind and nature and are the the source of their tribal laws. Until 1788, the Aborigines of Australia lived and celebrated a culture basically unchanged for thousands of years. Each tribe had their own beliefs - their own songs and stories until colonization. Australian Aborigines have a very highly sophisticated system of beliefs. Unfortunately, it took a very long time for non-Aboriginal individuals to understand this and to become aware of the fact that their culture offers a vast amount of information.

1.2.1 Dreamtime

The concept of the Dreamtime was first understood by Spencer and Gillen (1997) when they recorded information about the beliefs and practices of the Aranda tribe of Central Australia. Before Spencer and Gillen, Dreamtime stories were often misinterpreted, mostly because of the lack of understanding. Scientists interviewing Australian Aborigines, were not competent neither in the Aboriginal tongue, nor were they familiar with Aboriginal culture and beliefs and Aborigines, on the other hand, were not fluent in English. Another reason, which lead to misinterpretations is the fact that the Aboriginal people used words that were so far unknown in the English language and therefore had no equivalent. So words and concepts were either omitted from the stories or misinterpretations were added. In sum, the real sense or the meaning of the sories was quite frequently inaccurate. Spencer and Gillen’s investigations led them to identifying the word Alcheringa which proved to be a belief about a creative period in the past where their ancestors lived (1997, 745). They interpreted this as the Dreamtime. Other tribes had their own particular words for these concepts.

According to Berndt C.H., Berndt R.M. (1989 and 1992), traditional Aborigines based their life on the precedents that were identified in the myths and in doing so, strived to maintain the status quo, in other words to perpetuate and continue the never ending Dreamtime. The Dreamtime has been described as a ‘mythical era regarded as setting a precedent for all human behaviour from that time on. It was a period when patterns of living were established and laws laid down for human beings to follow. This was the past, the sacred past; but it was not the past in the sense of something that was over and done with.’ (Berndt, 1992, 230)

The Dreamtime was and is living mythology. Dreamtime stories are often subject to false judgement, since they appear to be superstitious.

‘Aboriginal mythology [...] was and is, like a huge mirror that reflected - sometimes dimly, sometimes in an exaggerated way, sometimes phantasmagorically - what was familiar to them, something they expected to see and something that they could identify. [. ] Much of Aboriginal mythology focused on conflict situations, and on providing explanations of how social and natural phenomenon came about.’ (Berndt, 1989, 4)

Traditional Aborigines believe that long ago, spirits, like the Rainbow Serpent or the Fertility Mother, which are common mythical charters to all Aborigines, made journeys across what was a voidless waste creating the land, waterways, the sky above an all it contained. Wherever they rested, they left the spirits of living creatures behind them. Then at some indeterminable time, the spirits disappeared. Some were believed to have gone in the sky above, others were considered to live across the land in caves, waterholes and other secret places. These beliefs were universal among all tribes, although each tribe had their own particular Dreamtime creation stories. This strong belief in spiritual creators seems to be the reason why Aborigines are such a peaceful people. Surely, there have been quarrels and disputes at the borderline of their tribes, but there never were any wars between them because of land. Even if one tribe had defeated an opponent, they would never actually occupy the conquered land, since this would mean having to live in a land that had been formed and was still occupied by strange, unknown and undoubtedly hostile spirits. So what reason was there in wars? For this, Aborigines are far too superstitious and this, fortunately, leaves us today with a whole range of different languages.

1.2.2 Family

The family was a self sufficient economic unit and labor was rigidly divided by sex. The women gathered grain, roots, berries, grubs, and other small insects, prepared the meals, and carried the eating utensils. The men hunted game and located water. Much of the people’s life was spent moving around seeking food and water.

A man could have more than one wife. His first wife was usually much older and a widow. A second wife might be a very young girl betrothed to him at his circumcision[2]. These arrangements helped to festify relationships between families and groups. When a visitor came to a camp, a man might ‘lend’ his wife in order to show hospitality, and the woman was expected to comply.

Several groups of families made up a tribe, which occupied a given area and claimed hunting rights in that area. The tribe had a common language and ranged in size from 100 to 1,500 people. There were no chiefs or rulers, only elders who enforced the social and religious rules.

1.2.3 Death

Death was always a time of sorrow and supernatural fear among Aboriginal people. Wailing or crying was a common occurrence among the mourners who often painted their bodies with pipe clay, red ochre, or charcoal when a relative or friend died. Some wore a head covering made of feathers. Others beat their bodies with sticks or clubs, or cut themselves with shells or stone knives to cause bleeding. In these instances the period of sorrow or mourning, was considered to be at an end when their wounds were healed. Sitting beside a grave involved ensuring that the deceased person's spirit had gone to the 'sky camp' or to its spirit-place. Obviously it is impossible to say 'how' they knew or considered when this happened. However after the mourning period was completed, a deceased person's name was never mentioned again. This often involved inventing new words for totems and was based on their superstitious beliefs in a personal spirit and ghosts. Death and birth were mysteries involving supernatural beings.

1.3 Language

Discussions have been going on for years concerning the kind of criteria that should be regarded for an appropriate classification of the term ‘language.’ The Random House Dictionary provides us with the following definition of language:

‘1. A body of words and the system for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area or the same cultural tradition ... 3. the system of linguistic signs or symbols considered in the abstract (as opposed to speech). 4. any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.[...] 13. a nation or people considered in terms of their speech... [...] LANGUAGE, DIALECT, JARGON, VERNACULAR refer to patterns of vocabulary, syntax, and usage characteristic of communities of various sizes and types. LANGUAGE is applied to the general pattern of a people or race: the English language. DIALECT is applied to certain forms or varieties of a language, often those that provincial communities or special groups retain (or develop) even after a standard has been established...’ (Random House, 1987, 1081)

This would be one possibility for defining the term ‘language.’ But there are also some criteria in use that are unfortunately quite ambiguous:

1.3.1 Structural Similarity

Structural similarity can only tell apart very different languages. Nobody would doubt that Japanese and German are dissimilar languages. But what about the Scandinavian languages? Although Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are structurally quite close and most speakers are able to understand each other and are able to read the other’s language quite well, each undoubtedly is a language of its own.

Before the 1990s (from 1919 on) Serbo-Croat was called a language with Serbian and Croatian being two dialects of it. Now they are declared in law to be two different languages. So the criterion of structural similarity is not of much help when one tries to differentiate between two languages.

1.3.2 Mutual Intelligibility

Mutual intelligibility might also be used as a criterion for defining language. Unfortunately it is far form being unambiguous. Let us take, for example, four Aboriginal tribes which live in Northern Australia:

The Unmatjera (A), the Kaitish (B), the Warramunga (C) and the Tjinchli tribe (C). Although they can all be considered as being Aruntas, they do not necessarily understand each other.Tribe A (Unmatjera) understands tribe B (Kaitish), who in turn understands C (Warramunga), who understands D (Tjinchli). But neither is tribe A able to communicate directly with C, nor is B able to communicate directly with D. Does this necessarily mean that A (B) speaks a different language than C (D)? Or might it just be that A (B) speaks some variety (like a distinct dialect) of a language which C (D) do not understand? After all, the four tribes mentioned still belong to the family of the Arunta tribes. Concerning understanding, how well do speakers have to understand each other? Is semi-communication enough (Haugen, 1966, 102), or must the understanding be complete? Do speakers of a same language understand each other fully during any given conversation? Skutnabb-Kangas refers to this phenomenon as a continuum of ‘dialects’, ‘where those people whose villages are physically close to each other have learned to understand each other.’ (Skutnabb- Kangas, 2000, 9). Is oral understanding enough, or does one need to understand writing?

1.3.3 Standardization

Standardization is another suggested criterion. Standardization is only possible after a dialect has been reduced to writing and only standardized dialects are languages, everything else is a dialect, a vernacular or a patois, for instance. According to Peter Trudgill, languages are ‘independent, standardized varieties ... with, as it were, a life of their own.’ (Trudgill, 1983, 16). Who is in need of standardized written forms? In the first place the powerful. These were in past times the king, the church and the merchants in order to set up treaties, contracts, laws, etc. and those were the only ones who were able to enforce their choices. So another, maybe even the main, criterion (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, 15) for whether something is a variety of a language or a separate language is the political power of the speakers of that language/ dialect. To sum up, the question what can be called a language is not anymore a question solely for linguists but also one for politicians. Thus a political definition could sound like:

‘A language is a dialect (or a vernacular or a patois [...])
with an army (and a navy)

A language is a dialect with state borders

A language is a dialect promoted by elites.’

(ibid., 15).

1.4 Aboriginal languages of Australia

By the time of 1770, when James Cook first set foot on the Australian continent, about 250-300 distinct languages were spoken by the indigenous population. There were roughly 600 tribes with an average of 500 members each. Assuming that each language would have a number of dialects, for it was often the case that clans within one tribe spoke different dialects, the total number of named varieties would run to many hundreds. It is estimated, that the continent had a total population of around 300,0 Aborigines. This number is generally accepted. However, Butlin (1983) points out, that the devastating effects of introduced diseases, as they are known to have raged on other continents due to their ‘discoverers’, are not taken into regard. His suggestions of the total population runs to a number of nearly one million natives.

Nowadays, many of these indigenous languages are under threat. The contributing factors will be discussed later on. Only the fewest of them died out because of a natural decease of the last speakers.

‘In other instances the languages are dying ‘by inches’: the essential link between generations of speakers has been broken [.] and now the language is losing not only its grammatical complexity and lexical richness but also its full range of functions in social interaction.’ (Romaine, 1991, 30)

About 160 languages have become extinct over the last 200 years. Of the languages remaining, 90 are spoken in small communities of less than 50 individuals, or are in use only among older speakers. These languages could be considered as weak or dying languages. This leaves us with just 20 languages existing in viable environments.

Dixon (1980) provides us with a map of Australia, indicating the distribution of 155 Aboriginal languages:

Map 1 Approximate location of Aboriginal languages (Dixon, 1980)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1.4.1 Language names

The names for Australian tribes, and hence the names for forms of speech vary in interesting, perplexing, and mostly confusing ways in Aboriginal Australia. Often numerous named varieties exist for one specific tribe/ language. This is one reason, why it is fairly difficult to present an accurate number of extinct languages, of languages being in the process of dying out and of languages still in use. The lingua france for the area around Port Keats on the west coast of the Northern Territory, for instance, is Murrinh-Patha (no. 121) and it consists of three dialects: Murrinh-Kura, Murrinh-Diminin, and Murrinh-Patha. However, a number of other languages are in use Marri-Ngarr, Marri-Djabin, Magiti-Ge and Djamindjung. The challenge for the investigator is to determine which of these are simply alternates and which are clearly distinct forms of speech. This is not only true for tribal and language names, but also for individuals. In the region of Alice Springs the dominant language is Aranda (no. 82). If a native, living west of Alice Springs is asked what he calls himself, he may say he is an Aranda, referring to the tribe; or he may answer, he is a Larapinta man, Larapinta being the name of the river by side of which he lives; or he may respond, he is a Waingakama man, using the native name for his camp. However, if an Alice Springs native is questioned what he would call the same person, he may resond, that he is a Antikerinia, which could be translated with ‘belonging to the south-west.’

1.4.2 Relations with languages outside Australia

Speculations concerning relations with Aboriginal languages and others have been going on for decades. The proposals range from connections with Malayo-Polynesian and Papuan languages to connections with African or Dravidian languages. Although there are similarities in morphology, phonology and syntax, which could be taken as a hint for a common origin, the languages do not withstand a careful investigation. Surely does a connection with Papua New Guinea seem quite likely given its proximity to the Australian continent, but this too proves to be groundless. Maybe links could be established, if there were any written records, but unfortunately the Aborinial people did not see the necessity to capture their history and beliefs in books. The only languages that obviously had some influence on the Aboriginal languages seem to be Austronesian languages from Indonesia. Indonesian traders were regular visitiors to the north shores of Australia from the end of the seventeenth century staying there for longer periods of time. In some Aboriginal languages of north-east Arnhem land a sizeable stock of Austronesian vocabulary can be found.

1.4.3 Grammatical characteristics

Australian Aboriginal languages vary a good deal in the principles they use for the formation of sentences. One of the simplest type to describe, due to its regularity, is the Pitta-Pitta language (no. 87). It belongs to the Pama-Nyungan family of languages, but is unfortunately almost extinct today. Languages of relatively simple structure are common in Queensland, whereas complicated languages like Ngarinyin are rather found through the Kimberleys and in northern Australia. In other parts of Australia one typically finds languages between these extremes.

As written above the Pitta-Pitta language is, because of its regularity, rather easy to learn. It uses different suffixes as indicators for subject, verb and object:

- The suffix -lu refers to a subject (in transitive sentences only).
- The suffix -na refers to an object.
- The suffix -yu refers to a verb (present time); the suffix -ka refers to a verb (past time).

Hence the word order could be changed deliberately without any change of meaning. However, there still was one dominating word order: subject-object-verb. For example:

Transitive sentences (past and present tense):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Intransitive sentences (past tense only):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Note that the suffix -lu appears only in transitive sentences as an indicator for the subject.

Adjectives are also determined through suffixes. The normal position of the adjective is after the noun, but again, it does not necessarily have to be put there.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Prepositions also appear in the form of suffixes:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

A consistent difference between Aboriginal and European languages exists in the use of pronouns. The English personal pronouns always refer to one person or to one person and an additional number, which is not exactly defined. In Aboriginal languages a further distinction is made. The personal pronouns might be singular, or dual, i.e. one person and another, or plural, i.e. one person and several others. The following example refers to the Warunga language, which can be found in north-east Queensland:

Table 1 Personal pronouns in Warungu

illustration not visible in this excerpt

These are some examples concerning grammatical characteristics of Aboriginal languages. The total range of grammatical types found in Australia is approximately the same that can be found in Europe. However, they vary superficially in complexity.

1.5 Aboriginal English

Aboriginal English usually refers to a range of English language varieties used by Australian Aborigines, which is neither identical with Standard Australian English, nor a Creole, but which shows some traits of both. Although the number of speakers of Standard Australian English is increasing steadily, the number of speakers using Aboriginal English as a first or second language is quite impressive. Studies have only started “recently”, since up to the late sixties these speech varieties were generally lumped together under labels of ‘pidgin’, ‘jargon’, ‘perverted’, ‘corrupt’, disjointed’ or ‘broken English’ (Romaine, 1991, 67). However, it was then recognized, that these linguistic varieties are also worth of studies and that there exists a wealth of information.

1.5.1 Structural properties of Aboriginal English

The task of listing different features of Aboriginal English is not an easy one. Which features of the language are worth mentioning and moreover characteristic? The speech varieties existing at both ends of the continuum should not be too problematic. At the one end are the varieties mainly, but not exclusively, spoken in urban areas influenced to a great extent by Standard Australian English. At the other end are the varieties spoken by Aborigines in rural areas where Creoles are still dominant. But what about the varieties existing in between (in an idealised continuum)? One is not confronted with a single continuum, but with ‘a whole host of continua, such as geographically based continua, town dweller/ camp dweller continua, sociolectal continua, second-language interlanguage continua, development or acquisitional continua, stylistic continua...’ (Kaldor, S., Malcom, I.G., 1985). These very high variations occur not only from one geographical area to the next, or among different speakers, but also within the speech of a single speaker within the same utterance and make it rather difficult to present distinct features of Aboriginal English, or of some varieties of it, in a list. Since no thorough researches, dealing with these different continua, have been conducted so far, the following presentation can only be provisional. It is by no means complete and shall only serve as an introduction. Grammatical Features

The grammatical features in the following list have been divided into four groups (Eagleson, R.D., Kaldor, S., Malcolm, I.G., 1982). The first group contains features reported by Eagleson in his study of Aboriginal English in an urban/ metropolitan area (here Sydney) and thus represents an Aboriginal English variety at one end of the contiuum. The second group lists features mainly observed in Northern Australia and desert locations. Features in the third group are more characteristic of Aboriginal speakers who are themselves Kriol speakers or are exposed to Kriol speech. This group would naturally qualify best for a variety of Aboriginal English closest to a creole language. Group four gives examples of Aboriginal English in areas where the children’s first language is a traditional Aboriginal language.

Group 1 Urban/ metropolitan

- Non-standard past and participial froms of certai verbs, e.g. brang, ated;
- have omission with perfect of be, e.g. I been;
- was/were reversed and other instances of non-standard concord, e.g. I weren't, we was;
- plural of you, i.e. yous;
- me and him, etc. in subject positions, e.g. me and him went swimming;
- double negatives, e.g. she hasn’t got no boyfriends.


[1] NOTE: Full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigines are now extinct, having succumbed to European diseases and persecution. The last full-blooded Tasmanian died in 1905, but mixed-blooded descendants still live.

[2] NOTE: Circumcision was widely practised as a ritual of initiation. This was done as a badge of full manhood and was believed to make men resemble Dreamtime beings.

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Language and Aboriginal Culture in Australia: Linguistic Imperialism of English or Language Ecology
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistics)
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English Language Imperialism Speech Ecology Aboriginal Australia
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Oliver Roeder (Author), 2000, Language and Aboriginal Culture in Australia: Linguistic Imperialism of English or Language Ecology, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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