ABC’s of Aboriginal words used in Australian English

For many, you may not know that the Australian English language has adopted many words from Aboriginal languages across Australia, and continues to do so. It is important to note that Aboriginal culture is not homogenous; there is no single language, and thus no single ‘Aboriginal word’ for an English one (NITV, 2016). Basically, this assumption would be like asking: “What is the European word for...?” Renowned Aboriginal actor and Yamatji man, Ernie Dingo provides an excellent example of this:

“We all know how to say yes in Spanish don't we? We all know how to say yes in German don't we? We all know how to say yes in French don't we? Do we know how to say yes in any of the 360 Aboriginal dialects in this country?” 

Many people are unaware that there are over 250 First Nations languages spoken, with 600 dialects. In NITV’s six-part series Talking Language with Ernie Dingo'' (2014) it was reported that only “around thirty of those languages are spoken each day, while over one hundred are critically endangered.” In 2016, the Australian National Dictionary indicated a growth in the number of words coming from Aboriginal languages. That year a new edition was launched at the Parliament House in Canberra and listed:

“...around 500 words which were in common usage coming from 100 different Aboriginal languages, up from 400 words in 80 languages in 2008 and 250 words from 60 languages in 1988.” - NITV, 2016

When asking the question of what a certain Indigenous word means or translates to in English, you need to consider:
  1. Place: Which region of Australia are you referring to? This determines the language group and its dialect.
  2. Language status: Is this particular language still spoken? - It is important to note here that, despite many language preservation projects, only about a quarter are still ‘alive’ today.
  3. Translation resource: if the language no longer exists, try researching dictionaries and historical accounts. Some early invaders recorded translations, however they are not the best reliable source as they are likely incomplete and strongly biased to Western culture and societal views. If you find a local language, try contacting your local Aboriginal Land Council to find out if you can ask a native speaker of that language. Here, you must be respectful and have good intentions towards the use of their language.

    Here's a fun informative listicle of words, derived from Aboriginal languages across Australia, to get you started!


    Bilby. Courtesy of Australian Geographic, 2017. 

    Yuwaalaraay (peoples of north-western New South Wales): long-nosed burrowing marsupial that has a backward pouch, oversized ears and long claws. The native Bilby has existed on the continent for millions of years, and has been used as an Easter holiday icon in Australia since the 1970s to support conservation efforts (Australian Geographic, 2017).


    Billabong, Northern Territory, 2008. Courtesy of United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) National Digital Library, 2008.

    Wiradjuri (peoples of south-western New South Wales): a stagnant or backwater pool of water left behind when flood waters recede or a river alters its course. Billabongs are a valuable source of freshwater and provide a habitat for freshwater species (The University of Melbourne: Indigenous Knowledge Institute, 2021). 


    ‘X-ray art’ depicting Barramundi fish at Ubirr Art Site in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Courtesy of Luke Durkin/Wikimedia.

    Gangulu (peoples of Central Queensland): meaning ‘fish with big scales.’ It is a loanword that had early currency in Central Queensland, particularly in the Fitzroy and Rockhampton regions where its spelling varied between Burra Mundi, Barramundi and Barramunda (Australian Barramundi Farmers Association, 2008). The Barramundi is a large Australian native fish found in the freshwater northern rivers in the Kimberley, Northern Territory and Queensland In these areas, the freshwater fish is featured on rock art sites where these ancient paintings have survived for thousands of years (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021). Other Aboriginal language groups use other words for the species, such as the Gooniyandi peoples of the Kimberley region, Western Australia, use the word Balga, and the Wik peoples from the western side of Cape York, Queensland, use Tharnu (Australian Barramundi Farmers Association, 2008). 


    Gumatj tribe in traditional face and body paint. Courtesy of Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery, 2021. 

    Dharug (peoples of Sydney, New South Wales): an assembly of sacred, festive, ceremonial or warlike character. The word was adopted by the first British settlers in the Sydney area from a word in the local Dharug language: garaabara. Thus, ‘corroboree’ entered the Australian English language as a loan word. For Indigenous Australians, a ‘corroboree’ is a sacred ceremonial meeting where people re-enact stories from the Dreamtime through traditional body painting, music, song and dance. It is also a celebration of their strong bond between culture and Country (Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery, 2021).

    If you want to continue exploring the diverse languages of Indigenous Australia, then check out the podcast 'Word Up,’ an ABC Radio National podcast hosted by Bundjalung and Kullili man, Daniel Browning. It explores the diverse languages of Indigenous Australia from Anmatyerre to Arrernte, from Bidjara to Bundjalung, from Nyungar to Ngaanyatjarra, from Yankunytjatjara to Yorta Yorta. In each episode, a guest chooses a word from their language and talks about the meaning behind it. This beautiful, simple podcast provides an amazing introduction to Indigenous languages and the importance they have within culture (ABC Radio National, 2021).

    We hope you had fun learning about First Nations’ words used in everyday Australian life. Learning about First Nations languages is so significant to understanding not only the cultural roots of this Country, but even the anthropological roots and plant and animal life. We should also know that language is vital to the many Indigenous groups’ traditional rituals and ceremonies, and is a part of their history. Without the preservation of language, history and culture is lost. 

    Stay tuned for another addition to learn more!