Mapping Indigenous language across Australia

By Hsin-Yi Lo August 22, 2013
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Mapping more than 250 traditional tongues from across Australia was not an easy feat.

A MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR PROJECT that spans 250 languages and took six years to finish, the Indigenous Language Map is a crucial resource to help preserve Aboriginal culture.

The map displays some of the traditional languages once spoken by indigenous groups across Australia, and was created using data collected by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Dianne Hosking, who worked as a linguist at AIATSIS when the map was developed, says the resource is extremely significant.

“The map shows Australians and the international community that this country was occupied everywhere with a diversity of indigenous people and their languages,” Dianne told Australian Geographic.

“This map has an important message to non-Indigenous Australians: that indigenous people occupied and own this country.”

Dianne adds there is a general lack of awareness of indigenous language and culture, and that the common belief is that they’re homogenous. The map aims to shed light on the diversity that exists between individual groups.

The diversity of Aboriginal language

Dianne says categorising the many varied Aboriginal languages and dialects was a tricky task. The manner in which western linguists research and describe language is different from the approach taken by indigenous groups, to whom each language is quite different.

As a result, only the main language groups are named on the map, excluding the more specific clans or dialects that may exist within those groups. The map does not claim to be a definitive source, and the resource is still contested by some traditional landowners.

There are around 50 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia today. Dianne says linguists are working with indigenous groups to refine their understanding of these languages, and how they’ve changed overtime.

While reports suggest that indigenous language is in decline, Dianne remains optimistic. She says the work being done to preserve and revive many languages will ensure their preservation.

Dianne describes this as a “massive effort”, however she believes thoroughly in the worth of the project to protect the richness of thought and expression within some of the world’s longest surviving languages.