In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Descriptive Grammars
  • Early Sources
  • Historical Comparative Work
  • Phonology
  • Phonetic Studies
  • Syntax and Morpho-Syntax
  • Polysynthesis and Incorporation
  • Complex Predicates and Argument Structure
  • Semantics
  • Discourse Structure
  • Ethnoclassification

Linguistics Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages
Brett Baker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0100


The Non-Pama-Nyungan languages are those indigenous Australian languages whose traditional territory was in the northern fifth of the continent, from around Broome on the western Australia coast across to around Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria (in the state of Queensland), and encompassing the Kimberley, the Daly River region, Arnhem Land, the Barkly Tableland, and the offshore islands such as Groote Eylandt. The languages here, as suggested by the name, do not form a genetic subgroup but are simply those Australian languages not belonging to the large Pama-Nyungan family (originally attributed to unpublished comments by the MIT linguist Ken Hale, covering the rest of the continent). NPN languages are notable mainly for their morphological complexity. Most have prefixal systems of argument indexing on the verb for up to two arguments; many have noun class systems (ranging from two to around seven in the case of Nunggubuyu); and a number of languages have extensive incorporation constructions. The latter can produce very complex word structures that might include nouns, adverbs, and quantifiers as well as the verb stem. Most survey and introductory work on Australian languages does not focus on NPN languages specifically.

General Overviews

There are no freestanding overviews of NPN languages as such, covering them from both synchronic and diachronic aspects. The standard reference works on Australian languages in general are Dixon 1980, Blake 1987, and Dixon 2002. Dixon 2002 has more discussion of NPN languages but omits references to some important work and proposes an idiosyncratic view of language change. Significantly, Dixon rejects the validity of the “Pama-Nyungan”/“Non-Pama-Nyungan” genetic split (contrary to almost all other scholars) and instead regards the morphological complexity of NPN languages to derive from independent rapid evolution in the north. Hale 1966, an appendix to the first large-scale genetic classification of Australian languages on a lexicostatistical basis, is the first published mention of Pama-Nyungan as a genetic group. McGregor 2004 is an overview of a large subset of NPN languages, with many features typical of the group as a whole and serves as a useful introduction. Since the 1990s, documentation of Australian languages has begun to move online, for various reasons, including the exigencies of academic publishing but also the general desirability of making resources available freely and the reach of bandwidth into the remotest corners of the continent. See the Oxford Bibliographies article Australian Languages for further useful references to areas such as language revitalization and education. The Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages: Land-Language Associations at Colonization maps were prepared by Mark Harvey with the input of numerous researchers on NPN languages. Aboriginal Languages of Australia is an online language index by David Nathan. The Iwaidja webpage is an example of the kind of online documentation supported by the DoBeS foundation.

  • Aboriginal Languages of Australia.

    Long-running resource collecting information on Australian languages of various kinds, including much to do with community language revitalization efforts

  • Blake, Barry J. 1987. Australian aboriginal grammar. London: Croom Helm.

    A general introductory text that contains a fair amount of material on NPN languages.

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

    A now-dated but still important work for its coverage of Australian languages. It is limited in its discussion of NPN languages, however. Often used as a textbook for undergraduates in courses on Australian languages. Contains some advanced material on (historical) phonology and phonotactics.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486869

    More NPN content, but curiously out of touch with the field at the time in many respects.

  • DoBeS: Iwaidja.

    This is a good example of the kind of online documentation material now being aimed at by many language projects.

  • Hale, Kenneth L. 1966. The Paman group of the Pama-Nyungan phylic family. Appendix to languages of the world: Indo-Pacific fascicle six, by G. N. O’Grady, C. F. and F. M. Voegelin. Anthropological Linguistics 8.2: 162–197.

    The official published statement of Hale’s Pama-Nyungan hypothesis, with discussion of the historical phonology of one particularly divergent subgroup.

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

    Probably the best general overview of NPN languages, although limited to one particular area of their range. Useful for undergraduates.

  • Non-Pama-Nyungan Languages: Land-Language Associations at Colonisation.

    This site includes several useful maps.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.