Have you ever been driving through the vast Australian landscape and stopped to think ‘how would I say hello in the local Indigenous language’? Or seen a kangaroo and asked yourself what the local word for it is?
Well, in Manyjilyjarra – spoken in northwest Western Australia – hello is ‘wanyjalpa’. And the word for grey kangaroo is ‘kurengi’ in Mathi Mathi spoken in the southern Murray Basin.
If you weren’t already aware, there are multiple Indigenous languages and the linguistic diversity that exists across the country is vast.
On a drive from Melbourne to Sydney, you will travel through ten different language groups. And the same number between Melbourne and Adelaide.
Ideally, a tourist guide covering your route could tell you keywords in each language. Similar to tours in Europe that teach travellers words in French, Italian, German, or Spanish. Think how easily many of us can recall simple greetings in these European languages.
Now the same could be true for the languages of our own country, the languages of the First Nation.
The 50 Words Project
Launched in July 2019, this website allows anyone to hear words spoken in a specific Indigenous Australian language.
An interactive map showcases words from 64 languages across Australia, with further languages being added as more communities around Australia become involved. Users can then listen through a list of 50 common words out loud for each language.
The map also displays language names, and that, in itself, can be new information for many viewers.
The idea for the project came out of discussions with the University of Melbourne Provost Professor Marcia Langton and Jeanie Bell, a Yaggera and Dulingbara linguist.
Their aim was to support the use of Australian Indigenous languages and enable as many people as possible to appreciate the diversity and nature of these languages.
Learning more about the languages of Indigenous Australia provides significant insights into Indigenous culture.
For example, in Miriwoong, the language of Kununurra in Western Australia, there are different words for maternal and paternal grandparents. Knowing that this difference is encoded in the language helps us to understand the importance of marking kinship ties within that community.
Feature image: Indigenous Australians in Queensland © Canva