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Information on Pilbara's Languages


There are 31 Pilbara Aboriginal languages . Many of these languages have between 2 and 5 dialects. Within some languages there are further varieties that are not as distinct as a dialect. Today many Aboriginal people speak Standard Australian English and/or Pilbara Aboriginal English in addition to one or more traditional languages. Some people no longer speak their traditional language but identify as being from that heritage.


Pilbara Aboriginal languages are vastly different in their phonemes (sound making processes), morphology (word making processes) and grammar (sentence making processes) to English. Thus it can be very difficult for an English speaker to learn to speak and understand a Pilbara language.


The Pilbara languages have some similar features such as they may:


  • have few vowels- three short and three long vowels. (a, i, u, aa, ii, uu)
  • have few consonant sounds- between 11 and 17.
  • are agglutinative- meaning that multiple suffixes can be added to a root word.
  • have between 2 and 5 verb classes- as in the Italian language.
  • have free word order as the subject and object are marked by a suffix rather than being shown by the word order, as in English.
  • have free and bound pronouns- pronouns can be a word or a suffix.
  • have no prepositions.
  • have few adjectives- this function is performed in a different way to English.
  • have few adverbs- this function is performed in a different way to English.
  • have nominalisers- suffixes that change a verb into a noun.
  • have verbalisers- suffixes that change a noun into a verb.


Sign language was also a very widely used communication form and is still very evident today. Many people also speak more than one traditional language with Elders commonly speaking 5 to 8 languages.


Some of the cultural features of language use include:


  • the valuing of silence- as in Japanese culture.
  • the valuing of minimalised speech- using as few words as possible to convey meaning.
  • the assumption of shared understanding- not speaking about something that it is assumed the other already knows about.
  • the valuing of multilingualism.
  • complex ‘rights to speak’ rules- people may only speak about their groups, may not speak for another, may not speak about something which is not their business etc.
  • avoidance speech- speech varieties, which may only be used with people of particular relationships.
  • relationship speech rules- the relationship with another person dictates the way one may speak with them such as only seriously, a joking relationship, in a demanding way etc.
  • complete speech avoidance- some people in particular relationships may never speak.


Pilbara Language Trends and Patterns

There are a number of Indigenous language trends and patterns evident in the Pilbara.


1. Indigenous Creoles and Communilects

One clearly identifiable language has emerged from the western desert region which appears to be an Indigenous Creole. The language is called ‘Martu Wangka’ amongst the speakers. During the 1940s settlement period centred on Jigalong Mission, members of five distinct language groups were placed on the mission reserve. These groups appeared to use a pidgin language to communicate. It is possible that this pidgin existed prior to European settlement, as a lingua franca between the groups. However, it was formally, and apparently consciously, adopted as a mode of communication by the people on the mission as a way of unifying the groups into one body. The term Martu Wangka ‘people’s speech/talk/language’ was coined and, interestingly, both of these words are found in each of the five traditional languages.


During the 1940s to 70s, the community members spoke their traditional language as a mother tongue and spoke the pidgin during communication with members of other language groups. This situation rapidly changed so that by the 1980s and 90s, children were speaking the pidgin as a mother tongue. Grammatical rules and morphological patterns became regular and established. Sometime during this period, the pidgin appears to have developed into a Creole.


Children who speak Martu Wangka today are unable to identify which elements of the language come from each traditional language. The grammar of the language appears regular and productive. The language has a wide speech community and is used between many members of single traditional language groups as a preferred language of communication, ahead of the use of the traditional language.


A possible second Indigenous Creole has or is developing amongst the five language groups who make up the community at Bidyadanga. Indigenous language is still used as a preferred mode of communication; however, children are unable to identify elements of their speech as coming from one language or another. This situation needs a much closer examination.


2. Pilbara Aboriginal English

A second trend clearly evident in the Pilbara is the development of a mode of communication coined Pilbara Aboriginal English. Many Pilbara Aboriginal people do not speak the Kriol language developed and spoken very strongly in the Kimberley region. However, neither is Standard Australian English spoken in a standard form. The Pilbara Aboriginal English is mutually comprehensible with Standard Australian English where as Kriol often isn’t.


Wangka Maya has yet to find the resources to study the development of the Pilbara Aboriginal English. It may be possible the English is a variety which uses some underlying Indigenous grammar and forms combined with vocabulary shared by many of the language groups. However, a distinct accent, means of pronunciation, tense patterning and use of vocab makes the English form easily recognisable as being non-Standard English.


3. Use of Standard Australian English

A trend seemingly peculiar to the Pilbara is for Aboriginal people to learn and use Standard Australian English (SAE) in a very correct standard form. It may be possible that the influence of English station managers and owners during the extensive period of enforced labour on pastoral stations has influenced Aboriginal people’s attitude to the learning and use of Standard Australian English, in favour of a very standard form.


While many elderly and middle-aged Pilbara people speak a very proper form of SAE, many younger people and children appear to be adopting a non-standard form through the use of a developing variety coined Pilbara Aboriginal English. It appears that this non-standard form assists with group identity and place.


A third possible influence to this proper SAE trend is the large and sustained contact between mining people and Pilbara Indigenous people. Many Pilbara people are deeply involved in native title issues, site surveys and various discussions with mining officials and have been for 40 years. The need for an extensive understanding and use of SAE is continually reinforced through this interaction.