In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Australian Languages

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Phonology
  • Phonetics
  • Morphology
  • Semantics
  • Discourse
  • Historical Linguistics
  • Diffusion and Language Contact
  • Language Endangerment and Revitalization

Linguistics Australian Languages
Claire Bowern
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0005


At the time of the first European settlement of Australia in 1788, there were approximately 250 distinct languages spoken, representing about twenty-eight phylic families. In the early 21st century only twenty of these languages are being learned by children. These languages are important to all areas of linguistics as the only languages spoken by hunter-gatherers who were not in contact with agriculturalists and as languages with many interesting syntactic, phonological, and morphological features. Speakers of Aboriginal languages and heritage owners are also at the forefront of language preservation and revitalization activities. This article provides an overview of the main areas in the field, language resources, and both classic and state-of-the-art materials. A great number of important additional resources exist at present in manuscript form; this work is not cited here.


There are a few books that provide general overviews of Australian languages, though unfortunately there is as yet no single textbook for a class on Australian languages as a whole. Walsh and Yallop 1993 is a little dated now, as is Dixon 1980. McGregor 2004 comes closest. Though it is focused on a particular region, its coverage of linguistic topics is balanced and provides a good introduction for students with no background in Australian languages. Dixon 2002 was meant to be a general textbook and reference work on Australian languages, but it is not very suitable as an introduction to the subject. It is included as a major recent work on Australian languages but should be used with caution.

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 1980. The languages of Australia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This is a classic work; although it is now rather dated (and out of print), it has good coverage of Pama-Nyungan languages and a variety of topics of general interest.

  • Dixon, R. M. W. 2002. Australian languages: Their nature and development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486869

    References to the recent literature are very selective, and the author advocates a theory of change that is not widely accepted by other Australianists (see Bowern 2006, cited in Diffusion and Language Contact, for further discussion).

  • McGregor, William B. 2004. The languages of the Kimberley, Western Australia. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

    While the focus of this book is the Aboriginal languages of the Kimberley region (Northwest Australia), it is also suitable as a more general textbook for a class on Australian languages. It covers several language families (including some of the northern Pama-Nyungan languages) and presents a clear introduction to some of the most important features of Australian languages.

  • Walsh, Michael, and Colin Yallop, eds. 1993. Language and culture in Aboriginal Australia. Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies.

    An introduction to language and culture, with short chapters on topics such as language and law, song language, and sound systems.

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