International Year of Indigenous Languages

01 Apr 2019
International Year of Indigenous Languages

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019) to raise awareness of the crucial role languages play in people’s daily lives.

In Australia, of the estimated original 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, only around 120 are still spoken. Of these approximately 90 per cent are endangered.

IY2019 is an opportunity to continue raising awareness and taking further actions to improve preservation and promotion of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

History of the Noongar Language

The Noongar language is the official language of the Aboriginal People of the south-west area of Western Australia. The word Noongar means ‘a person of the south-west of Western Australia’, or the name for the original inhabitants of the south-west of Western Australia’. While Noongar is identified as a single language, there are several ways of pronouncing it, which is reflected in the spelling: Noongar, Nyungar, Nyoongar, Nyoongah, Nyungah, Nyugah, Yungar and Noonga.

Even though there are 14 dialect groups, the language between the groups is similar enough to be collectively referred to as the Noongar language. This common language allowed for communication and trade between dialectal groups.

The main difference between the Noongar language groups is pronunciation, but because the groups are geographically and ecologically distinctive, there are also regional vocabularies. Some words may only be known in one region of Noongar country, particularly plants, which are unique to the local climate and soil type. Overall there are many common words in Noongar, for example: kaya= hello, moort = family, boodja = country and yongka = kangaroo. These words are used every day but they sound slightly different from region to region.

To view a map of the different groups please visit the Noongar Culture website here.

The Noongar language is more than just a way to communicate, it is also integral to the identity of the Aboriginal People of the south-west area of Western Australia. It has survived for more than 200 years amid colonisation of Western Australia.

In a booklet named ‘*Nyungar Tourism in the South West of Western Australia’, Noongar Elder Ralph Winmar said “Nyungar language has a harmonious quality, and it is a real treat to hear two fluent speakers in conversation.”

Some words of the Noongar language have been adopted into the English language, such as names for places, plants (Marri, Karri, Jarrah) and animals (Quokka). Many suburbs and towns end in the suffix ‘up’, such as Joondalup, Karrinyup and Dwellingup, which means place in the Noongar language.

A list of place names and their Noongar meanings and more information on Noongar culture can be found on the Noongar culture website.

*Noongar Elder Ralph Winmar in van den Berg, Collard, Harben and Byrne, Nyungar Tourism in the South West of Western Australia, Murdoch University, 2005

*We acknowledge that there are variations of the spelling of the Noongar language and that no particular way is incorrect.

About the Indigenous Languages and Arts Program

Across Australia a range of programs are in place to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages including the Australian Government's Indigenous Languages and Arts (ILA) program.

The program supports:

  • Community led language programs delivered by 22 Indigenous language centres across Australia. The centres deliver essential work to preserve, revive and maintain around 165 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
  • The development of a National Indigenous Languages Report (NILR).
  • A range of language projects through annual funding.

The language activities incorporate education, technology, traditional and contemporary art, dance, song, music and theatre and are among the many great projects across Australia that work to revive and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

To learn more about the Western Australian Language Centres, visit this website.