How New Indigenous Languages Are Changing Australia

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.

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.

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.

Read more: Ozy

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